Tom Rachman’s novel in stories, The Imperfectionists, is sure to start a conversation on a subject that is important to readers: the decline and fall of the newspaper. It’s set at an English-language newspaper in Rome over 50 years, and follows the paper from its eccentric beginnings (readers discover why its wealthy publisher suddenly became a newspaper man near the book’s end) until its demise. Rachman never names the paper in his stories, but he worked for the International Herald Tribune in Paris and lives in Rome himself now.
Unless you’ve been in hiding, you’re aware that the newspaper is an endangered species. To extend that metaphor, I would say that some newspapers will survive, but in a kind of captivity, under artificial conditions that are not the best for journalism. Too many stories are taken from the same few wire services and there isn’t enough money to pay real journalists. The cost to readers are already apparent as we’ve lost much of the great cultural coverage, much of the original hard news reporting that we used to get from major papers. I suspect there will be some very good nonfiction to come about the cost of this journalistic decline for readers, but Rachman has already written a novel that’s about as good as we can expect about the cost of the journalist’s lifestyle and the decline of the profession for those who work in it.
Each story in the book centers on a different character, but they interact over the course of different stories. We start with Lloyd Burko, an aging veteran journalist whose personal decline serves as a kind of metaphor for the decline of his livelihood. Conversely, another story follows Winston Cheung, a naive young man in competition–barely–for a position as a stringer in Cairo. It’s a comic story that painfully depicts the decline in journalistic standards. Several of the stories. such as that of the obituary writer Arthur Gopal, show the cost of the journalist’s lifestyle on personal relationships. A story from the point of view of the paper’s business manager, called “Accounts Payable” derisively by her co-workers, captures a pathetic encounter. She is seated next to a recently fired copy editor on an international flight and alternates between despising him to lessen her guilt about firing him and craving his romantic attention because she is so lonely.
Rachman’s little character portraits add up until we have a kind of cubist portrait of the newspaper. The result is more than a little heart-rending. but there are laughs along the way to balance all the poignant moments. It’s a moving book, and one that is sure to stimulate a lively meeting.