Tom Rachman knows the newspaper business, knows it as it was and as it is. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, he’s worked as an editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris and has been a foreign correspondent in Rome for the Associated Press. What we can’t tell from his resume, but can from his excellent first novel, is that he knows the circumstances and desperation of life in its various classes and ages.
The Imperfectionist is a cleverly interwoven series of vignettes about various people who at various times have held various positions of importance at an international paper based in Rome. Italicized sections of no more than two or three pages linking sections divide these vignettes following the brief history of the paper as it and its principals flow and ebb. You might think of it as stories inside a story.
The longer stories follow individuals through the frustrations of their work and personal lives. A washed-up stringer in Paris struggles against his fate. An obituary writer, upset at his position in the paper and challenged at home, sets up a self-assured rival and hurdles over him. An obsessive copy editor pursues an old lover and keeps her job despite herself. The editor-in-chief discovers her husband is having an affair and starts one with an old lover who is an official in Berlusconi’s circle only to discover that the shortcomings that doomed their relationship the first time around are still existent. A newcomer to journalism is comically manipulated by an old hand. A fired copy editor gets sweet revenge on the person who fired him in bed. Titles right out of the headlines define each of these made-for-reality TV situations.
The interweaving comes as the stories’ characters professional lives intermingle. The man the obsessive copy editor chases is the man having an affair with the editor-in chief. No one wants to be the Puzzle-Wuzzle editor and everyone denies it though it’s the feature along with the obits and culture section, that allows the paper to survive. Bean counting becomes more and more important to the paper even as individual actions have more consequences.
The most knotting is strung from the laces of Cyrus Ott and the paper’s co-founder Leo Marsh and Betty Lieb. One can not help but think of the Los Angeles Times and the Chandler family as the paper passes through generations, from interested and competent to uncaring hands. It seems founded on a lark and finally lost in the importance of profit. As times change, the management refuses to start an online edition and cost-cutting measures that have doomed newspapers the world over are committed for the best and worst of reasons. But the story of Cyrus and Betty and Leo is center to everything, adding a hint of mystery to its proceedings. Exactly why did this paper exist? As with many ventures in which capital is a second consideration, the answer is familiar. It was done for love.
Rachman’s understanding of the business translates into the circumstances that control his characters’ lives. The effect of deadlines on performance, both at work and at home, weigh on the writers. Copy editors don’t just correct proofs, they “deface” them. The editor-in-chief announces at a media conference that, “news will survive, and quality coverage will earn a premium” (it’s 2004). “Actually, I can probably tell you we won’t be publishing in the same way [in fifty years], that we’ll be innovating the, just as we are now.” She claims that “radical changes are under way” and that the paper’s circulation is increasing. Of course, none of it is true.
Like any good journalist, Rachman has a way of making his sentences count. He describes one spouse in a tight, single phrase. “Nigel, an attorney at rest since they left D.C. more than two years earlier, thrives on this life: reading nonsense on the Internet, buying high-end groceries, decrying the Bush administration at dinner, wearing his role of househusband as the badge of progressive politics.” His characters, in their complaints, don’t seem to realize their privilege of living, and living well, in Rome.
At end, Rachman follows all of his characters into the future, tying up this collection of short tales in a way that makes the story whole. In a sense, it’s reassuring that their lives go on as the thing that brought them together dies. There’s an image tied to its closing, a brutal, revengeful act that underscores the imperfections of the book’s title. Like the very best journalists, Rachman finds a symbol of his telling to close his story. In it, we find sympathy where none had previously existed. —Cabbage Rabbit