Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Beautifully flawed

In his debut novel The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman flawlessly depicts the foibles of a newspaper staff in the twilight days of traditional media

The following review was published yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

It's a measure of how rapidly our media order has changed that it seems almost unrealistic to even imagine a small, economically viable, English-language newspaper in the Rome of 2006-07, let alone one that managed to publish everyday without a web presence. And indeed this premise -- actually, the imminent collapse of the paper functions more like the plot -- is the most far-fetched aspect of this clever, sharply observed little book, which made a brief appearance on the New York Times bestseller list this spring (thanks no doubt in part to a page one rave review in the paper's Book Review by the ever-shrewd Christopher Buckley). Elegiac without ever brooding, historically resonant while insistently contemporary, The Imperfectionists is perfect summer reading.

It's worth calling attention to the subtitle here: "a novel." You might glean from reading the table of contents, or even in plunging into to the first chapter, that you've embarked on a book of short stories. And there would be good reason to think so: each segment of the book is a fully realized character portrait of people involved in publishing the newspaper, from publisher to reader. But it's soon apparent that the pieces interlock, further cemented by flashbacks to the founding of the unnamed paper and its fate across three generations of ownership.

So it is, for example, that we see the driven young chief financial officer of the paper, who finds herself on an intercontinental flight seated next to a copy-editor she just fired (turns out she likes him more than she ever would imagined -- maybe).  Or a lethargic obituary writer who deals with tragedy in an unexpected way by finally coming to terms with his job. Or a corrections editor who discovers that the friend he's idolized his whole life is not who he thought he was (no crime there). In every case, the portrayal of the character in question has just enough of a twist to keep you off-balance and intrigued, as Tom Rachman manages to steer clear of cliches and soar with an artistry that lands gently by moving on to the next little epiphany.

He also manages to turn to produce some striking prose. The middle-aged owner of the paper sees a woman he loves for the first time in twenty years, and "glimpsed in a the tilt of her head, in her hesitant smile, the woman he had known. By fading, the past only seemed to sharpen before him." A young business writer "is on a diet that started, roughly at the age of twelve. She's thirty-six now and still dreaming of butter cookies." (In love no less than cuisine, she feeds, perhaps distressingly so, by providing for others.) A dying intellectual marvels at how thoroughly she has been in the thrall of her own ambition. "It's like being a slave all your life, then learning one day that you never had a master, and returning to work all the same." Such pithy insights are all the more impressive when one considers that they're imagined by a young man of 35 writing his first book.

 Yet the sober moments here never manage to dampen the spring in this novel's step. Actually, the book feels a bit like a tourist excursion, notably good at evoking the rhythms of everyday life in the timelessness of Rome, where most of the book is set. The Imperfectionists is the literary equivalent of a margarita on the rocks: bracing, salty, and refreshing. Find room for it in your suitcase (or on your iPad).