The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman
Reviewed by Rima Walker
In his first novel about the life and death of a newspaper, Tom Rachman knows whereof he speaks having been a journalist and editor himself. This nameless twelve-page English language newspaper he writes about is published in Rome and sent out all over the world. At the time we enter the life of this paper, we learn that it is losing revenue and circulation. Created 50 years ago by a very wealthy man named Cyrus Ott, we do not find out why he started it until the end of this delightful and occasionally sad novel.
The book is broken down into chapters, each one a virtually complete short story in itself concerning one of the people who works on the paper, and all of them come through to us amazingly well, to the point where we feel we know them in depth. They are completely three dimensional, and all have their idiosyncrasies that make us understand them as if each was a friend, neighbor, or confidant. In between each of these character studies are a few pages of information about the paper itself and the people who run it over a period of 5 decades: Mr Ott, his son, Boyd, and his grandson Oliver, who seems to live only for his basset hound, Schopenhauer, and couldn’t care less about the paper he has inherited. An eccentric family indeed, and just as interesting as the newspaper editors and staff.
Lloyd Burko, a reporter, is the first we learn about. Pretty much over the hill, he betrays the only one of his children whom he is not estranged from for the sake of a story that may not be true. It is easier for him to do this than to seek out the story himself. Not a very nice guy. Arthur Gopal, the obituary writer, is sent to Switzerland to interview a feminist writer of some fame who is dying. He calls it an interview, but what he is really doing is getting the information he needs to write her obituary. Is she fooled by this?
Out of nine staffers and one reader, the three most interesting to me are Herman Cohen, Ruby Zaga, and reader Ornella de Monterecchi. Cohen, the corrections editor, just about cries when someone writing of Hussein spells his first name as “Sadism.” Cohen has been obsessively putting together the “Bible”, a book of corrections and rules and regulations of writing. Most everyone ignores the handbook. Ruby Zaga is a spinsterish copy editor who believes that everyone on the paper wants to get rid of her, and of course she is right. According to her, she’d be perfectly happy to get away from the job and the terrible people who work there, but she has an interesting reaction when she thinks she may be fired. And then there is Ornella, who spends her days reading the paper from cover to cover starting with the very first one. She has saved them all and is just up to the the issue of April 23, 1994 (the date she would be reading this is February 18, 2007) when she discovers that the issue she is up to is not there. What she does about this gives us another look at obsessive behavior as grand as that of Cohen’s or Ruby’s. There is a marvelous chapter about a young man named Winston Cheung who wants to become a stringer in Cairo but is bullied mercilessly by Rich Snyder, a man who wants the job for himself and is just as fascinatingly revealed as any other character in the book.
Rachman writes beautifully. His insights into his characters are totally realistic, but no matter how troubled they are, he writes about them with great humor and compassion. The use of the newspaper as a framework to reveal the many characters in the book is not merely a device. Rachman uses it to point out that, as the cell phone is taking the place of a land line, so the internet is taking the place of TV news and newspapers. How strange to read newspapers on my browser and not get ink all over my hands. How sad it will be if and when we lose them.~