There’s a reason they tell you to write what you know.
Tom Rachman was a Rome correspondent for the Associated Press and an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, all of which goes a long way towards explaining why his debut novel–a glimpse at the “topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters and editors of an English-language newspaper in Rome”–succeeds so well.
I picked up The Imperfectionists while killing time in Penn Station (damn you, Hudson News!!) “Spectacular,” screamed the cover; “magnificent,” “beguiling.” (Beguiling?) The back cover, too: filled with glowing endorsements.
It’s immediately obvious why not much space was warranted for any sort of Imperfectionists plot summary. Though the book’s various characters are related–all affiliated with the newspaper in question, which is only ever referred to as “the newspaper”–their stories are presented as vignettes, a dozen or so pages each for a handful of the paper’s employees, and even in one case (my favorite vignette) an elderly reader struggling to keep up with the news (on Feb. 18, 2007, she is reading an issue from April 1994). In between these vignettes are even briefer glimpses at the founding of the paper and its evolution from a frivolous collection of briefs into a publication with a real voice and reputation, and back to a budget-starved anachronism in the world of online journalism.
It would be unfair to pretend that my enjoyment of The Imperfectionists didn’t come at least in part from being able to relate. Although I work for the website of a business newspaper in New York, and not, say, the copy desk of an American-led newspaper in Rome, there are plenty of similarities–punishing corrections policies, personality clashes, disputes over editorial direction, even changes in newsroom noise levels depending on time of day (noisy chatter in the mornings, quiet typing in the afternoons). The people in The Imperfectionists may not be the same as my coworkers, or yours, but they might as well be. There’s Herman, a 30-year veteran editor, who distributes a much-hated internal newsletter documenting the latest typos, and maintains a condescending style guide with notes like “Literally: This word should be deleted.” There’s Craig, the news editor who thinks of nothing but headlines from 6 a.m. until late at night when he returns home to his girlfriend. We have Winston, an aspiring cub reporter who’s too scared of the actual task of reporting to turn in anything useful. And the book opens with Lloyd, an aging freelancer whose inability to keep up with sources or technology leads him to fabricate news in the hope of preserving his value to the paper. These are just a few of the book’s cast, all of whom, in just a brief glimpse, Rachman manages to make simultaneously endearing and flawed. Because really, in the age of aggregation and blogging, citizen journalism and Twitter, what is print journalism itself if not endearing and flawed?
In reading The Imperfectionists, I am reminded of my reaction to the fifth and final season of The Wire, which focused on crime coverage at The Baltimore Sun (where Wire creator David Simon worked as a reporter). The Wire’s strength, or at least one of them, was its ability to create relatable characters without removing them from their true environment: Cops spoke like cops, drug dealers like drug dealers and journalists like journalists. The show was full of characters, but absent caricatures. The Imperfectionists has that same strength.
TITLE: The Imperfectionists
AUTHOR: Tom Rachman
PAGES: 269 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: The Wire, Season 5 meets Then We Came to the End
FIRST LINE: “Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks.”