The Imperfectionists

The Imperfectionists
Tom Rachman
Reviewed by Katie Allen
Quercus
Thu, 07/07/2011
9781849160315
£7.99

First published in hardback last year, Tom Rachman's newsroom-set The Imperfectionists has been released in paperback appropriately just as the British media has never been more on show.

There's no phone-hacking or shaving foam pies but Tom Rachman, a former International Herald Tribune staffer, has written a compelling tragic-comic expose of the mundanity, ambition and dedication that characterises the trade.

The novel follows 11 different people involved with an English-language daily paper in Rome, while intersecting their stories with the progression of the newspaper—from its conception by multi-millionaire Cyrus Ott, to its golden age with Mad Men-esque white carpets and crystal ashtrays, to its eventual stumbling as the Ott dynasty falters, circulation declines and the internet encroaches.

Some of the characters linger in the memory more than others. The brusque yet soft-hearted corrections editor Herman Cohen is perhaps the most snort-out-loud funny, as he terrorises the staff with his pedantic Why? newsletter: "If none of you nitwits knows what GWOT [Global War on Terror] means... then why is GWOT in the paper?"

Meanwhile Abbey Pinola ("Accounts Payable") is the generally derided, secretly vulnerable chief financial officer who has to oversee the redundancies as the paper begins to fail – and in a gut-twistingly awkward encounter, is forced to sit beside one of her victims on a transatlantic flight.

And Rich Snyder, the slippery war correspondent, is the epitome of sleaze: describing Osama bin Laden ("We only met, like, twice. Back in Tora Bora") as simply "tall", he adds: "If he hadn't taken a wrong turn, maybe a career in professional sports. That's the tragedy of this conflict – so much talent wasted. Whatever. The thing that pisses me off about GWOT is the ignorance."

There is no particular driving plot, only the satisfaction of seeing earlier journalists' stories completed as they pop up as colleagues, irritants and lovers in others' tales. But Rachman's prose is a delight: anyone who has ever worked in an office – let alone in journalism – will recognise the pathos of a wilting workplace: "The spattered white carpet that smells of stale coffee and dried microwave soup...several cubicles are empty nowadays, the former occupants long retired but never replaced, their old Post-its fluttering."

It is hard not to read, between the lines, an elegy to the newspaper as a format. An observer of the "ghostly" newsroom muses: "This room once contained all the world. Today, it contained only litter."

Tom Rachman has written for WLTB on why he decided to write about the news.


 

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