They deny responsibility. But Herman has infinitely less time for pardon than for blame. “If none of you nitwits know what GWOT means,” he says, “then why is GWOT in the paper?”

An arctic silence settles upon the copydesk.

“Have you read the Bible?” he demands. “Any of you?” He glances at this sorry trio of copy editors before him: Dave Belling, a simpleton far too cheerful to compose a decent headline; Ed Rance, who wears a white ponytail―what more need one say?; and Ruby Zaga, who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct. What is the value in remonstrating with such a feckless triumvirate?

“Sooner or later…” Herman says, and allows the partial threat to hang there. He turns from them, prodding the air. “Credibility!” he declares. “Credibility!”

He elbows into his office, and the momentum of his belly topples a stack of books―he must tread with caution in here, for this is an overstuffed room and he is an overstuffed man. Reference works clutter the room―classics like Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations…and A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic.

p. 77-78

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Tom Rachman

 

I don’t read much contemporary fiction, but my friend Nate lent me his copy which he’d read for his book group. I gave it a go. Here’s what I think.

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People angle and blag and bully and gossip through the working day, but it’s the private lives where the really interesting things happen.

What you have in The Imperfectionists is a series of short stories that are one story, all revolving around the office of an international newspaper based in Rome, and each focused on one of the staff employed there.

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There is Lloyd Burko, the ageing freelancer who can’t use email, who pesters his children for lunch and his contacts for a story.

Arthur Gopal, obituary writer, whose favourite thing is making Nutella sandwiches and cheating at Monopoly with his daughter Pickle, but is sent to interview his boss’ favourite feminist intellectual before she dies.

BusinessReporter Hardy Benjamin and the dreadlocked young Irishman she meets when their homes are both burgled by a couple of punkabbestia druggies.

Herman Cohen, pedantic Jewish Corrections Editor whose legendary school friend Jimmy comes to stay while Herman’s wife is away.

The ‘Bible’ to which he refers above is not the God-breathed book that leads the dead to life, but Herman’s own caustic compendium of spellings and word-usage laws, mainly ignored by his underlings.

Kathleen Solson, hardball editor-in-chief with a cheating husband, who bumps into old flame Dario de Monterecchi, now working for Silvio Berlusconi.

Naïve pushover Winston Cheung, hoping for a stringer position in Cairo, whose life is hijacked by infuriating blag-artist Rich Snyder.

Chief Financial Officer Abbey Pinola, referred to by her colleagues as Accounts Payable, who finds herself sitting next to a man she’s just fired on the place back to Atlanta.

Oliver Ott, directionless grandson of the great founder of the Ott Group, who is sent by his siblings to Rome with his dog Schopenhauer to manage the demise of the paper.

Sudoku

The vignettes, woven around a potted history of this venerable newspaper business from its 1950s inception to the early 21st century, are by turns funny and tragic. All but one or two are satisfiyngly complex.

Minor characters in one chapter are protagonists in another. This Sudoku of plotting makes for a fascinating read but never feels complicated. In fact readability is a hallmark.

The chapters are bookmarked by news stories of the period. In that time, rookies rise through the ranks, careers blossom or fade, relationships sour and sweeten again.

Most don’t make it easy on themselves. An imperfectionist is the opposite of a perfectionist and these characters insist on getting it wrong. For many, nothing less than imperfection will do.

Business as unusual

The trials, revelations and adventures of Rachman’s merry band are set to the Decline and Fall backdrop of ailing/mutating institutions.

What was the rock-solid business of selling news on paper is overtaken by the proliferation of free online content and celebrity tabloidism.

The certainties of the Cold War worlds slide into the moral ambiguities of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Relationships which were once straightforward, like that between husband and wife, grow layers of messiness, subterfuge and paradox.

A few of the stories are rendered with Roald Dahl-esque black twists that make you gasp. Yet for all his dark humour and sophistication, Rachman is able to write tenderness realistically;

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He shifts his stool closer and, as her face emerges, he strokes her hair. He touches her forehead. “You,” he says. “You again. You’re still dear to me. You are goodness.” He smiles. “I told you that before.”

She shifts away. “What,” she says hurriedly. “What are you talking about?”

“You―you’re so driven. Like a mole burrowing in the earth, just pushing ahead. But I remember you.” He smiles. “I remember you waking up. You sleeping. You getting the hiccups at the movie theater.”

She can’t talk.

“But it makes me sad,” he concludes. “You make me sad a bit. I still love you, but we’re not going to start anything.”

Her eyes well up. Quietly, she says, “Thank you.” She wipes her nose. “When I’m old and bent and sitting in a chair, you come and hold my hand. All right? That’s your job. Okay?”

He takes her hand and kisses it. “No,” he says. “When you’re old and bent, I’ll be gone. I’ll hold it now. Later, you’ll have to remember.”

p. 125

The man Rachman

Before putting out this his debut novel, Rome-based Canadian Rachman was a foreign correspondent for Associated Press in Rome, and from 2006-08, an editor at International Herald Tribune in Paris. He’s done assignments in Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Egypt.

So he’s been a part of the world his characters work in, although in interview Rachman has said he didn’t use real-life people and situations for his book overly much.

Web chat

In a fascinating web chat on the New Yorker, Rachman talked about how the physical and organisational architecture of the workplace relates to the lives of the workers within it, and how we import or don’t import our private worlds into that public sphere.

I quote it below:

2:14 New Yorker: Tom, in our discussion, we decided the structure of the book—loosely connected individual stories—mirrored the structure of an office (with cubicles) and of a newspaper itself (individual stories in one discreet package) and even of romantic relationships (Menzies and Annika). Did we go too far?

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2:18 Tom Rachman: I like that parallel. I don’t think it’s going too far. One of the things I hoped to do with this book was to explore the hidden lives of those within the same office. Offices, those often-awful locales, are crammed with lives that are barely expressed during daytime hours, whose real pursuits go on in private or after-hours. Each of my stories tells one such story; in this, it’s like an office bared.

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2:24 TR: When I worked in the business, I also noticed how the incredibly personal went on amid the grand themes — that you might be dealing with chaos and war during work hours, but your true worries were often private.

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2:28 TR: Few books are set at workplaces, to the repeated surprise of critics. It is perhaps strange, given how much time we spend in them. And, as you rightly note, they are the source of so much in our lives. Not only the bad stuff you cite, though — they may are be the source of our confidence, aspirations, love affairs. So, yes, they are very rich places to study human experiences, even if most people in them are desperately trying to hide theirs from view.

The type set

Nicely included after the end is a page telling you that the book is set in Bulmer, a font created in the late 18th century by London type-cutter William Martin.

Bulmer marked a transition between old-style and modern. It is characterised by elegantly proportioned letters with long ascenders and descenders.

As such it’s an apt match for these elegant stories of transition, modernisation and people on thresholds.

The Imperfectionists is a likeable novel, an impressive debut that shows Rachman’s ability to mirror the soul of contemporary Euro-American culture, and a thoughtful obituary on the age of the newspaper.

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Herman’s P.S. Did you notice the two typos in the above article? 😉

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