Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Read All About It! Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists

Every single person we pass each day has a story, a history, one that’s rich with broken hearts, broken dreams, personal triumphs and secrets. Regardless of how hard-hitting, aloof, or kind-hearted these people may seem, no doubt there are many layers that lay beneath the surface of their lives layers we likely never get to see. Since it would probably be too overwhelming for us to consider, we don’t too often reflect on those hidden depths. But Tom Rachman’s debut novel The Imperfec-tionists (Dial Press, 2010) does. He examines with thoroughness many of those layers as they exist in a colourful assortment of characters.

The Imperfectionists revolves around an English newspaper in Rome circa 2007. The novel reads likes a series of short stories. It profiles the staff members, plus one reader, of the paper. Each chapter is dedicated to cracking open the life of one of the characters and then relentlessly showing us what makes them tick. While many of the characters play supporting roles, in the novel's multiple chapters, they soon become misunderstood colleagues outside of their section. The chapters themselves get linked together with excerpts of the paper’s beginnings. From its Mad Men-like origins in the 1950s, by founder Cyrus Ott, to the present day, run by Ott’s uninterested grandson Oliver, The Imperfectionists deftly explores the challenges that so many papers face today in competition with their online counterparts. (Rachman, born in London, England, raised in Vancouver, Canada, is a journalist himself, having worked in both Rome and Paris.) But it also begs the question: Just how reflective is The Imperfectionists to the realities of Rachman’s former colleagues? Or is Rachman just onto something much deeper. Are these tragedies isolated to one’s profession, or to one’s lifestyle?

While I was drawn to the novel’s themes: a European backdrop, employees of media, and of course, an emotional biopsy of the characters who possess this seemingly glamorous lifestyle, I was also taken aback by the depressing number of cuckolded men and humiliated women who populated the pages. Even those established professionals who were respected did not quite have it together. But the opening chapter belongs to Lloyd Burko, an aging correspondent based in Paris. A talented man, who is quickly becoming irrelevant and outdated – he refuses to adopt an email address and he still faxes his stories to main office – Lloyd struggles to contribute his next breaking story. His Parisian apartment, younger wife and prestigious profession are just part of a foil: an outer skin that is beginning to peel, showing the reality of his four marriages, his current wife’s open “friendship” with a neighbour, his estranged children, and the fact that he is broke.

Other dishonoured men include Winston Cheung and Craig Menzies. Cheung, a young foreign correspondent based in Cairo, allows an obnoxious, aggressive egomaniac to walk all over him. Taking no stance, Cheung pouts about his troubles to the object of his affection: a woman who is romantically preoccupied with said egomaniac. Menzies, a respected news editor, also irritates anyone who values pride. After his girlfriend’s lover e-mails a nude photo of her to his entire office, Menzies does not defend his pride, or himself, but accommodates the actions of his defector.

The female characters are not spared from hardship or humiliation either. Hardy Benjamin, for example, is an intelligent, but sadly desperate business reporter whose slacker boyfriend embarrasses, exploits and steals from her. Even the Editor-in-Chief, Kathleen Solson, possesses both an adulterous husband and regret over a lost love.

Author Tom Rachman
Not lacking for tragedy in their lives, a few characters still emerge respectable. Arthur Gospal, an obituary writer devoted to his daughter, faces a life-changing incident and later emerges with dignity. Herman Cohan is a grammar-obsessed, anal retentive copy editor at work, but a devoted husband and friend in his private life. When visiting with his grandchildren, he “never corrected their grammar” regardless of “how much they abused the English language.”

For the most part, however, both the characters and the struggling paper itself seem to demand a great deal of sympathy. (Note that I said sympathy, not empathy, which unfortunately removes all dignity.) The infuriating, frustrating, depressing mess that the protagonists seem to wallow in is greatly disconcerting. Upon further meditation, it occurred to me: maybe this is just real. Whether our tragedies are kept silent, or if they are circulated via email, they are there, making us who we are.  Perhaps Rachman is simply more in tune with what life is like: a series of tragedies and humiliations no one is untouchable from.

Tom Rachman obviously knows journalism, but he knows people even better. It takes someone with an obvious love for others to recognize that a hapless past often lies beneath us all. In other words, Rachman creates idiosyncratic and realistic characters in our image. What I found truly unique about The Imperfectionists was its underlying philosophy: the world is truly what you make of it. The method in which each of Rachman’s “imperfectionists” handles their challenges ultimately determines their fate – including the fate of the paper itself. Those who are able to transcend those challenges emerge proud and with a happy retirement (Herman Cohan) or with a respected promotion (Arthur Gospal). Those who fail to muster up the courage, dignity or self-imposed reality-check they need, maintain their position in an unfulfilling cycle. Even the paper’s lack of leadership, that makes it vulnerable to the 24-hour online news bites, eventually contributes to its demise. While Rachman’s portraits are frustrating and painful to read about, especially if you are of the survivor type, they are important insights into what make us, and those around us, tick. We are all imperfect. It’s what we do with that imperfection that truly matters.

 -- Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library. 

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