Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’

The decline in health of printed newspapers has been going on for a long time.  Online news marked one of the first serious spikes in the fever chart, but by now devices such as the Kindle and iPad look like bringing on cascading organ failure.  It seems pretty obvious that we are now beyond the palliative care stage, and investigating the nicest possible way to pull the plug.

In this atmosphere, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is a eulogy for printed news getting in before its deadline.  It’s difficult to place The Imperfectionists: structurally it looks like a series of connected short-stories with the few final chapters acting as a sort of afterword to bring the central message into sharp focus, yet it undoubtedly functions as a novel.

The Imperfectionists tells the story of the establishment, rise and sickening fall of an English language newspaper based in Rome.  The chronology jumps like a startled flea between 1953, 2007 and a variety of dates between.  Remarkably, these jumps (rather than impeding the rhythm of the narrative) serve to spell out gradually the paper’s history and introduce a rather glorious array of characters.

There’s Herman (the paper’s style fascist) who has compiled a ‘Bible’ of over eighteen thousand beautifully biting entries in a doomed attempt to protect English from the ravages of poor writing.  Herman’s ire as he discovers infelicities and the savage acidity of his entries had the grammar-nazi in me chortling with glee.

There’s Snyder, a deliciously amoral free-lancer who relentlessly abuses the trust and hospitality of rookie Cairo correspondent Winston.  I spent the entire chapter about Snyder alternately wishing that he’d get slotted by a passing sniper and sniggering in anticipation of his next outrage against decent behaviour.

Then there’s Ornella, whose English was so poor when she started to read the paper that she fell behind.  But she has refused to skip even a single issue so that now she lives in a curious bubble, well versed in the events leading up to 1994, but utterly ignorant of any event beyond.

Rachman’s disquiet at the inevitable fate of printed media is as palpable as his sorrow throughout The Imperfectionists.  As the title suggests all of the characters we meet are damaged, ravaged or demented to some degree: but Rachman loves them all, from burned out luddite free-lancer Lloyd to paranoid colleague-from-hell Ruby.

It can be hard to imagine, as a non news-hound, what will be lost when the day arrives that newspapers are exclusively electronic.  But Rachman provides an oblique explanation: the community that that creates a newspaper will be lost, to be replaced by men and women tapping away at laptops, alone in various rooms.  Somehow, non news-hound though I am, the thought that buildings teeming with hard-bitten journos, misfits and savage editors are on the gravely endangered list feels wrong.

Rachman’s inventiveness, slick prose and delicate touch with structure are all darned impressive (the more so in a debut novel).  Humour, pathos, the odd shock and buckets of style is a pretty good package.  Buy it in hard-copy, though: then go and buy a newspaper.  You’ll feel a thrill of solidarity with the author.

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