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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

This debut novel is set during the decline of an unlikely holdout to the technological revolution, an English-language newspaper based in Rome. Founded by an American industrialist for mysterious reasons in the post-war era and staffed in the present day by a horde of dysfunctional expatriates, the paper struggles on despite budget cuts imposed by the uncaring ancestors of its founder, declining readership and as the CFO puts it, a “lack of a web presence.”

On the surface the novel seems hand-crafted for those ardent technophobes, myself included, who still clutch with ink-stained fingers to their newspapers. However, idealists and romanticists will soon find themselves disappointed. Rachman, who has worked for the International Herald Tribune, offers up no paean to journalism. His characters find no deeper meaning in their profession than any other workers might. If anything, their chosen career only exacerbates their neuroticism, trapping them according to their will.

Rachman’s insights into the professional life of journalists, copy editors, and others connected to the paper seem authentic, but his portrayal of human behavior seems less believable to me. At the very least it seems awfully bleak. Most of his characters are pretty weak human beings, the women especially so. I don’t usually take political stances about literary characters, but Rachman’s women did unsettle me. Each of them seemed listless and unable to assert control over any aspect of their lives. Whether they were throwing themselves into obviously doomed relationships or merely allowing their husbands to sleep around, they didn’t paint a very flattering or nuanced or very realistic picture of womanhood.

The novel is mostly plotless, as it takes the form of short stories, each featuring a different character associated with the paper (one chapter even focuses on a loyal reader, who improbably reads every word of every edition, to the point that she is now thirteen years behind in her reading.) Spliced in between the chapters are vignettes depicting the circumstances of the founder, Cyrus Ott, and his less successful heirs. These threads come to an end in the book’s final chapter, but the Ott material is really too skimpy to add anything to the book.

The Imperfectionists features strong prose, but suffers from a lack of detail and a uniform vision of character. It is unlikely to thrill anyone but professional newspaper writers, which perhaps best explains its sparkling reviews.

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