The leading candidate for my favorite novel of 2010 is “The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman. Equal parts funny and poignant, the novel revolves around a fictional English-language newspaper in Rome.
Rachman organizes the novel so that each chapter relates the story of a different person associated with the newspaper in one way or another, from stringers in foreign capitals to the editor-in-chief to an eccentric reader. And between these chapters, he traces the history of the newspaper itself at key moments from its founding in the 1950s to the present.
As a journalist who worked at a newspaper something like the one in the novel — the International Herald Tribune — Rachman understands the news business. He gets the details right. For example, he writes: “The greatest influence over content was necessity — they had holes to fill on every page and jammed in any vaguely newsworthy string of words, provided it didn’t include expletives, which they were apparently saving for their own use around the office.”
But at the same time, Rachman knows that the last thing the world needs is another novel glorifying the passions and crusades of journalists. Instead, he delves into the personal lives behind the bylines — the quirky, emotionally damaged individuals who make up the world, not just the newspaper industry. Highlights include the “corrections editor,” Herman Cohen, a veteran in charge of the paper’s stylebook, dubbed “The Bible,” which during his tenure has ballooned to 18,238 entries. Herman also produces the paper’s monthly newsletter, in which he mercilessly “decants his favorite blunders from the paper.”
Another classic character is the “reader,” Ornella de Monterecchi, who is perhaps the paper’s most dedicated — and deluded — follower. You see, Ornella started reading the paper in 1976, but unlike most people, she reads it like a book, word for word from beginning to end. “She read every article and refused to move on until she was done, which meant that each edition took several days to complete.” As a result, it is 2007, but Ornella is still reading the news from 1994.
The two examples I’ve given are humorous at first blush, but Rachman gracefully leads us from the light to the dark with the turn of a page. In addition to the gradual or sudden dissolution of individual lives, the paper itself is in decline, a victim of changing habits and technological change. In an era when newspapers focus most of their creative and entrepreneurial efforts on digital media, the paper in “The Imperfectionists” doesn’t even have a website. When the subject is raised, Herman, the corrections editor, quickly dismisses it with this gem, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.”
In the end, Rachman has written something like an elegy for the newspaper. It’s not that newspapers generally are dying — far from it — but that a certain way of publishing them is dying. I know exactly what he’s saying, but even if you don’t work in the business, you’ll understand.