A Pitch-Perfect Look At An Imperfect Newsroom: Jill Shtulman on The Imperfectionist by Tom Rachman


The Imperfectionist, Tom Rachman, The Dial Press, 2010

The Imperfectionists is so darn good that it’s hard to believe it’s Tom Rachman’s freshman effort. With fascinating, wry and intelligent characters, masterful writing, and a timely theme, it easily stands as one of the finest debut novels I’ve read lately.

Each chapter stands on its own – think In Other Rooms, Other Wonders or perhaps Then We Came To An End– but when woven together, the chapters create a “big picture” of hapless individuals who collide with each other while wrestling with their own imperfect selves.

Within these pages, you’ll meet maddening, lovable, and decidedly flawed executives, reporters, copy editors and stringers who form the staff of a dying English-language international newspaper situated in Rome. There’s not a false note to be sounded. Tom Rachman actually inhabits each character, gently breathing life into him or her. As a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome, he clearly knows his territory; one suspects he has encountered these types of characters throughout his career.

There’s the aging Paris correspondent Lloyd Burko, an anachronism of a reporter, who still relies on faxes instead of emails and is willing to sell his very soul for another front-page byline and an influx of money. And he very nearly does; he pressures his estranged son who works for the French Foreign Ministry to “give him something, anything”…and what he gets is not what he expects.

In one of the more poignant stories, there’s obituary writer Arthur Gopal, son of a famous journalist, who will do just about anything to slack off until he unexpectedly encounters a heart-breaking personal tragedy and with it, a burning desire to excel once more.

There’s Abby, aka Accounts Payable, a lonely executive who finds herself unexpectedly seated next to Dave Belling, the lone copy editor she recently fired, on an international trip to Atlanta. Throughout the long flight, the two of them connect at a most personal level and upon landing, Dave is able to extract his revenge in a most humiliating manner.

And in one of the most enjoyable, laugh-out-loud vignettes, there’s Winston, a naïve Cairo stringer, who doesn’t have a clue as to how to sniff out and develop a story. He is manipulated big time by his competitor for the position – Snyder, a middle-aged egotist who coerces him into giving up his laptop, his hotel room, and indeed, his potential of a job with the paper.

These are just a few of the characters that inhabit these pages; others are the workaholic editor Kathleen; Herman, the copy editor who has assembled an 18,000+ entry corrections guide he calls “The Bible”; an obsessed reader who is a decade behind on her reading of the paper and determined to catch up; the introverted, dog-obsessed unlikely publisher and his magnificent basset hound, Schopenhauer – eleven wondrous characters in all.

Each of these characters is perfectly realized and as authentic as life itself; you can almost feel the grimaces and the sweat, the anxieties and the desperation, the personal tragedies and triumphs. The Imperfectionists is not only a window into the lives of those who make up a newspaper, it is also a reflection of current times, when news has become entertainment and Web sites have replaced printed pages.

Interwoven into these vignettes is the story of the history of the newspaper – its impulsive founding, its legacy standing for sons and grandsons of the Ott family, and its dwindling ability to survive in a world that rushes to the immediate gratification of online sources.

Purchase The Imperfectionist

Ownership & Perspective: Diane Greco on Karl Iagnemma’s The Expeditions


the-expeditions

The Expeditions, Karl Iagnemma, Dial Press

The trouble with the family saga—or its great strength, depending on your point of view—is that one never really knows whose story it is. This problem is a double one, of ownership as well as perspective. How fitting, then, that Karl Iagnemma’s debut novel, The Expeditions, should be just such a doubled story of a prodigal son and the father who quests after him instead of waiting as such fathers usually do for the son’s return and that the story should be set in the American West of the early nineteenth century, when questions of ownership were never far from the minds of anyone engaged in the struggle to subdue the West and, of course, make it profitable.

As the novel opens, sixteen-year-old Elisha Stone, aspiring scientist and son of a preacher, has run away from home to join an exploratory expedition from Sault St. Marie. Nominally in search of a new species to discover, Elisha is actually just a young man in search of a mentor, a calling, and ultimately, himself. His father, a minister struggling to sustain his faith after the loss of his beloved wife, journeys after Elisha in search of a version of himself that he can reconcile with his wavering religious faith. “The life of sin,” Reverend Stone realizes, in a moment of clarity about his own failings, “was like a solo sail into an endless ocean, rootless and undirected,” (196) an observation with which Elisha would surely agree, except that for him the “solo sail” is a source of excitement, an opportunity for discovery. The towns through which Reverend Stone passes are hotbeds of religious oddity, packed with seers and mystics who rap tables and claim to speak with the dead, while the wilderness in which Elisha seeks his fortune seethes with strange flora and fascinating fauna—not to mention Native Americans, whose customs and language are a special point of interest for both father and son.

For the most part Iagnemma deftly handles the difficult history of the colonization of North America, in particular the violence and greed that fueled it. At the same time, the story is a classic father-son struggle that, being old as Oedipus, doesn’t really require the myths and history of the American West for its narrative power. Nonetheless, by linking the two strands, Iagnemma enlarges the old father-son theme, seeing it as a crisis of authority that is similar to those that comprise more familiar heart-mind dilemmas, as when the ordinary progress of normal science intersects with vicissitudes of popular religious belief. (Think of Galileo and the Church, or the fortunes of evolution in Kansas public school curricula.) Iagnemma, a mechanical engineer by training and a research scientist at MIT, is on familiar ground here; his 2003 short story collection, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, explored similar ideas.

Despite his sympathy for scientific idealism, he is not blind to the corruption to which science, like any endeavor, is vulnerable, in virtue of being a human project and not something else. In the end, Iagnemma wisely refuses to take a side in this old debate. Instead, he transcends the argument, giving up on both science and religion as sources of authority. While Iagnemma’s resolution to this dilemma is not new, his embrace of the independent authority of art, of responsible workmanship married to aesthetics, is satisfyingly well done. Staging a photograph on a city street after the titular expeditions have ended, Elisha reflects that “There would be a moment […] when the sun’s low glare would set the scene alight, and the soot and mud and grime would vanish into a shimmering golden light, unlike anything else in nature, unlike anything except itself.”

*

Diane Greco is a novelist whose work has appeared, most recently, in Fence and the Saint Ann’s Review. She lives in Providence, RI.