Ahead of his latest novel The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Tom Rachman’s debut, The Imperfectionists, about people reading and writing for an international newspaper in Rome, gets a New Zealand release.
The Imperfectionists is a series of portraits that follow characters from the mid-20th Century onwards; that range from the mansions of the paper’s founders to the hapless graduate in Egypt trying to get a freelance correspondent job. The result is a dynamic and enthralling series of tales that is intelligent and satisfying. The stress of midnight deadlines and the flits of news that span from the 1960s to the present day are contrasted with the quiet pathos of corner offices and broad-grinned satire about journos and their ilk.
The international paper in Rome is mostly staffed by Americans in love with the idea of Rome and breaking the best world stories for their devoted readers. The reality becomes more painful when the paper ignores the internet and their readers are, rather literally, dying off. The legacy of the paper becomes a vanity project that its wealthy benefactors can hardly keep up and the office becomes fraught with the knowledge of its impending demise. We see the happier days of the paper in chapters set in earlier decades and the romance that tinged print journalism.
The newspaper is a great premise for the work, but the real joy of The Imperfectionists is how well it portrays office dynamics and the relationships that are forged through the workplace. One character’s desk is moved away from the water cooler so people can avoid having to speak to him, another character fumes over her special swivel chair she waited six months for being stolen between shifts. It would take a hard heart to not be gripped by the awkwardness of a character in accounts realising they’re stuck on an eight hour flight with a colleague that they’ve just laid off to save funds. There are characters that are instantly recognisable in our own lives and Rachman offers intelligent insights into their lives without alienating us from their troubles or falling into cliche. The nightshift sub-editor who indulges in the myth of leading a glamorous life to family in America while leading a lonely existence and the overachieving business reporter who falls in love with a scrounger are disarmingly honest and wonderfully entertaining.
The Imperfectionists is a superb exercise in creating nuanced and gripping perspectives and Bachman exhibits devotion to his characters that drive the narrative. Rachman achieves a lot with a small amount of pages for each character that demonstrate the considerable talent that Rachman is. There is a refreshing lack of self-consciousness by Rachman in writing a work that entertains the reader intelligently without trying to assert its own literary gravitas.