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Tom Rachman: The Imperfectionists

For some time, KevinfromCanada has been recommending that I read The Imperfectionists (2010).  A few weeks ago, my wife and children went on a trip leaving me home alone.  I had just finished Maile Meloy’s wonderful short story collection and, sadly, nothing I had on my shelves appealed at that moment (when my wife and children leave, nothing much is appealing, I’m afraid — I’m hopeless that way).  Kevin and I had been corresponding and he said it was time to read Rachman’s book about a quirky bunch of imperfect people (who would remind me of some of the people I run into in my profession, he told me) who work for a respectable niche international newspaper based in Rome — this book, he assured me, was just what I was looking for.

My profession, incidentally, isn’t related to journalism at all — Kevin’s was; however, Kevin was exactly right.  Despite the slightly unfamiliar professional world in which these characters roam, the characters themselves were very familiar.  Journalism, in a way, is almost incidental, though its fall emphasizes the decline in the character’s lives. 

Told in a series of character vignettes, The Imperfectionists is mostly about disappointed professionals who for the past several years have almost put their humanity on the back burner while dedicating their lives to a declining industry.  Of course, they’re as human as any of us, and it is in revealing their hidden desires, fears, and pain that Rachman really succeeds — and this is also, by the way, a very funny book.

Rachman’s first vignette focuses on Lloyd Burko, the paper’s Paris correspondent:

He opens the window, breathes in, presses his knees into the guardrail.  The grandeur of Paris — its tallness and broadness and hardness and softness, its perfect symmetry, human will imposed on stone, on razored lawns, on the disobedient rosebushes — that Paris resides elsewhere.  His own is smaller, containing himself, this window, the floorboards that creak across the hall.

Sadly, Burko is already over the hill when the book begins.  Later, in one of the snapshots from the paper’s first fifty years, we hear of Burko’s promise in the field of journalism.  Then we see he is one of the paper’s stars.  But in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, Burko is old and dried up — it’s been a long time since he’s had a story.  Strange for someone who lives in Paris. 

Incidentally, the floorboards the creak across the hall make the sound because that’s where his wife is.  Across the hall lives the much younger, richer man with whom she’s having an open affair.  She and Burko have discussed it.  At his age, they have decided, he wants her more for companionship, but she of course needs more.

The headline of this piece is “Bush Slumps to New Lows in Polls.”  This gives us a nice feel for the time period, but, as is the case with all of the chapters’ headlines, it also gives us a sense of what is happening in the chapter itself.  Burko’s new low is tremendously low as he desperately seeks out a story, knowing if he doesn’t have one he won’t be able to pay his rent, will have to move, and will do so alone.  It’s terribly sad to see a star – someone I admired due to the way Rachman treats him — do what he does here.  We sense bitter failure from the outset, and then we watch it unfold.

The book’s next chapter, “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126,” about the obituary writer Arthur Gopal, is very different.  Here we meet someone who has never been a star:

Arthur’s 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.  Now his desk is in a distant corner, as far from the locus of power as possible but nearer the cupboard of pens, which is consolation.

Arthur is having some writing trouble as well, and here we see some of Rachman’s dark humor about the profession:

No one has died.  Or, rather, 107 people have in the previous minute, 154,000 in the past day, and 1,078,000 in the past week.  But no one who matters. 

However, for Arthur, that is not a problem.

That’s good — it has been nine days since his last obit, and he hopes to extend the streak.  His 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.

Arthur hates his job because it takes him away from his home and his beloved daughter.  When asked to write the obituary of Gerda Erzberger, who is not yet dead, Arthur hates the prospect of spending a few days away from home while he interviews the obituary’s subject.  But he goes.  Gerda figures out quickly that he is writing her obituary.  She doesn’t mind but rather waxes philosophical about life and death, at times hitting close to Arthur’s life:

“I always disdained those who made children.  It was the escape of the mediocre, to substitute their own botched lives with fresh ones.  Yet today I rather wish I’d borne a life myself.”

This story takes a tragic turn that makes Arthur one of the paper’s new workaholic stars as he takes over his department and places his old boss near the watercooler. 

The stories, I found, were always interesting.  Some begin with great lines that quickly make the character recognizable:

When she realizes that Nigel is having an affair, her first sentiment is satisfaction that she figured it out.

Others have unique yet strangely familiar concepts, like the one about a reader who began subscribing to the paper decades ago.  Her problem is that she has never learned how to read a newspaper and feels compelled to read every line.  Consequently, though it is 2007, she is just up to 1994.  Her big news is the Rwanda genocide and Cobain’s suicide.  She doesn’t allow new technology she hasn’t heard of in her home, so so much for the iPhone.  As fun and quirky as this piece is, like the rest it touches on familiar human foibles with great insight and no small degree of tenderness.  Rachman obviously loves these characters — and the newspaper industry — though he doesn’t allow that to prevent him from exposing their failures with clear strokes.

