Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Imperfectionists

"The Internet is to news, what car horns are to music."
This weeks book is one that I have had in the back of my mind for a little while. The first thing that caught my attention was the title, The Imperfectionists. I am someone that always strived for perfection, whether it was school projects, or cooking, I wanted them to fulfill my idea of perfection. But I have come to learn that sometimes it's when we let loose and are completely spontaneous that we have the most memorable experiences. When I saw the title I was curious to read deft stories about delectable, difficult characters, who were living messy, impulsive lives, and witness as they worked through trails and triumphs. This was a rich, thrilling book that is both a love letter to and epitaph for the newspaper world. Rachman’s transition from journalism to fiction writing is nothing short of spectacular. The Imperfectionists is a splendid original, filled with wit and structured so ingeniously that figuring out where the author is headed is half the reader’s fun. The other half comes from his sparkling descriptions not only of newspaper office denizens but of the tricks of their trade, presented in language that is smartly satirical yet brimming with affection.

Printing presses whirr, ashtrays smolder, and the endearing complexity of humanity plays out in Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Set against the backdrop of a fictional English-language newspaper based in Rome, it begins as a celebration of the beloved and endangered role of newspapers and the original 24/7 news cycle. Yet Rachman pushes beyond nostalgia by crafting an apologue that better resembles a modern-day Dubliners than a Mad Men exploration of the halcyon past. The chaos of the newsroom becomes a stage for characters unified by a common thread of circumstance, with each chapter presenting an affecting look into the life of a different player. From the comically overmatched greenhorn to the forsaken foreign correspondent, we suffer through the painful heartbreaks of unexpected tragedy and struggle to stifle our laughter in the face of well-intentioned blunders. This cacophony of emotion blends into a single voice, as the depiction of a paper deemed a "daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species" becomes more about the disillusion in everyday life than the dissolution of an industry.

Among the cast is Lloyd Burko, a past-his-prime reporter, married four times, alienated from all his children except one, whom he’s about to betray as a source, only to find. . . . Well, I won’t give that away, but it’s quite something. Then there’s Arthur Gopal, a sad-sack obituary writer devoted to his young daughter, Pickle. He’s sent off to Switzerland to interview a dying feminist intellectual. During a break, he switches on his cellphone to find 26 missed calls. His life is about to change.

Herman Cohen is the paper’s corrections editor, the grammarian and style cop indispensable to any newspaper. He writes thunderous, generally ignored memos about impermissible acronyms, solecisms and misspellings like “Sadism Hussein.” You feel his pain when Tony Blair is included on the newspaper’s list of “recently deceased Japanese dignitaries.” “He glances at the sorry trio of copy editors before him: Dave Belling, a simpleton far too cheerful to compose a decent headline; Ed Rance, who wears a white ponytail — what more need one say?; and Ruby Zaga, who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct. What is the value in remonstrating with such a feckless triumvirate?”

Kathleen Solson, the editor in chief, has just discovered that her ne’er-do-well husband is cheating on her. (There are lots of ne’er-do-wells in Rachman’s novel, making one wonder: Is this so very common among newspaper folk?) Kathleen is looking to rekindle an old romance with an Italian, now married and a government press flack: “Here he is, temples graying, eyes bagged, slightly handsome but slightly jowly, wearing the sleepy surrender of the family man.”

The funniest section, which comes off as a cross between Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” and a Hunter S. Thompson “Fear and Loathing” adventure, concerns the paper’s helpless young Cairo stringer, Winston Cheung, whose life is hilariously usurped by a fast-talking, on-the-make war correspondent.

Ruby Zaga, the copy editor, is a paranoid Miss Lonely hearts who always checks into a hotel on New Year’s Eve so she can pretend to be a stranded American business traveler rather than a dateless 40-something with no prospects. She hates her job and is terrified she’s about to be fired. She drunk-dials the Italian flack with whom her boss is trying to reconnect. Bad move, Ruby! But Rachman has a way of getting the reader to root for his losers.

Craig Menzies, the news editor, is informed one day that an e-mail photo of his much younger girlfriend, Annika, naked with another man, has been sent to everyone on the staff. He confronts Annika, who says she feels terrible about it all, but now she (and thus he) faces the prospect of being sued by the man in the picture — for breach of contract because she had promised to buy an apartment with him. Does Italian law actually permit spurned lovers to sue? How do you say in Italian, “Is this a great country, or what?”

One of the strangest but most arresting characters, Ornella de Monterecchi, is the Italian press officer’s mother. A kind of Miss Havisham with obsessive- compulsive disorder, she lives alone amid a mountain of clutter consisting of every issue of the paper from the late 1970s to the present day. These she insists on reading in sequence. The current date might be Feb. 18, 2007, but in her world, it’s April 23, 1994. When she runs into one of the staffers, she complains about his obituary of Richard Nixon, leaving him to scratch his head. Ornella, however, is no mere caricature. There is, as with Miss Havisham, a terrible personal tragedy to explain her bizarre existence.

The most Roald Dahl-esque episode is granted to Abbey Pinnola, the paper’s chief financial officer. Abbey, whose job includes sacking the paper’s employees, finds herself on a plane en route to Atlanta, headquarters of the now troubled Ott Group, seated next to a man she’s just canned. I won’t say more, other than that the end of her story provides that sudden intake of breath reminiscent of Dahl at his sang-froid-est.

"What I really fear is time. That's the devil: whipping us on when we'd rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won't hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales. My past- it doesn't feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It's as if the present me is constantly dissolving. There's that  line of Heraclitus: 'No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.' That's quite right. wWe enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn't the end of life but the end of memories." 

After reading this paragraph something went off in my head like a light bulb. It was probably something that was already there on a subconscious level, or something so obvious that I never really paid it much attention. Great authors need to have such a deep understanding on a wide variety of topics in order to create such diverse characters, plots, and ideas. Not only that, but they need to breathe so much life into them that they seem to be real, and the fact the Rachman can do this with so many characters in one work of literature is truly remarkable.

This book is filled with gorgeous writing, jolts of insight and narrative surprises that feel both unexpected and inevitable. Rachman leaves little doubt that he's writing what he knows well. His novel is sprinkled with hard-won observations such as that “news' is often a polite way of saying 'editor's whim' ” and “journalism is a bunch of dorks pretending to be alpha males.” And yet even someone whose familiarity with newsrooms doesn't extend beyond the work of Clark Kent and Peter Parker will recognize these characters.

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