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The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

9th January 2012

*I received a copy of this book from Random House when I attended a tea there during BEA.

At first glance, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is a book about the men and women behind an international newspaper. In and of itself, that’s a great topic. There’s something intensely romantic – to me – about the newspaper, and I have to admit that I loved this book.

However, The Imperfectionists is more than a complex collection of stories. Each gives a glimpse into the life of an editor, journalist, or publisher, while peripherally adding to characters mentioned in other stories and simultaneously telling the story of the newspaper and its origins. Cyrus Ott, in the early 50s, starts an international (and unnamed) English-speaking newspaper to be near a woman he loves. Rachman doles out Ott’s and his subsequent heirs’ stories, as they continue running a paper with a decreasing subscription and an increasingly difficult market.

What Rachman has done I find interesting on a lot of levels. On one hand, his storytelling is similar to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in terms of each chapter being told by a different character. The subject matter, on the other hand, is quite different. The Imperfectionists takes a stark look at these characters’ lives – an old man, Lloyd Burko, who once wrote for the paper and is now desperate for work, pitching stories without any success; a middle-aged man, writing obituaries and ducking out of work early to be with his young daughter, Pickle; a news editor who shouts “Vigilance!” and builds up his best friend, only to realize he himself is the bigger man; Ruby, a woman so miserable, she sabotages herself at work but who actually loves her job.

I could easily tell you this book has moments of humor, love, and intense sadness, but the best way I can describe The Imperfectionists is to tell you it is an amazingly human novel. The writing pulls forth the mundane and exalts it, indicating that Rachman finds many aspects of life interesting. No one person stands out; instead, together, they work to make a combination short story collection and novel that impressed me, both in the telling and the writing.

A few of my favorite quotes:

“My past – it doesn’t feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It’s as if the present me is constantly dissolving.” – Gerda Erzburger, feminist writer, to obituary writer Gopal.

“A couple of months later, Herman receives an email from Jimmy. It is long and rambling, full of philosophizing and poetic citations. Which is another way of saying he’s in splendid spirits with his daughter in Temple, Arizona.

The email, for no reason Herman can articulate, upsets him. He sees no reason to write back, and perhaps that is why.” – Herman Cohen

Other posts:

The New Dork Review of Books

Rhapsody in Books

Newsline Magazine