Saturday, May 1, 2010

'The Imperfectionists,' by Tom Rachman

The true protagonist of Tom Rachman's beguiling first novel is a newspaper, never named, published in Rome but written in English and dispatched to the Earth's remotest corners, where it gives isolated readers "their only link to the greater world, to the big cities they left, or the big cities they have never seen, only built in their minds." The paper has a distinguished pedigree; its daily ration of 12 pages boasts top-of-the-line reportage; its editors and writers, after serving their time, are routinely snatched up by prestigious stateside publications.

The paper is doomed.

Circulation, never robust, has dwindled to around 10,000. Readers are dying off. Red ink is flowing. The paper's parent company is itching to offload it, and its inept young publisher thinks its only value is as a dog-food tray. For God's sake, it doesn't even have a Web site! And who needs overpaid journalists anymore when every patriotic citizen has become his own news gatherer and interpreter?

"The Imperfectionists" is about what happens when professionals realize that their craft no longer has meaning in the world's eyes (think of all those hardworking monk-scribes idled by Gutenberg) and that the only people who really understand them are on the same foundering ship, and that, come to think of it, they really loved that damn ship for all it made their lives hell.

We have, in short, a dysfunctional family of expansive proportions. Over there, by the pen cupboard: obituary writer Arthur Gopal, whose "overarching goal at the paper is indolence, to publish as infrequently as possible, and to sneak away when no one is looking. He is realizing these professional ambitions spectacularly." Herman Cohen, the corrections editor, has poured what's left of his soul into a massive style guide aimed at determining "whether a 'ceasefire' is, properly speaking, a 'cease-fire' or indeed a 'cease fire.' " Business writer Hardy Benjamin is so desperate to hold on to her young Irish boyfriend she will ignore the inconvenient fact that he's stealing from her. Spinster copy editor Ruby Zaga brushes up against strangers in public just for human touch and is still, months later, stalking the man who, in a weak moment, kissed her.

One by one, these journalists are trotted through their tragicomic hamster wheels: hope spinning toward joy, spiraling down to loneliness. This episodic structure could easily turn dreary and repetitive if Rachman weren't always finding new ways to surprise us. That tightly coiled chief financial officer, for instance -- we can well believe she hates talking to people on airplanes. ("Once, she allowed a fellow passenger to engage her in conversation and it became the longest flight of her life. He made her play Scrabble and insisted that 'ug' was a word.") But who would guess she'd make an exception for the man she has just laid off? And that their post-flight relationship would develop in ways she (and we) never expected?

In "The Imperfectionists," even individual paragraphs have a way of twisting off path. An impoverished old journalist named Lloyd Burko pauses in the midst of hunting for stories in Paris to contemplate his sexless existence. "Libido: it has been the tyrant of his times, hurling him from comfortable America all those years ago to sinful Europe for adventure and conquest, marrying him four times, tripping him up a hundred more, distracting and degrading and nearly ruining him. Yet now it is mercifully done with, desire having dwindled these past years, as mysterious in departure as it was on arrival. For the first time since age twelve, Lloyd witnesses the world without motive. And he is quite lost."

Rachman is a fine observer and a funny writer -- and a writer who knows how to be funny in character. I loved the moment when a shy young American, trying to win an overseas stringer job, confesses his reservations about Cairo: "Well, the air is kind of hard to breathe, with all this pollution. Sort of like inhaling from an exhaust pipe. The heat makes me faint sometimes. And the food isn't all that edible. Or maybe I've just been unlucky. Also, it's a police state, which I don't love. And I get the impression the locals want to shoot me. Only when I talk to them, though. Which is my fault -- my Arabic is useless. But basically, yeah, it's really interesting."

The wire-service reporter who receives this confession will later declare that "good reporting and good behavior are mutually exclusive." I think Rachman's bittersweet book makes the opposite case. Every individual, from the cuckolded news editor to the frozen-in-amber Italian baroness who's still working through newspapers from 1994, is treated with discretion and humanity. And if a certain soft-focus sentimentality clings to Rachman's elegy for old-school journalism and its practitioners, it nevertheless embodies its own principle -- namely, that craft can be its own reward. Indeed, these days, it must be.

Bayard is a novelist and reviewer in Washington.

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