Last week I read Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists, which came to me highly recommended via several of the book blogs I follow and numerous articles on the “best summer reads.” The Imperfectionists is about the life of a Rome-based English-language newspaper, and the lives of the panoply of ex-pats and wanderers who founded, work(ed) for, or read the paper.
Structured something like the films Love, Actually or Crash, each chapter of Rachman’s novel follows a different person’s life, skipping from corrections editor Herman Cohen, to the current Editor-in-Chief, Kathleen Solson, to CFO Abbey Pinnola, to Oliver Ott, the magazine’s publisher and its founder’s grandson, etc. Each of these chapters is followed by a short italicized section which proceeds chronologically through the history of the paper, following a slightly different set of characters (mostly those directly related to the paper’s founder, Cyrus Ott) from its beginnings in 1953 to its (Spoiler Alert) closure in 2007.
I didn’t like this book as much as I expected to, perhaps because I began it with such high expectations and because these past few weeks for me have been packed with really high quality fiction.
I think Rachman set himself a difficult task in The Imperfectionists, structurally speaking, by chosing to rotate continually from character to character, trusting the newspaper, as the lone evolving figure at the center of the novel, to tie the entire narrative together. My problem with the frequent character shifting is that it’s very difficult to maintain the same quality of writing (and precision of characterization) as the writer moves from one personality to the next. And unlike the movies I mentioned above, Rachman never returns to a character for a second visit. Each person receives only one chapter, and whatever sidelong glances the other characters throw his or her way when it’s their turn to guide the third person narration.
When a novel has so many characters, it’s almost unavoidable for me as a reader to develop favorites, and then to regret that the book doesn’t spend more time with them, and less time dabbling with characters who are not as persuasively real, well-written, or interesting. Of course, Rachman’s justification for structuring his book in this way is that the intentional center of the novel is the newspaper, more than any single human being, but I felt like much of Rachman’s point was to make clear how much the paper was its people, the product of the passion, obsession, curiosity and joy of those who created it. And because it wasn’t easy for to develop and sustain an affection for any of his characters (not that liking characters is necessary to liking fiction…it isn’t. Try Lolita) it wasn’t easy to care as much about the paper as I would have liked to, either.
I did love the first chapter of The Imperfectionists, which follows the paper’s Paris correspondent, the aging, outmoded and completely broke, Lloyd Burko, on a desperate quest to find or fabricate some kind of story, and I loved the chapters describing the obit writer’s trip to Switzerland to interview a dying woman whose long forgotten feminist tracts were a pet fancy of the editor, and the chapter on Ornella de Monterecchi, the paper’s most loyal and consistent reader.
And Rachman is definitely a good writer. The book is full of lovely sentences and striking images; one in particular, from Ornella’s chapter, sticks in my mind. Ornella is an Italian woman, mother of an Italian man who once interned at the paper and fell in love with Kathleen, who was then his fellow intern and later became the paper’s Editor-in-Chief. Ornella lives in an odd, self-induced time warp. After a family tragedy, she somehow fell behind in her newspaper reading, and never caught up. As the first decade of the new millennium rumbles to an end outside, she sits in her house pouring over issues of the paper from the early 90s, moving to a new day’s issue only after reading every word of the last one. Her Polish cleaning lady brings in the new paper each day and stacks it in the attic; information about the modern world is forbidden in her house, as are cell phones and video games and any marker of temporal progress.
In my favorite scene from the novel, Ornella, finally decides that enough is enough, and climbs the ladder into the attic. She tosses all the issues—more than a decade’s worth of a daily paper—onto the floor, until she is standing above an ocean of black and white newsprint. Then she sits in the center of scattered pages, and allows years worth of time to happen to her all at once: Clinton’s reelection as president, Taliban fighters capturing Kabul, the Dow topping 11,000, Milosevic’s resignation, September 11th, the iphone, the war in Iraq. I found myself wishing the book could have stayed with her longer; she might have made a good novel all by herself.
But the upside of all the switching is that the newspaper itself does come alive perhaps more than it would otherwise: Rachman wonderfully conveys the haphazard way a paper like this comes together, fueled by the whims of its editors, the peccadilloes of its writers, the capitalistic plans of its founders, and the passion of people for whom chasing, capturing and reporting the news is not simply a profession but a way of life. A glorious way of life.
Appearing as it does into today’s print “climate,” Rachman’s novel feels a little bit like an ode to print journalism; to me the book seems largely reflective and nostalgic, looking backward at a thing whose time has come and gone, whose heyday was decades ago and whose resurrection seems unlikely. I wonder if Rachman intends a parallel between Obituary writer Arthur Gopal’s preemptive obituary of the dying Swiss philosopher-feminist, and The Imperfectionists’ beautiful and somewhat elegiac depiction of one corner of the print journalism industry. I certainly don’t think the book is intended as some kind of literary death knell, but perhaps we’ll just have to wait and see.