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Venal characters fuel dark comedy

  • Sep 16, 2010
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With unsparing wit, Rachman portrays the dying throes of an international newspaper through its myriad, mostly sadsack, employees. This first novel is a series of linked stories, the characters united only by their ties to the newspaper.

Rachman introduces the paper through a veteran American-in-Paris freelancer whose dismal situation rather parallels that of the newspaper. And old roué getting his comeuppance, Lloyd Burko is broke and desperate for a story. His much-younger fourth wife openly spends most of her nights with the neighbor across the hall, he barely knows his kids - one of whom speaks only French - and he's about to stoop lower than he ever has before to claw his way to the front page.

In contrast there's Winston Cheung, a neophyte in Cairo, trying for a stringer position with the paper. Totally at sea, Winston's entire life is co-opted by Snyder, a rival for the position who usurps his home, his computer, his phone and his labor, such as it is.

Snyder asks Winston where he last worked. " `Uhm, I freelanced mainly. A bunch of local Minnesota publications.' This is a lie: his last piece of writing was a college essay on teaching monkeys sign language (a bad idea, it turns out)."

Early on, Snyder checks his cellphone. " `I'm totally paranoid - keep thinking I'm gonna call someone by mistake while I'm talking about them. This thing is off, right?' "

He then fills Winston in on the editor, a driven woman who figures in the life of everyone connected with the paper:

" `Keep that entre-nous, `kay?'
`That you're a feminist?'
`No, no, tell people that.' "

Winston is young, but most of the paper's employees are low on options and their situations are not as comic. Rachman's ability to home in on their defining insecurities is sharp and painful.

At 36, the highly professional business reporter, Hardy Benjamin, works hard to keep a shiftless boyfriend and sees a lonely future looming. "To this day, her father in Boston is the only person who Hardy knows esteems her. With the rest, she must be clever, must cook sublimely. Her father's affection alone is unconditional. Yet it has been years since she has returned home; she can't be in his company anymore. Each time they meet, his expression states so fixedly: how is it possible that you are still alone?"

News editor Craig Menzies is the first one in and the last to go home. "Colleagues pester him to take a break, not because they care but to underscore that he's a sucker to toil like this." He lives with a beautiful photographer who, guiltily, finds domesticity more to her liking and he tinkers with science projects in the basement, enjoying the fantasy of a big patent and a meaningful new career. "An office party approaches, and he considers not telling Annika. If she sees him among his colleagues, she'll gather what they think of him."

Then there's the unambitious obit writer whose life changes in an instant, the perfectionist corrections editor who has never given up on hero worship and the driven, narcissistic editor, Kathleen, who meets up with an old Italian beau, feeling good about herself.

"She takes unearned pride in her looks. `So funny to see you again,' she says. `Kind of like meeting up with an old version of myself.' "

And there's the paper's most faithful reader, a woman who reads every word, falling farther and farther behind, until in 2007, she arrives at April 24, 1994.

Between each of their stories Rachman traces the paper's history, a few pages at a time, from its hesitant, almost whimsical inception in 1953 to its rag-tag demise in 2007.

Cyrus Ott, a rich American businessman, founded the paper and installed an old lover and her husband to run it. At the end, his descendant, Oliver Ott, keeps the world at bay with the company of his beloved dog.

Although there are a few real tragedies among these stories, most of the pathos that links them comes out of the universal human condition of being alone in one's head. The dark comedy rises from the contrast between public posturing and private insecurity, from professional bluster and rock-bottom loneliness. Rachman, a former journalist himself who panicked at the prospect of a lifelong commitment to the field, has a rapier wit and, I suspect, no love for his former colleagues.

His novel is funny, crisply written and sad. Most readers will recognize his characters, but won't want to get too close to them.

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More The Imperfectionists: A Novel reviews
review by . June 21, 2010
The Imperfectionists is much different than any other novel I've ever read, as it doesn't really have a plot. The only plot mentioned is at the end of each chapter in the last few pages where Rachman does some storytelling. As you read through the novel, it unfolds the story of how the paper initially began with one man's desire to create an International paper in English that would circulate around the globe.      I mention the fact that this novel does not have …
review by . August 14, 2010
"The Imperfectionists" tracks the terminal decline of a fictional English language newspaper (headquartered in Rome), as its continuing slide into financial insolvency makes its extinction inevitable. The book is structured as a series of vignettes of the paper's key staffers, from obituary writer to editor-in-chief. This device allows Rachman to give a kaleidoscopic view of his main character, which is the paper itself, or more precisely the specific constellation of talent, personalities, relationships, …
review by . May 27, 2010
I was suprised by how very much I enjoyed this wonderful debut novel. Revolving around the lives of the current staff of an Enlish language daily published in Rome, the narrative is broken up by snippets from the past that give the reader greater insight into the paper than the characters themselves have. Each chapter is a short story about one of the characters; the way they weave together to tell the story of the paper itself is a delightful surprise.     Each of these vignettes …
Quick Tip by . June 18, 2010
I never thought a book without a plot could be as enjoyable as this book has been to read. Each chapter hones in on a specific character. At the end of each chapter, Rachman brings you back in time when the paper was originally coming together, the struggles and excitement of it all. It's a very enjoyable read. This book breaks a lot of rules and has a style of its own.
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Lynn Harnett ()
Ranked #183
I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … more
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Starred Review. In his zinger of a debut, Rachman deftly applies his experience as foreign correspondent and editor to chart the goings-on at a scrappy English-language newspaper in Rome. Chapters read like exquisite short stories, turning out the intersecting lives of the men and women who produce the paper—and one woman who reads it religiously, if belatedly. In the opening chapter, aging, dissolute Paris correspondent Lloyd Burko pressures his estranged son to leak information from the French Foreign Ministry, and in the process unearths startling family fare that won't sell a single edition. Obit writer Arthur Gopal, whose overarching goal at the paper is indolence, encounters personal tragedy and, with it, unexpected career ambition. Late in the book, as the paper buckles, recently laid-off copyeditor Dave Belling seduces the CFO who fired him. Throughout, the founding publisher's progeny stagger under a heritage they don't understand. As the ragtag staff faces down the implications of the paper's tilt into oblivion, there are more than enough sublime moments, unexpected turns and sheer inky wretchedness to warrant putting this on the shelf next to other great newspaper novels. (Apr.) 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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ISBN-10: 0385343663
ISBN-13: 978-0385343664
Author: Tom Rachman
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: The Dial Press
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