May 13th 2010
From The Economist print edition
The Imperfectionists. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press; 272 pages; $25. Quercus; £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
FOR younger readers, stories about newspapers in their heyday may have a whiff of industrial archaeology, akin to tales about whaling or steam trains. Tom Rachman’s first novel is set in Rome, on a once-mighty American-owned international newspaper, surely quite unlike the (Paris-based) International Herald Tribune, where he used to work. The book links together 11 characters, each sharply drawn in a separate chapter. Read singly, each would be a good short story. Together they make an excellent novel.
The opening picture is of the paper’s elderly Paris correspondent, whose skills as a hack have deserted him after a lifetime of dissolution. The last is of the drippy scion of the once-formidable founding family, who fails even to announce the paper’s closure properly. In between comes an agonisingly incompetent new freelance correspondent in Cairo, a memorably ferocious pedant who guards the paper’s prose and accuracy, and the paper’s most loyal reader, an Italian nobildonna who, Miss Havisham-like, prefers ancient editions of the paper to the up-to-date issues.
Most of the characters have interestingly unhappy love lives, with neat twists to their betrayals and disappointments. Though bleakly portrayed, they still attract the reader’s sympathy, not least for their precarious, ill-paid jobs and filthy working conditions (the office carpets not cleaned since 1977, according to the paper’s lore). One longs for them to leave and get proper jobs.
Novels about journalism by journalists tend to be strong on score-settling and colour, but rarely survive the feuds they describe. Mr Rachman’s escapes that category. Though it lacks the transcendent absurdity of Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” (1938), it could sit well on a bookshelf next to Michael Frayn’s “Towards the End of the Morning” (1967), which so vividly captured the feel of the old newspaper industry in the 1960s, on the brink of its television-led transformation into the power and prestige of the “media”.
This novel describes the final echoes of the newspaper story: dedication and ambition fighting a losing battle against backbiting and cheeseparing, and ending in a largely unlamented closure. Readers will look forward to Mr Rachman’s next novel. They may hope he picks a more cheerful theme.
Thursday, May 13, 2010