Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 204 (8/26) -- The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I might as well admit it up front: this review is going to be a failure. I read The Imperfectionists because I read a few glowing, exquisite reviews of it -- the one I can find quickly is from Christopher Buckley in The New York Times Book Review, but there were others as well -- and the book was just as good as those reviews made it sound. So now, I should be writing something equally strong and worthy, to make it clear how magisterial and wonderful The Imperfectionists is -- and I'm sure that I'm not up to that task.

So take that as written: whatever I say here will be, at best, a twisted, half-handed misinterpretation of an excellent first novel, and that this is one of those rare books where the hype is absolutely warranted and correct.

The Imperfectionists is the story of an unnamed newspaper -- it's in English, published from Rome, for people around the world, making it a fictional, poorer sister of the International Herald Tribune -- told in two ways: through eleven chapters, each telling the story of one person connected to this paper; and in a short, italicized recounting of the major events in the paper's history, running in between those longer chapters.

A idea I had years ago -- back when I still thought I might want to write novels one day -- was to tell one story, about short-story length, from one point of view, and then write the story of what happened because of that, from another point of view, and continue on, either getting further and further away from the original moment or circling back to it at the end. (I never decided; pretending to think about writing novels is much more fun than the hard work of actually writing them.) It's not a new idea, and not nearly as clever as I thought at the time, but the impetus to open up a story to multiple points of view is both invigorating and terrifying -- because it can so easily go wrong, and a book would just turn to random events if it does go wrong.

But Rachman does it all right here, moving from an aged (and pretty much put-out-to-pasture) stringer in Paris through the various levels of the Rome home office (obituary writer, editor-in-chief, corrections editor, copy editor, and so on) over to reader, to another would-be stringer, and back in and out of that office. Each story is connected to the ones before it and after it, but not directly -- each one is the story of that person, but these are people who know each other, and work together, so their stories wrap around or push through each other's. Those stories are not entirely happy ones -- this paper has never been terribly healthy, having been started for an ulterior motive and kept going primarily by inertia for fifty years, and so it has attracted a crew of misfits and oddballs, each unfit in some particular way for other things -- but Rachman tempers the losses with possibilities of gains, so The Imperfectionists never feels depressing.

In fact, it's inspiring, even thrilling. We're all Imperfectionists, just as these journalists are -- fighting our own implacable deadlines to do what we can, where we are, with what we have. And so Rachman's characters are triumphant, in the only ways that they can be, even as the shaky edifice of their newspaper starts to sway further and further in the cold wind of modern newspaper economics. [1] The Imperfectionists is a magnificent first novel -- short enough to read in one long day, or two shorter ones, but full of characters and thoughts that will remain with a reader much longer than that.

[1] I apologize deeply for that sentence, and that metaphor. I told you I gave up all hope of writing novels, didn't I?
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index


Rutila said...

So glad to read you liked this. I too worry about hyped-about reading material and added this title to my library queue after much hesitation. Can't wait for it to become available!

Michael A. Burstein said...

I just finished this yesterday and enjoyed it a lot.

Post a Comment