Sunday, September 12, 2010

#39: The Imperfectionists

As a former employee of the International Herald Tribune and the Associated Press, Tom Rachman clearly has a soft spot for the news. Although The Imperfectionists is a novel (Rachman's first, about a boutique international newspaper based in Rome), it is really more of a series of vignettes. These brief glimpses bring us into the editor's office, behind the copydesk, and even to the streets of Cairo, where aspiring journalist Winston Cheung plays second fiddle to eccentric news veteran Rich Snyder, who, after regaling his protégé with embellished tales of professional glory, admonishes him not to "write about diplomacy. Write about human beings. The tapestry of human experience is my press office." (Cheung, it is later reported, eventually procures employment at an "exotic-animal refuge in Minnesota" where, presumably, industry clichés are less in vogue.)

Each story is titled after a news headline -- "Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls" opens the first chapter; "Europeans Are Lazy, Study Says" heralds another -- and focuses on a different member of the newspaper. Left alone, these episodes could function separately, as portraits of news-people toiling away futilely in the face of rapidly declining readership and ever-expanding free alternatives online. But instead of taking the Paris, Je T'aime approach, in which each five-minute story stands alone, Rachman opts to eulogize the printed news a la New York, I Love You, complete with recurring characters to help center the otherwise disparate perspectives.

This only partially works. Rachman is an entertaining storyteller, and his characters are mostly believable. At times, however, his writing adopts the quixotic air of a sitcom teleplay, as when straight-laced business reporter Hardy Benjamin takes on a jobless boyfriend, reasoning that "in this regard alone, she refused to see matters in terms of business." Or when chief financial officer Abbey Pinnola is randomly assigned the airplane seat adjacent to the man she had just fired, and ends up tangling with him in an Atlanta hotel room. If these two snippets seem to have a common thread, it's because Rachman takes genuine delight in unlikely matchmaking; but this soon becomes an easily recognizable pattern, which then prevents the reader from actually experiencing surprise. The author's propensity to find love (or lust) in every situation ultimately takes on a distinctly deterministic flavor, as if a romantic connection necessarily concludes every story worth relating.

Perhaps this is too American of me, but I also expected a little more on the plot side of things. The end is not entirely abrupt, but it is included with little enough context to raise doubts as to its importance. I nevertheless enjoyed Rachman concluding each chapter with a chronological history of the newspaper. I'm referring, of course, to the specific newspaper on which the novel is based, not the newspaper as a concept. Not yet, anyway.

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