Never before have matters of the newspaper business mingled so closely with matters of the heart as in Tom Rachman’s superb debut novel. Rachman used to be a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome, and he still lives there today; so it is fitting that the setting is an international English-language newspaper there. Rachman handles his subject with an elegance and precision that can only come from firsthand knowledge of life as a journalist.
Each chapter introduces a character: writers and editors at the unnamed newspaper, as well as an obsessive-compulsive reader who stores (almost) every issue in her closet. There’s the proud, domineering editor-in-chief Kathleen Solson, who tries to pretend her husband Nigel’s affair (and her employees’ gripes) don’t bother her—“It’s strange to be the boss, knowing they discuss you, doubt you, resent you, and—since they are journalists—complain, bitch, and moan about you”—and then there’s Lloyd Burko, a down-on-his-luck stringer in Paris who submits a fabricated story so he can make his rent and sits idly by as his wife shacks up with the neighbor across the hall. There is the obituary writer Arthur Gopal who, in a bitterly ironic twist, must suddenly face the accidental death of his own young daughter. There is business reporter Hardy Benjamin who, at 36, settles for a relationship with a man who steals from her and, worse, uses her ticking biological clock as material in his stand-up comedy routine.
The list of demoralized employees goes on.
Each chapter could be its own short story, and the lives of all the characters are intertwined in unpredictable ways. Think of Love, Actually; now replace (1) most of the “love” with extramarital affairs, and (2) Hugh Grant etc. with dowdy, middle-aged neurotics typing on ergonomic keyboards. There are flashbacks to the early years and details of the paper’s 50-year history. We learn of the founder, Cyrus Ott, and his grand ambitions: He’d be devastated to learn what happens in the end to his invention, under the (mis)management of his grandson Oliver.
But between the heartache and dreams deferred, Rachman doesn’t forget to inject humor, most notably in corrections editor Herman Cohen, who publishes an in-house newsletter—entitled Why?—that chronicles all the paper’s errors. The description of a grammarian’s quirky habits and his voluminous style guide will evoke more than a few knowing laughs from veterans:
Corrections have proliferated of late. A handful even earned a place on Herman’s corkboard: Tony Blair included on a list of “recently deceased Japanese dignitaries”; Germany described as suffering from “a genital malaise in the economy”; and almost daily appearances from “the Untied States.” He types out his latest publishable correction: “In an article by Hardy Benjamin in the Tuesday business section, the former dictator of Iraq was erroneously referred to as Sadism Hussein. The correct spelling is Saddam. We doubt that our typographical error impinged on the man’s credibility, however, we regret—”
The dialogue is so raw and so superbly entertaining—especially between the young, aspiring correspondent Winston Cheung, based in Cairo, and selfish, seasoned war reporter Rich Snyder, who comes to visit—that readers will wonder how much is inspired by Rachman’s own experiences. The Imperfectionists also speaks to the financial woes and layoffs most publications are experiencing in the Internet era:
Newspapers were spiraling downward. Competing entertainments abounded, from cellphones to video games, from social-networking sites to online porn. Technology was not merely luring readers; it was changing them. Full printed pages didn’t fit onto monitors, so portion size shrank, dicing news into ever-smaller morsels. Instant updates on the Internet bred contempt for day-old headlines in ink. Even the habit of exchanging money for information dwindled—online, payment was merely an option.
The line between office and boudoir is frequently blurred: Once, when a jilted lover emails (to everybody at the paper) a photo of himself with the naked girlfriend of news editor Craig Menzies, poor Menzies flees in a flash of humiliation. And readers are in for a heart-stopping moment when chief financial officer Abbey Pinnola almost becomes intimate with a gentleman she recently fired from the copydesk. Does Rachman, an ostensible member of the club, give journalists a bad name? Maybe. “Good reporting and good behavior are mutually exclusive,” one character observes. The Imperfectionists is a form of perfection.