A Band of Unlikelies in The Imperfectionists

After being disappointed by A Visit from the Goon Squad‘s band of disparate characters, I was a little taken aback by the fact that the Tom Rachman book, The Imperfectionists, followed a similar style. I had read a bunch of very positive reviews about the book, which details the various characters at an English language newspaper in Rome, but had managed to gloss over that one key fact.

So, I opened the book with a deep breath and dove in. Like Egan, Rachman separates each chapter by character, each with their own distinct position a the newspaper and how it effects their personal lives. He begins with Lloyd Burko, the long running Parisian correspondent, who has seemed to have lost his touch as the freewheeling journalist. Now in his golden years, the “youth” among him seem to do to him exactly what he did to others — his wife is sleeping with the younger, more affable Parisian next door, his children ignore him, and the editors think he is a joke. Everything seems like it is pushing full force into the deep end until he manages to find the perfect story to sell — using his son’s ties at the French Ministry to piece together a previously unreported story on France’s relations with Israel.

Of course, this chapter ends spectacularly, but it is the only vignette we get of Burko. The next chapter launches into the story of another staffer at the newspaper, with only chance references to the other characters. In between these stories are brief stories of the early days of the newspaper and its founders, chronologically building up to the current state of the newspaper and its failure.

But while each character is strangely unique, there is more of a common thread between them than in Egan’s book. Rachman is able to segue from character to character, adding key details before and after their narratives, so that one feels like they are part of the office gossip.

For example, the copy editor, Ruby Zaga, is constantly referred to as being an unlikable hanger-on, awash in both office dislike and sympathy, and somehow stuck in some version of the 1980s. She’s the type of person who refuses to participate in office banter and then calls an old lover every night, breathing and sobbing uncontrollably into the phone without ever saying a word. When she finally gets her own chapter, it is easy to see why everyone finds her so distasteful:

“But wait, stop! Yes, there it is: the chair–over there, behind the watercooler. She hurries over and grabs it. “Get their own damn chair.” She rolls it to its rightful place at the copydesk, unlocks her drawer, and lays out her tools: a cushion for her lower back, an ergonomic keyboard and mouse, RSI wrist brace, antibacterial wipes. She decontaminates the keyboard and the mouse. “Impossible to feel clean in this place.”

Rachman’s genius is that in one chapter he is able to create a character, lay out their past history, and describe what their future may hold. Each character could stand on their own, but instead by writing each chapter from a different perspective, we are able to grasp the differences between they way they perceive themselves and their home life, and the role they take on at work.

Rachman also describes the newspaper world in such marvelous detail, himself having been a journalist and foreign correspondent. His satirization of newspapers and the characters that flock to them are brilliant and hilarious. How can one not be both amused and horrified by the daredevil Rich Synder, who freeloads off of the “Cairo correspondent” Winston Cheung, a recent college graduate who has never written an article in his life? Synder never stops abusing those around him, already being a diva among journalists and a renowned Casanova. He makes the most blatant cultural attacks on the poor people he is trying to write about and then flounces off to his next great cameo with Cheung’s laptop: trying to sneak into Iraq.

While I enjoyed The Imperfectionists thoroughly, the one note that constantly bothered me was that every chapter ends in some sort of tragedy or disaster. At first this didn’t bother me, but I had to wonder why Rachman so intensely focused on the disatisfaction in people’s lives. Almost every personal relationship is destroyed through the character’s own means, directly or indirectly. Perhaps, Rachman is trying to characterize how the dangers of the job jeopardize personal relationships. When someone works a 15 hour day, it is hard to have a faithful spouse or significant other. But there were times when I wanted to know that someone survived and not everything was a matter of failure. Not that I need all books to end happily, but is everything really about defeat? Even newspapers?

But then again, even in the ending days of newspapers and constant talk of their demise, you can tell that Rachman is hopeful. There is something about this band of unlikely folk and their drive to provide great pieces of journalism that won’t die. It will just continue on in another way.

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