The Imperfectionists (Tom Rachman) – an insight into a newspaper that’s maybe not so fictional

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The Imperfectionists (Tom Rachman) book cover

‘news’ is often a polite way of saying ‘editor’s whim’

Given the shift from print to online and e-ink, maybe Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists was a suitable first first book for me to finish reading on the Kindle.

Considering the economic pressures on the newspaper industry, his novel perhaps captures the spirit and soul of a trade that is spinning down the plug hole, soon never to be seen again: a Lake Wobegon of the newspaper trade, complete with its neuroses and foibles.

Each chapter sketches in aspects of the life of a particular member of staff (and one reader) in the unnamed English-language newspaper based in Rome. At times the vignettes overlap, providing contradicting perspectives or extending a particular storyline.

There’s the obituary writer Arthur Gopal whose “overarching goal at the paper is indolence, to publish as infrequently as possible”. He sneaks out of the office during afternoons to pick up his young daughter Pickle from school and takes her to explore antiques shops. But a trip to Switzerland to gen up on a dying feminist engenders in him an unexpected enthusiasm.

Ruby Zaga, a copy editor, is 46 and has only ever worked at the paper. She’s given the boring pages to check and describes the rest of the copydesk team as a “coven of losers”. Her insecurity extends to never staying at home on New year’s Eve, but instead dressing up as an American business women and checking into a hotel pretending to be “stuck overseas during the holiday”.

The working life of news editor Craig Menzies overshadows the talents and ambitions of his biddable girlfriend Annika. A gifted photographer, her life shifts into a different gear when Craig givers her yoga lessons and a subscription to a photography magazine for her birthday. In fact, her life accelerates away from Craig’s cosy existence, and leaves him humiliated.

Throughout the book, the Chief Financial Officer, Abbey Pinnola – nicknamed ‘Accounts Payable’ – is built up as a harsh, prickly bean counter, hiring and firing newspaper staff, before showing her human side and being dealt her comeuppance.

But perhaps the best vignette is reserved for a reader – Ornella de Monterecchi – who got a little behind with her newspaper reading due to her OCD need to read every paragraph on every page before being able to start the next edition.

One year into her newspaper reading, she was six months behind … When it was the 1990s outside, she was just getting to know President Reagan. When planes struck the Twin Towers, she was watching the Soviet Union collapse.

Finally the future of the paper lies in the hands of the American publisher Oliver Ott who prefers the company of his basset hound Schopenhauer to answering phone calls from the struggling paper.

The quality and intricacy of the writing at times prevented the book becoming a rapid page turner. There was a real balance between wanting to soak in the detail and race through the plot to see if and how the threads would be tied up.

Malachi O'Doherty and Tom Rachman

Born in London and educated in Vancouver, Toronto and New York, Tom Rachman was an editor on the foreign desk at The Associated Press before reporting from Asia and taking up a posting in Rome. Later he worked part time as an editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris which may have influenced this first novel, though apparently didn’t influence the characters!

Tom Rachman was in Belfast two months ago, “in conversation” with Malachi O’Doherty. As the BBC’s Writer in Residence at Queen’s University, Malachi has been filling rooms at Queen’s and the BBC with members of the public interested in hearing what a long line of local, national and international media personnel have to say about their profession.

Brad Pitt’s production company bought the film rights for The Imperfectionists and Scott Silver has been hired as screenwriter. In the meantime, a second novel – with an international flavour but not set in the world of journalism – is due to be completed this year.

Tom Rachman is certainly an author I’ll return to, and if the film version can pull off the quirky characters in the Rome newspaper office it’ll be compulsive viewing in the QFT!

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  • Rory Carr

    ‘news’ is often a polite way of saying ‘editor’s whim’

    Long before Murdoch and Leveson and Tom Watson came to public conciousness Orson Welles had, with Citizen Kane, alerted us to the outlandish notion that “news” might be little more than the whim of a ruthlessly ambitious propietor, or indeed even a proprietor’s confection spun to serve that ambition.

    To award editors with such privelege would be to condemn them as abusers of an authority which in reality they exercise only at the behest of their lords and masters.

  • http://diaryarticles.blogspot.com/ articles

    Have a look at Michael frayn’s “Towards the end of the morning” and Lawrence Donegan’s “No news at Throat Lake” – the former is about Fleet street and the later about a rural paper in Donegal. Both are by Guardian reporters past and present.

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    articles – will take a look. thank goodness you didn’t recommend Scoop!

  • http://diaryarticles.blogspot.com/ articles

    Both of them are in the same class, first, as Scoop. And Evelyn Waugh, whom I have sat beneath, takes some equalling and is never beaten.