Much has been made of late of the so-called death of journalism. College students are actively discouraged from pursuing news writing as a career, layoffs at big-city papers make daily headlines, and news media report the ascendency of “citizen journalists” who report on (and analyze) the news on countless blogs and websites.
But what of the people behind those headlines, even the headlines reporting the demise of their very livelihood? They’re the subject of Tom Rachman’s exquisitely structured debut novel, THE IMPERFECTIONISTS. Readers who have never worked for a newspaper will soon have intimate knowledge of the kind of panicked intensity and back-office backstabbing that goes into putting together a decent paper 365 days a year. And those who are, or have been journalists (or really writers of any kind), will immediately recognize the simultaneous tedium, terror, and fleeting pride that characterize the professional writers’ livelihood.
Tom Rachman should know that life well; he spent years on the staff at the International Herald Tribune. The paper at the heart of THE IMPERFECTIONISTS is also an English-language daily, staffed primarily with American and British expats, living in (and alternately loving and loathing) Rome, where the paper is based. As outsiders of a sort, the newspaper’s staff is flung together even more so than they would be at a domestic daily, resulting in the kind of interdependency and mutual resentment characteristic of large, sometimes dysfunctional families. As time passes, and the paper’s future seems increasingly tenuous, the staff grows ever more desperate, their feuds more petty, their determination to do their job well still the top news story. “Journalists were as touchy as cabaret performers and as stubborn as factory machinists,” one character muses, and their stories vividly bring this truth to life.
Each of the chapters of THE IMPERFECTIONISTS reads like a wonderfully developed stand-alone short story. There’s the copy editor who is still working at the same desk (and wearing the same clothes) as when she joined the paper 20 years earlier, simultaneously longing to escape and pining to stay. There’s the news editor terrified of his impending irrelevancy, both personally and professionally. There’s the paper’s most loyal, if perpetually tardy, reader. And, in what’s probably the most devastating story, there’s the obituary writer forced to confront a personal tragedy impossible to distill into a single column.
Throughout, these individuals’ stories set during the Bush administration alternate with the history of the paper’s formative years. These anecdotes underscore the not-always contradictory drives for idealism and profits that impelled the paper’s founders to do the work they did, and that --- underneath all the squabbling, the disappointments, and the strain --- still compel the contemporary newspapermen and newspaperwomen to do the work they do, right to the bitter end. Individually, these stories are brilliant character studies, portraits of professionals on the brink of change or paralyzed by stasis. As a whole, they provide a compelling collage of a group of people drawn together by journalistic ambition and shared purpose, driven apart by politics and changing landscapes, united (even when they don’t want to be) by the ink on the fingers and the deadlines hanging over their heads.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011