Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

During the years I lived in Seoul, South Korea, I often picked up a copy of The International Herald Tribune, one of the three English language dailies available in the city at the time. Even if I didn’t have an undergraduate degree in journalism, it would have been easy to notice the struggles that this small, feisty international paper had in filling its pages with genuine news. I often lamented to anyone who’d listen that nearly half of the paper’s daily page count was dedicated to advertise-friendly subjects like business and entertainment. So when I heard that Tom Rachman, who used to work for the IHT, had made a fictional rendering of the newspaper the setting for his debut novel, The Imperfectionists, I leapt at the chance to read it.

The Imperfectionists has received a number of glowing reviews since its release – notably from The New York Times, The Globe and Mail and The New Yorker – and I’m happy to add my voice to the chorus of praise. Rachman’s novel is a near-perfect exploration of the gritty, stressful and often hilarious world of daily journalism. The book captures both the ideal of journalism as a concept and the (increasingly sad) reality of journalism as a business.

Each chapter of The Imperfectionists is named after a newspaper headline that is vaguely a propos of the chapter’s content itself (examples include “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126” and “The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists”) and features a character who is associated with the unnamed newspaper in Rome in some way. There’s the washed-up, old-school freelancer Lloyd Burko – he still doesn’t own a computer, types everything on a word processor – who struggles to score one more big bi-line by exploiting his own son. There’s the paper’s tyrannical corrections editor, Herman Cohen, who is in charge of pointing out to staff writers and editors (“nit wits”) their various violations to the in-house style guide (“The Bible”), and he often goes around randomly yelling “Credibility!” when he’s especially pissed off. There’s the feckless young Cairo stringer Winston Cheung, who is bullied and exploited by a much more seasoned journalist. And then there’s my favourite character, news editor Craig Menzies, a man who appears never to leave the newsroom at all – he’s there long before anyone else arrives in the morning, he’s still there at night after everyone leaves – and yet he has a profoundly complex and problematic personal life that no one sees.

Each of the characters in Rachman’s novel is beautifully crafted and bang-on accurate. Anyone who’s worked in a newsroom will recognize the motley ensemble of up-tight eggheads and fucked-up posers whose combined efforts put out a paper day in and day out. There’s also little touches of newspaper history in this book that give it such personality. Example: in a flashback scene, some of the guys in the newsroom use the pneumatic tubes – prior to computers and networks, this was how copy was transported from one department to another – in order to fire live mice into the secretaries’ typing pool. (Newspapers also used to have typing pools.)

Ultimately what makes Rachman’s novel special is the way he balances the quotidian detail of a daily newspaper’s operation with the larger social impact that the concept of newspapers has on the world. It’s ultimately a sad story – the fate of newspapers, including this one, seemed to be sealed by apathetic, even hostile corporate conglomerates – but it is a story worth telling. Bravo to Mr. Rachman for telling it so well.

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