Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tom Rachman tells of the demise of an international newspaper by looking at the folks who run it.

I couldn’t resist this highly-praised account of a newspaper in decline. It sounded like it might take the pulse of our times, and it does.

The Imperfectionists

In his wonderful first novel, Tom Rachman sets his tale in Rome, at the offices of a widely respected international newspaper that has fallen on hard times. Actually, The Imperfectionists (269 pages, The Dial Press, $25) tells the history of the paper in interchapters that relate tersely and pointedly how the paper was founded and how it failed. It makes gripping reading for anyone who worries, even vaguely, about the demise of newspaper reading in the twenty-first century, and in that sense alone it is a sort of moral tale.

Far more compelling, however, is the tale he tells about the people who worked at the paper throughout its heyday and into its decline. Each chapter focuses on a different individual, ranging from obituary writers and copy-editors to managing editors, heads of accounts, and the editor-in-chief.

Each of these chapters tells a different kind of tale—the newspaper staff is comprised of a range of wildly different characters—but they all share a vague dissatisfaction with the newspaper, the working conditions at the office, and even expatriate life itself.

Rachman has a wonderful sense of individual reactions to difficult situations, and he is especillay good at creating the news editor, Craig Menzies, and his boss, Kathleen Solson, editor-in-chief. These two characters are colleagues rather than friends, and their interaction at the paper is rather simple. Kathleen bosses Craig around and he does whatever she says in a spirit of resignation and frustration.

In their personal lives, however, they are utterly distinct. Craig is happily married to Annika, another American, and he tinkers in the basement with scientific experiments. He worries that Annika is not fully occupied, but she takes her Roman life in stride and is pleased to be connected to someone as kind and hardworking as her husband seems to be. When discord seeps into this relationship, it is because of the gossipy nature of the world they live in. Craig ends the marriage rather than deal with the insecurity that his wife’s potential lapses cause him. He finds himself distancing himself from her, even though he knows that life without her will be miserable. He uses the job in order to hide his feelings from himself.

Kathleen’s story is different. She worked at the paper early in her career, and then she returned to Washington, D.C. where she rose up in the newspaper world there. When she is offered the job at the international paper, she feels that it will be a chance to earn her stripes as an editor. She goes in having made all sorts of demands about improving the paper and extending its range, with reporters in far-flung capitals, and so on. But none of these agreements are honored by the company that owns the paper, and from the first she feels frustrated at what she is able to accomplish.

She is frustrated in her personal life too. A strong and very attractive woman, she tries to take up with the man, Dario, whom she left behind when she went to the states. But he is married, happily it seems, and he does not want to become involved again. He tells her why he is no longer attracted to her—it has to do with her domineering personality—and she is more hurt than she lets on.

Other characters are equally interesting—some of the stories are amusing and some are menacing—but each one strikes a chord. By the end of the novel, you know what happened to the paper and the people who were most affected by its collapse. The effect is grand.

This is a wonderful debut novel from a talented writer. I will be watching for more novels from Tom Rachman.

Tom Rachman

Available at Vroman's, Amazon and Powell's.

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