The Imperfectionists begins with a seventy-year-old man in Paris listening to his wife come home after spending the night with the man across the hall. And that’s just paragraph two of the first page. This is the first of many, many tragicomic humiliations Tom Rachman deals out in 269 pages. And I’m afraid they are going to be itching away under my skin for a while now.
Would I be so perturbed if I weren’t a writer myself? Would it bother me so much to see the newspaper business being skewered? Would it bother me if Rachman weren’t so young? If he didn’t show some affection for the dinosaur of the daily paper? If he weren’t such a darn good writer? If my father hadn’t been a newspaper reporter? Don’t read this one, Dad. You’ll only find it upsetting.
The structure is very clever. The characters all work at or for an unnamed English-language newspaper published from Rome. It was founded in the 1950s by an American industrialist and kept alive as part of the family corporation for more than fifty years. Each chapter, titled like a newspaper article, is virtually a short story, focusing on one character. We start with the Paris stringer, a hopeless old hack, and move on to the obituary writer, a business reporter, etc. etc. Their stories become intertwined and you begin to understand the personalities and relationships of the newsroom much as you would by working there. Rachman is very acute, homing in on his characters’ vulnerabilities, self-deceptions, strengths and weaknesses. He is not, thank goodness, mean.
So did I like it? I’m the wrong person to ask. In a way The Imperfectionists is like one of those English satires — Lucky Jim, perhaps, or A Fairly Honourable Defeat — that treats its inhabitants awfully harshly for my taste. Granted, Rachman is more humane than either Kingsley Amis or Irish Murdoch, but we are laughing at rather than with people here. (It’s much kinder, though, than Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, which would be the obvious comparison.) And while I can see the humor, I have a lot of trouble laughing at people I feel sorry for. Case in point: the Roman matron who is reading the newspaper, cover to cover, day by day. Her English is so bad that she is close to twenty years behind. Funny, right? She goes batty when the carefully hoarded issue of April 23, 1994 does not appear with the rest of the filed copies. When you find out why, you’re kind of stunned. (Little tour de force, BTW, as Rachman has her flick through decades’ worth of headlines.)
Oh, it’s good, no question about that. Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive. “The paper — that daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species — had never before missed an appointment. Now it was gone.” Sorry, it’s hard for me to call that comedy.