Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Imperfectionists: All In A Day's Work

Joshua Ferris pretty much cornered the market on the "workplace novel" a few years ago with his story of a Chicago ad agency titled Then We Came To The End. But Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists stands rather adequately on that novel's shoulders, advancing the theme that we never really know anything important about the folks with whom we spend 40-plus hours a week. However, where Ferris's novel was funny, with the occasional instance of sentiment, Rachman's novel is more sad and sincere — with a touch of humor sparingly sprinkled about.

It's a just-right mix, though, to tell us about the lives of these lonely journalists, toiling away at a failing English-language newspaper in Rome. We get 11 path-crossing vignettes describing the lives of 11 people. There's the lonely copyeditor who spends New Year's Eve in a hotel room drinking by herself, all the while dousing herself with the cologne of the married man she's obsessed with. There's the young journalist trying out for a stringer position in Cairo, and soon realizing he's in way over his head. And there's the overworked news editor who has overachieved in his love life, snaring a beautiful woman 14 years his junior. But can he keep her interested?

At the center of these beautifully rendered character studies is a paradox: The newsroom encompasses the entirety of the world in terms of access to and dissemination of information. But yet those who inhabit that newsroom on a day-to-day basis, reporting the goings-on across the globe, are some of the most lonely, troubled people you've ever met. They are constantly making messes of their personal lives, cheating on their spouses, and sweating their careers. Journalists are a different breed, to be sure — and job-related stress, especially in this age of declining newspaper readership, adds to the plight of these characters, but also to the delight of the novel's reader.

This is a great novel, covering a wider breadth of themes — ambition, mortality, experience, love, loneliness — than you'd think possible in such a slim book. Near the end of the novel, Rachman describes a character reacting to a painting: "(The artist) flubbed it, not simply because his human forms were inept but because the human form can never be rendered beautiful." Part of what makes this novel great is that Rachman doesn't try to render characters beautifully. He emphasizes their flaws, and that's what makes them more interesting.

Four out of five stars for The Imperfectionists. Minus one only because one or two of the vignettes aren't quite as compelling as all the others.


  1. Greg, Nice review. This one sounds like something I should add to my book shelf.

  2. I love stories that have intersecting lives! It sounds like it's got a couple of fave ideas for me: expat life and the weird characters that you encounter in the workplace. Now I live in one, expat communities fascinate me. It's like living in a village within a city, at least it is here in Taipei. I will be keeping my eye out for this one. Thanks for the awesome review.

  3. 'The newsroom encompasses the entirety of the world in terms of access to and dissemination of information. But yet those who inhabit that newsroom on a day-to-day basis, reporting the goings-on across the globe, are some of the most lonely, troubled people you've ever met.'

    Wonderful review. That's a great description of this book. I read it about a year ago and enjoyed it, although I remember feeling a bit cold at the end, as it didn't offer all that much hope for the future. I enjoyed the character vignettes, and the subtle overlaps in the stories in the newsroom - underscoring how superficially we might know our colleagues, especially those in different departments or at different levels in the business hierarchy. The state of journalism and printed news today might not leave all that much to hope for, but I'd like fictional works exploring such themes to reach beyond the obvious mourning of the printed past and somehow find hope in innovative revival, or another medium, in the future. As far as glimpses into the characters lives and obsessions, the stories were subtle and heartfelt, cutting to the core hopes and insecurities we all cope with as humans, and I'd recommend the book for that reason. 

  4. I really enjoyed this book, and agree with your reasoning for 4 out of 5: while I found some of the vignettes incredible, there were about two that weren't at that level.

  5. @Brenna - It's not quite as funny as Ferris, but if you're interested in journalism, it's a can't-miss!

    @Kath - Yeah, that idea of the ex-pat community and the pseudo-isolation from the surroundings is definitely prevalent theme in The Imperfectionists. It sort of manifests itself as part of the notion of how lonely all these characters seem to be. But, you're right, it is a fascinating idea and fertile ground for good literature! (Have you read Arthur Philips' Prague? Good exploration of that idea there, too!)

    @zeteicat - Great point about the lack of hope at the ending. In fact, my biggest annoyance with the novel was the "where are they now" section at the end. I wanted to be permitted to imagine what happened to each of these characters on my own. And as far as the changing face of media world itself, there is some room for hope, but I think this story serves as somewhat of a cautionary tale of what happens when a newspaper holds stubbornly to the old ways and doesn't evolve - I mean, it didn't even have a website! ;) Still, a great nvoel!

    @thezebracactus - Which two were the lesser in your mind? To me, it was The Reader and Arthur.

  6. Greg, great review. I didn't realize Then We Came to the End was about an ad agency, though I've heard it is a wonderful book. I know less about the journalism industry (is that a real phrase?), but I'm intrigued.