The Imperfectionists

There are certain professionals that seem to be the darlings of fiction: lawyers, doctors, cops, writers. In The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman takes great glee in shining a light on journalists, and as the title of his debut novel implies, they are best at their worst.

Newspapers are not what they used to be. And certainly, Rachman’s unnamed global English language newspaper launched from Rome in the 1950s, is no exception. Before CNN and the Internet and iPads, there were newspapers.  If you wanted hard, cold, facts, you got them printed in black and white on newsprint and by gum, there were people who ate and breathed deadlines to bring them to you.

Newsmaking was a noble profession. It was gritty and real and yet, there was something a little glamorous about the paper and the men and women who made it run.

This fact however, bears little relevance to Rachman’s book. None of his characters are quite likeable. Their noble profession is to deliver the news of the world, and to that extent, they are quite good. And yet personally? Well, it’s probably best not to look too closely.

The Imperfectionists is more a collection of short stories than a novel in the traditional sense, with all stories related by the terribly important international English language newspaper printed in Rome.  Stringers in Cairo and Paris, Davos and Nairobi, feed the ravenous paper its content. Devoted editors and tyrannical staffers ensure that all twelve pages of the paper are crammed with the activities of the world and presented daily, to a circulation of 10,000. They are all perfectly imperfect, smart and sassy people giving their all to do something meaningful and right.  Beyond news however,  the paper is just an item on the balance sheet of the newspaper’s corporate owners, nitwit offspring of the original founder, nested safely in far away Atlanta.

Meanwhile in Rome, Herman Cohen has created an encyclopedic style guide with which he tortures his editors. Editor in chief Kathleen Solson enjoys the sophisticated patina of living abroad, even as she discovers her husband having an affair.  Copy editor Ruby Zaga is a spiteful, friendless staffer who secretly hungers for connection. Business editor Hardy Benjamin is so desperate for a boyfriend that she supports her loser of an Irish lover to shield herself from living alone.

The terribly important international English language newspaper is fading by the hour. It’s gushing red ink. Its loyal readership is dying  off. It’s not even on the Internet, for pity’s sake! The ship is going down, yet each character has a vested interest in believing that the ship is unsinkable. At a publishing conference at the Cavalieri Hilton in Rome, Kathleen Solson is asked if the newspaper will survive.

“Absolutely,” she tells the audience. “We’ll keep going, I assure you of that. Obviously, we’re living in an era when technology is moving at an unheralded pace. I can’t tell you if in fifty years we’ll be publishing in the same format. Actually, I can probably tell you we won’t be publishing in the same way, that we’ll be innovating then, just as we are now.” Unfortunately for Kathleen and her crew, the paper is doomed. Fortunately for the reader, it’s a heck of a ride down the rails.

Review by Cynthia Gregory/