Review | The Imperfectionists – When News Was Printed With Ink On Paper

Book: The Imperfectionists

The iPad has been tempting me to try buying eBooks to eRead in my copious sPare time.  Last night I happened to catch an episode of the Canadian culture and current events show Q that included a very positive review of The Imperfectionists: A Novel by Tom Rachman.

As a former English major, I’ve avoided reading serious novels for decades; I’ve read a couple of books in recent years that featured that cutesy scribbled-script kind of font with whimsical names like “The Lost Weekend of Cooking In Provence” or “The Lumpy Girl’s Guide To Off-Putting Personal Hygiene” and that was about it for “chick lit” for me.  And frankly, I didn’t love them as much as the art directors and the review-blurb writers did.  I’ve also avoided most serious fiction and non-fiction, although I do enjoy the occasional foray into historical biographies.  That Samuel Pepys, for example – what a party animal! He really knew how to report a story, and put the journal in journalism, too.

Anyway, I decided I’d try reading something I hadn’t read before, go out of my usual habit or comfort level for reading. Meanwhile, the second “The Girl Who…” novel sits on my bedside table: an actual book, and it’s something that has to be tackled when I’m in the mood for violent modern suspense novels, but not soon.

So after hearing this enthusiastic review on Q of what sounded like a Book of the Year, or the Decade, I decided it was a good candidate for my first paid-for e-book (stylebook: is it eBook, e-book, ebook? These things mattered to me once, and they may again) I used the Kindle app that my husband David recommended over Apple’s own application, iBooks.

I’ve been reading some free books via both apps, and it feels more comfortable and less busy-crazy-making to read on the Kindle, now that I’ve figured out that a single light tap on the right or left margin will slide the page, rather than the vigorous swipe that iBooks seems to expect.  The iBooks app also shows the mini-icons for bookmarking, changing font size, etc. constantly, while the Kindle only shows them if you tap in the center, between the two pages. Otherwise, they don’t appear, and the page (or pages) are nicely readable in either portrait or landscape mode, with no distracting graphics. Just text, in an easy to read size with a decent amount of whitespace between the lines. The iBooks app looks cluttered to me now, because there’re little border graphics that look like “page edges” just like in a “real” book.

So after seeing several news stories about the supposed death of old-fashioned journalism and/or newspapers, and one beguiling obituary of an old-fashioned journalist who might have inspired a character in this book, it seemed the stars had aligned. I downloaded “The Imperfectionists” and began reading last night.

Structurally, it has a jumbled timeline, and each chapter gets inside the head of a different character associated with “the paper,” an unnamed international publication based in Rome that sounds like a combination of the news bureau Gregory Peck worked for in “Roman Holiday” and the International Herald Tribune (which is a subsidiary of the New York Times now, and has its own iPad app). The author worked at the IHT for a couple of years and wandered the globe as a correspondent, so he knows the world he creates for this novel.

Each character shines, in all his or her imperfect glory, for the reader for a brief chapter before departing the stage, to be replaced by another character. Some of them are heartbreakingly flawed – bitter, lonely people who refuse to blame themselves for their own failures. Some of them are opaque; what makes them tick? Is it love of the heart, love of words, or love of getting a byline on the front page? Some of them are maddening, and deserve to be shaken.

Sometimes it’s clear what happens to the current protagonist when the chapter ends, sometimes it becomes clearer a few chapters later when another character offers some kind of insight on them – they all circulate in and out of each others’  lives, and chapters. The passage of time is even more compelling as the characters and their time at “the paper” come in piecemeal, like copy filed just before deadline that must be put into some kind of order before each page and section can be put to bed. It’s up to the reader to put the stories in their proper order, and work out how the personality of “the paper” changed through the years as the publishers, editors, stringers and reporters came and went. It’s all a grand, glorious Puzzle-Wuzzle.

I haven’t quite finished the book; I thought the NYT review started to give the ending away when I went there just now to verify something so I clicked away quickly. Try doing that with a pile of moldy newspapers and books!  But I’ve enjoyed every chapter, even the ones covering characters that are completely unlikeable, unloveable… and fascinating.

This is writing at its best — character studies that would flutter the page with their breathing if I were reading a hardbound or paperback book.  As it is, they fairly dance amongst the pixels, each in their own era.

The lively, yet unexplained postwar beginnings of “the paper” crackle like an unfiltered Old Gold, with the crystal ashtrays and the “discreet” bar in the corner of the newsroom. The middle years reference huge international stories in the background, while the editorial staff struggle to send or find someone to cover them, and the reporters try to expend as little effort as possible doing so. The later years get to the Iraq War, modern cell-phone and laptop journalism, and a sense that the newsroom has literally seen better days (the stains on the carpet could tell a story of their own of office potlucks and “scoop” parties that got out of hand).

I’m about 3/4 done with the book, and I have to say I can’t wait to see which character steps out of the background next — or whether it will be a completely new character, not yet conceived or introduced.  I also have to say that I’ll be sad when I finish this book, because part of its charm is teasing the story of “the paper” out and re-composing it in my head, from optimistic past to grubby present to uncertain future.

The personality of “the paper” shifts a bit as each publisher, each editor-in-chief comes and goes. Money is often a problem, and so is creeping apathy and excuse-making (as in, writing stories that the shrinking readership ought to want to read, rather than reporting news that might attract new readers).  I’m looking forward to finding out why the enigmatic founder started it in the first place, but I’m guessing it has to do with heartbreak, missed chances, and regret. I’m also looking forward to finding out what the dynamic present-day editor-in-chief will do to try to restore “the paper’s” reputation and credibility — and whether the seeming inevitability of web and mobile content over printed paper will revive it, or prove fatal if not handled well.

Meanwhile, there’s still a few new people to meet. More later.

UPDATE: I’ve finished, and I was right, I’m sad that it’s done. It’s all over with a whimper, not a bang; my least favorite character of all was also the one that was necessary to balance the others out and bring the narrative to a close. There’s a wrap-up chapter that covers all the unresolved characters’ fates.

I was right about why the paper was originally started, although I didn’t really articulate it in so many words. It’s clear that the family dynasty associated with the paper, from the founder father to absentee owner son to emotionally absent grandson, was incapable of making complete human connections. This inability to connect, or facility to make disastrous connections, was a theme with nearly everyone in the book. Some dealt with it more gracefully than others.

I’ll be thinking about these people for a while. They’re not easily characterized characters, that’s for sure.

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