The Imperfectionists

The newspaper these characters work for is dying. At least they get to live in Rome.

The Imperfectionists By Tom Rachman The Dial Press 272 pp., $25

There are lots of newspapers famously hanging on by their fingernails – pummeled by the Internet, the economy, and all those bloggers willing to write for free – but the journalists at the English-language daily in The Imperfectionists are fortunate for two reasons: (1) They’re fictional. (2) They’re in Rome.

Brad Pitt reportedly has snapped up the movie rights to Tom Rachman’s wistfully incisive debut novel, which chronicles life at a true gray lady – not only has the newspaper not got its own website, it still publishes in black and white. Since it’s down to its last 10,000 subscribers, the paper is either a paralyzed relic of a bygone era or an uncompromising bastion of a vanished way of news-gathering. (Rachman is pretty clear upfront that the correct answer is not the second option.) “The Imperfectionists” strikes a tone that’s humorously painful, rather than painfully funny.

With its bittersweet satire set in the waning days of a once-flourishing enterprise, the novel calls to mind another recent workplace debut, Joshua Ferris’s “Then We Came to the End.” Less scathing than Evelyn Waugh’s classic “Scoop,” “The Imperfectionists” is a must-read for any rueful journalistic types hanging out in the hinterlands and wondering why they didn’t choose to study accounting or computer technology. (Oh, that’s right: There was all that math.)

Rachman opts for a format – one chapter per character – that feels very much like the interlinking short-story format that’s proved so satisfying in recent years in works such as Pulitzer Prize-winner “Olive Kitteridge.” This isn’t, a reader gradually comes to realize, just to be trendy.

Headed by chapters blazoned with headlines such as “Europeans Are Lazy, Study Says” and “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126,” “The Imperfectionists” checks in with the beleaguered staff, from its washed-up Paris freelancer to its hapless publisher, who would rather be walking his basset hound, Schopenhauer. The new Cairo stringer is completely cowed by a visiting war correspondent, who blithely appropriates everything from his hummus to his laptop, while the professionally savvy economic reporter chooses to play dumb about men. The most moving chapter belongs to obituary writer Arthur Gopal, while I’m prepared to build a shrine out of red pens and dog-eared “Strunk & Whites” to the paper’s stalwart standards bearer, Herman “Credibility” Cohen.

Over 30 years of battling typos such as “Untied States” and spell-check glitches like “Sadism Hussein,” Herman has compiled an 18,238-entry style guide, which, sadly, didn’t rate publication as a companion volume. Here’s a taste: “literally: This word should be deleted. All too often, actions described as ‘literally’ did not happen at all. As in, ‘He literally jumped out of his skin.’ No, he did not. Although, if he literally had, I’d suggest raising the element and proposing the piece for page one. Inserting ‘literally’ willy-nilly reinforces the notion that breathless nitwits lurk within this newsroom. Eliminate on sight – the usage, not the nitwits. The nitwits are to be captured and placed in the cages I have set up in the subbasement. See also: Excessive Dashes; Exclamation Points; and Nitwits.”
In between chapters, Rachman includes interludes from the past, offering a look at the birth of the newspaper 50 years prior. Originally headed by a husband who thought he was in charge and a wife who actually did the editing, the paper existed in its own airspace. “When staffers headed down for sandwiches, they’d say, ‘I’m headed to Italy – anyone need anything?’ ”

As the italicized past starts to catch up to the present, a reader realizes that something truly might be lost if the newsroom goes dark.

Rachman was a foreign correspondent in Rome and clearly has studied his subjects in their native, rapidly shrinking, habitat. “Journalists were as touchy as cabaret performers and as stubborn as factory machinists,” thinks a former editor. “He couldn’t help smiling.”

That clear-eyed affection helps get a reader past a few bumpy spots. (The female editor in chief is repellent without being interesting.) But what is truly memorable about “The Imperfectionists” is the way that Rachman uses the structure of his novel to give meaning to his insecure, scrabbling characters: They might be burned-out and bad-tempered, but in that newsroom, they are greater than the sum of their parts.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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