These days, print-lovers are often decried as fetishists. The implication being, if you still fancy reading a real newspaper and getting inky fingers, you aren’t entirely different from someone who licks boot-bottoms. At the very least, you’re an incorrigible nostalgic. Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists, is neither fetishistic nor entirely nostalgic: It’s a strikingly efficient, slim saga of the rise and demise of an English-language newspaper headquartered in Rome, seemingly modeled after The International Herald Tribune.
In less than 300 pages, Rachman spans half a century and a generation of Otts—one of those old-timey clans who bequeath things like estates and newspapers to their grandchildren—all while pulling the puppet strings on a cast of characters whose circumstances coalesce by the novel’s end in a Robert Altman-esque quiet flourish. In fact, Rachman writes cinematically, but not in the usual sense. His prose is propelled by quick edits. He cuts to scenes like a screenwriter, with paragraphs leaping forward in time without a page-break to prepare readers for the jolt. The reportage style gives the novel a clickety-clack newsroom buzz befitting its subject.
In fact, an argument could be made that Rachman’s book isn’t a novel, but really a series of interlinked short stories. Each chapter is given a news headline and a central figure—usually someone employed by the paper, or tangentially related to them (readers, lovers, etc.)—and these chapters are separated by interludes chronicling the paper, from its founding by the Otts to its floundering via the passage of time. What might seem like a contrivance at first glance actually creates a palpable rhythm that evokes the segmented, fractured existence of these displaced people trying to nail down the story—any story—that will finally distill their lives.
Whether inhabiting the nervous obsessions of corrections editor Herman Cohen or the cool self-drive of editor-in-chief Kathleen Solson, Rachman displays an almost acrobatic facility with different voices. At times he overreaches—the segment in Cairo is a bit far-fetched; the dialogue between the paper’s CFO and a recently fired employee feels exaggerated—but that never slows the momentum. The Imperfectionists is a lovingly rendered tribute to a increasingly bygone era, and a page-turner for those still in thrall to turning them.