Paper Routes: Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists

June 17, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 3 4 min read

coverThe focus of Tom Rachman’s debut novel The Imperfectionists is the men and women immersed in the day-to-day of an unnamed English-language, Rome-based newspaper. Founded in 1953 by a wealthy Atlanta businessman named Cyrus Ott, for reasons that remain a mystery to his family some fifty years on, the newspaper has fallen on hard times. Buffeted by the Internet (and tragically lacking a website well into 2007!), hemorrhaging money, the paper is financially controlled by people who take no interest in it and run by people who are, as the title rather generously observes, “imperfectionists.” Their imperfections are meant to serve the narrative as a propeller.

The territory lying between journalistic idealism, the youthful desire to perfectly capture the world in order to help make that world perfect, and journalistic reality, filled with exigencies and disappointments and countless compromises, together rendering the ideal moot, is ripe and practically begging for novelistic treatment, and Rachman, a correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome, according to his book-jacket bio, captures the lay of the land, in prose that is fittingly functional, dispensing, for the most part, with unnecessary flourishes, efficiently doling out pertinent particulars with a simplicity that is so striking as to be deliberate. He fills his fictional paper’s newsroom with editors and copyeditors and reporters, then follows their tangled, intersecting lives out into the streets of Rome and beyond, through a succession of chapters—really, short stories—unfolding in the present tense, interspersed with brief past-tense accounts of significant moments in the paper’s history.

We begin in Paris, where Lloyd Burko, Paris correspondent, desperately searches for a story. This will be the story that restores his career, earns him desperately needed rent money, and brings back his wife, who has slowly begun moving her things across the hall to the apartment of her new lover. The quest yields nothing by way of an article, but it does produce a revelation that might change Lloyd’s life and his understanding of himself.

Back in Rome, we proceed to obituary writer Arthur Gopal, assigned to interview Gerda Erzberger, an Austrian intellectual recently diagnosed with cancer and refusing treatment. Arthur, whose “overarching goal at the paper is indolence,” is the son of a famed reporter, and, rather than competing with his father’s legacy, he dedicates himself to mediocrity, complacently allowing himself to be bullied by the paper’s culture editor. Arthur’s conversation with Gerda, and the phone call that interrupts that conversation, radically alters his world and sets off a chain reaction that will reverberate through the newsroom.

Business reporter, Hardy Benjamin, makes quick sense of the financial news but has trouble with her personal life. After she encounters a young aimless man, the two embark on a tentative courtship, though an accidental revelation compels Hardy to examine her romantic expectation.

Corrections editor Herman Cohen, grammar warrior and producer of the monthly Why? newsletter, which chronicles the most egregious of errors to have made it into the paper, welcomes an old friend, a visit that forces him to reevaluate his past and his present.

Editor-in-chief Kathleen Solson discovers her husband is having an affair and reconnects with an old lover, forcing her to confront her romantic history without the comfort of revision and evasion.

In Cairo, having recently quit his doctoral program in primatology, the stringer-hopeful Winston Cheung struggles to file a report while competing with a seasoned newsman for the position, only to learn some unpleasant truths about the profession.

I could go on, as the book does, but the pattern should, by now, be clear enough. Each chapter-story begins with a protagonist stuck in a limbo of sorts, unhappy but not desperately so, unsure about the exact progression that has led him or her to this particular place. Some unexpected event, some surprising encounter, some sudden recognition later, the protagonist acquires a more astute comprehension of the situation, a readjustment that inevitably relates back to the paper, usually validating the series of choices that have, almost imperceptibly, led to this moment. In the meantime, other characters, merely lurking background as shadows in one story, wait for the chance to become protagonists of their own tales, to explain lives otherwise just barely sketched.

Some of the stories are more successful than others in conveying the final insight, though most fall somewhat short of the Joycean epiphany that is the prototype. (The most compelling of the chapters in this respect is, to my thinking, the story of the paper’s CFO Abbey Pinnola, who finds herself seated next to a recently fired employee on a long plane ride; the ensuing account of their tentative flirtation is genuinely revelatory, its conclusion unexpected in the best possible way, simultaneously surprising and, in hindsight, inevitable.) The short stories are meant to tie together through collision of characters, the intersection of themes, the classical unities of time and place; under the auspices of these commonalities, they are, we are lulled into believing, something greater than the sum of their parts. But where this is true in Dubliners, whose deceptively delicate particles, when assembled together, produce a surprisingly robust total, this is rarely the case in The Imperfectionists. The characters—coming in and out of focus, growing more or less important—do not really develop, and the new information we glean about them from story to story is not always illuminating. The change in perspective tends to come off as artificial, lazily telling what was not convincingly shown. Individually, as a short story, each chapter leaves just enough unsaid: we know something of a character’s experience as it is experienced, asking us to imagine beyond the story’s parameters. The revelations in subsequent chapters, matter-of-fact as they are, do little to truly complicate our perceptions. Presumably intended to magnify, the accumulation of detail, in the form of minor references to characters we thought we knew, instead reduces and flattens, unconvincingly extending the storyline. This is particularly glaring in the final summing up, a last entry in the newspaper’s history amounting to a perfunctory conclusion.

I suppose the recent popularity of the stories-as-novel has quite a bit to do with decreased attention spans, allowing readers to pick up and put down the book as needed, all the while believing they are engaged in novel-reading. Or else it is a translation of hypertext into physical text: each character, no matter how minor on this page, has a full story, just a page-turn away! Given that Rachman is clearly concerned with the impact of the web on the traditional newspaper, it seems fitting that he adapt his writing to internet possibility, but, for this reader anyway, the aptness of the adaptation cuts both ways. Yes, it extends the novel’s cultural lease, but something—something intangible but very, very important—is lost in the accommodation. Is a newspaper still a newspaper on the Internet? the newspaper’s staffers ponder. Is a novel-in-stories still a novel?

lives in Brooklyn. She works at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and is a contributing editor for The Forward.


  1. I’m not a huge fan of novels-as-stories myself, but it’s helpful to remember that the earliest proto-forms of what we call the novel were precisely novels-in-stories. The Decameron functioned by grouping the stories by theme with a frame narrative to contain the resulting whole. Later, Don Quixote made the central character himself a kind of frame story for the episodes contained within the novel. With this in mind, I’m less inclined to see an uptick in the popularity of novels of stories as some sort of new ascendency.

    The goals are possibilities are clearly different; in the novel of stories, a premium is placed in variety and experimentation. In the more conventional novel, depth and insight are brought more to the fore.

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