Review: The Imperfectionists
A brilliant new novel from America fits comfortably into the well-crafted tradition of dramatising the journalistic life.
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Hack in the box: Russell Crowe in the 2009 movie State of Play based on a BBC series about a fictional newspaper
Tom Rachman's novel about life on an international newspaper, a down-at-heel version of the International Herald Tribune, starts out as a book about journalists, a world away from the hacking scandal. But this may be misleading. It is really a set of stories about corporate life, its frustrations, loneliness and office politics, ending up as a thoughtful, moving meditation on the passing of time, the relations of children to their parents, lost loves and failure.
Each chapter follows a character, usually a journalist on the newspaper, and in just a few pages captures his or her life. These characters then weave in and out of other chapters so that, by the end, you have a sense of the whole newsroom, from the editor to the chief financial officer, down to the hopeless would-be stringer in Cairo.
Alternating between these chapters is a series of short episodes, chronicling the history of the newspaper from its founding in Rome in 1953, to its attempt to survive in the modern age of the internet and 24-hour news channels.
Rachman has a real gift for capturing a life in a few sentences. When we first meet Arthur Gopal, the obituary-writer, his "cubicle used to be near the watercooler, but the bosses tired of having to chat with him each time they got thirsty. So the watercooler stayed and he was moved." Hardy Benjamin is the business reporter: "By mid-afternoon she has written a thousand words, which is greater than the number of calories she has consumed since yesterday." Ruby Zaga, the copy editor, is in her mid-40s. These are the contents of her fridge: "a jar of black olives, no-name ketchup, cheese slices." It gets worse. Much worse.
Rachman gets inside the heads of his characters, male and female, young and middle-aged, and in no time you are wrapped up in their bitter-sweet stories of broken marriages and careers that have stalled on both sides of the Atlantic.
The newspaper ends up as an aggregate of failed lives. The journalists treat each other appallingly. At the end of the day, "most slip out one by one; they stagger their departures to avoid having to share the elevator down."
This is always deftly done. In the first chapter, we meet the news editor, Craig Menzies. The main character in the chapter is trying to pitch a story to Menzies. Menzies is always at his desk, whatever time the desperate journalist calls.
As each chapter follows, Menzies is at his desk: first in, last to leave. By the time he finally has his own sad chapter, we already know all we need to know about his life.
The final chapter tells us more about the newspaper's founder, why he founded the paper, whom he loved and from whom he fled. We realise the book has taken us through the 50-year life of the newspaper, and brought to life a moving cast of characters. By turns, funny and desperately sad, Rachman's always readable novel is a terrific debut.
David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer