Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I frequently jot down names of books that friends have recommended to me in a little notebook that I carry, often never to be looked at again.  When I was perusing the lists of the best books of 2010, The Imperfectionists was one of the titles listed, and it sounded familiar.   I paged through my notebook and, sure enough, there it was.  I can't remember who suggested it to me, but I'm glad they did because it prompted me to read this interesting work.

The Imperfectionists tells the story of a newpaper that is run out of Rome.  Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person who works for the paper.  The history of the paper itself and the family that runs it is told in two or three page snippets between each chapter.  This construct gives Rachman the opportunity to create interesting characters without having to worry too much about advancing a unified story.  And each character definitely is interesting!   One of my personal favorites is Herman Cohen, the corrections editor (what can I say, after all those years of proofing documents, I can relate!)   Cohen is up to entry 18,238 in the "Bible," his name for the paper's style guide.   When Cohen is reminiscing about how he became the corrections editor, he muses that he had a knack for it--finally, "arcane knowledge and pedantry came in handy."  Here's an excerpt from his "Bible":

"literally.  This word should be deleted.  All too often, actions described as 'literally' did not happen at all.  As in, 'He literally jumped out of his skin.'  No, he did not.  Though if he literally had, I'd suggest raising the element and proposing the piece for page one.  Inserting 'literally' willy-nilly reinforces the notion that breathless nitwits lurk within this newsroom.  Eliminate on sight--the usage, not the nitwits.  The nitwits are to be captured and places in the cages i have set up in the subbasement.  See also:  Excessive Dashes; Exclamation Points; and Nitwits."

Some of the characters have a single phrase that defines their jobs.  Cohen's catch phrase, of course, is "credibility" (his attitude being similar to that of a partner at the law firm I worked at as a baby lawyer who flipped out--literally--if there was a typo in a 100 page document.)  The catch phrase for the obituary writer is "preparedness"; i.e., having a luminary's obit written in advance of their passing.  (As an aside, this is something that I've heard talked about at the dinner table here in Punta Gorda--I am not even kidding!)

I was enjoying the book so much that it took me some time to realize that each character experiences unhappiness at some level in his or her story.  In some cases this unhappiness stems from the choices made in day-to-day life; in others, it's a by product of life itself.  In this way, Rachman adds an unexpected depth to each character. 

Rachman's style of writing chapters that could stand alone is similar to that of Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteredge, which won the Pulitzer prize for fiction.  In my opinion, The Imperfectionists is a much more enjoyable book , and I'm looking forward to seeing what Rachman has in store for his readers in the future.

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