The book has its failings (just like its characters).  One of my biggest problems with it was that sometimes Rachman’s dialogue doesn’t feel natural and starts to sound like a device to get some information out there quickly for the reader.  This is very apparent when Arthur Gopel is interviewing his obituary candidate:

“But my point, you see, is that death is misunderstood.  The loss of one’s life is not the greatest loss.  It is no loss at all.  To others, perhaps, but not to oneself.  From one’s own perspective, experience simply halts.  From one’s own perspective, there is no loss.  You see?  Yet maybe this is a game of words, too, because it doesn’t make it any less frightening, does it.”

This quote goes on for a while.  And it may be understandable that an old woman about to die would go on and on, it becomes apparent that in all that jabbering Rachman is setting up the remainder of his story.  It comes out a bit superficial.  This problem is not invasive, but it does mar a book that is for the most part mature, well balanced, nuanced, and insightful.

Perhaps it was that sort of problem that has made the book seem much less accomplished than it actually is.  Many who love it qualify their love for it, and I’m not sure that is necessary.  Though I can understand its exclusion (it may not have even been submitted) for its exclusion from the Booker longlist, in my opinion its a wonderful book that is both serious and funny and accomplished.  Rachman is writing about something he cares a great deal about without making it a sentimental journey for the reader.  A book this tender and open, despite its shortcomings, instills welcome life in contemporary fiction.  I’ll put Rachman with Meloy — as long as they are writing, we have good reading days ahead of us.

10 thoughts on “Tom Rachman: The Imperfectionists

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Hear, hear. Case in point: if this hasn’t been submitted for the Booker, a) shame on the publisher; if it has, b) it is far better than The Slap, for example (I can prove this in a court of law etc) and therefore it is to the shame of the judges (who are a pretty ropey bunch in any case, Motion aside) that it hasn’t been included. It is, in every way, a superb piece of work. Just swap this for, say, the Rose Tremain – how much more exciting is that Booker list? Farrago!

  2. selena says:

    Ahhh, it sound brilliant (imperfections included.) I can’t wait to finish vacationing and come home to this book.

  3. It is interesting how some (not all, but quite a few) of Rachman’s characters keep coming back to mind. You are quite right that in addition to the funny parts, there is a consistent exploration and development of pathos that lives on.

    And while it may have missed the Booker, we can still hope it makes the Giller long and short lists. :-)

  4. kimbofo says:

    Glad you enjoyed this one, Trevor. Kevin tipped me off about this book a few months back because I have a “thing” about novels about journalism. I found it an entertaining read, but I’m not sure it’s a novel worthy of inclusion in the Booker list.

  5. Frances says:

    Absolutely! Just recently finished this one and could not have enjoyed it more. While the scenarios could be under-valued for their simplicity if just given a cursory glance or read-through (washed up careers, unfaithful partners, the lonely), the real genius of the book lies in the attention to details in the character portraits. Amazingly real and more than circumstances might suggest.

  6. Trevor says:

    I agree, Frances (and, I’m afraid, disagree with Kim’s last statement). I think there is more to this book than many of the Bookers I’ve read in years past, and that’s discounting the enjoyment scale (I certainly enjoyed it more than either the Mitchell or the Carey this year).

    I am not surprised to see it off the list, but I think its exclusion could be because it doesn’t “sound” literary. So many books that try to sound literary, but lack so much that this book has, find themselves on awards lists. I hope Rachman doesn’t change.

    Also, I’m hoping, with Kevin, that we see it on the lists come Giller time.

  7. kimbofo says:

    Aha, how did I know you wouldn’t agree with my statement, Trevor ;-)

    Please don’t get me wrong: it’s a terrific, entertaining novel peopled with fascinating, realistic, occasionally funny, occasionally sad characters. But having read the book back in early June I really cannot remember much about it; it’s not a “sticky” read and that to me is a measure of its prize-worthiness or otherwise.

    I’m sure Rachman’s got a wonderful career as a novelist ahead of him, and I really look forward to seeing what he comes up with next!

  8. Tony S. says:

    I thought ‘The Imperfectionists’ was great, but I also think that Rose Tremain is one of the world’s most magnificent writers. If you remove someone from the longlist, don’t remove Rose Tremain.

  9. Trevor says:

    Kim, a good point about the “sticky” read we hope for in prize winners. I finished The Imperfectionists about a month ago now, and it is sticking for me, but we’ll see how it fairs in a few months.

    Tony, I’ll make sure Lee never gets on a prize jury where he’ll have the ability to oust Tremain. At least, until I’ve read her. Then, if I agree with him, no promises :)

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