The Imperfect 'Imperfectionists'

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The Dial Press

When I picked up Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, his novel about the staff of a failing English-language newspaper in Rome, I couldn't help thinking about Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, the hip-hop album from the Georgia rapper that lives up to its insanely boastful title. It's not just because of the titles. Both works aim to take Ray Bradbury's great line how important it is "to behold beauty yet perceive its flaw" and reverse it, insisting that glory's in the cracks. I wish Rachman's novel was as good as Cee-Lo's album. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

But if you're going to write a novel that is, at its heart, about the end of an era in journalism, it feels like a bit of a cop-out to make all of your characters pathetic in some way. In Rachman's world, the Paris correspondent is a lame, fabricating drunk; the business reporter is an older woman, settling for a man who mocks and uses her; the editor is humiliating herself pursuing an old flame; one candidate for a Cairo stringer position is hopelessly inexperienced, the other a horrendously selfish bastard; the copy editor is passive-aggressive; the news editor is betrayed; the chief financial officer fires the wrong person when asked to make layoffs and somehow thinks he'll forget she's responsible; the publisher is the weakest scion of a failing business line.

Only the culture editor has anything truly likable about him. He starts out as a deeply unambitious man, in part because he's too in love with his daughter to care about anything else. But when he goes through a truly wrenching family tragedy, he discovers ambition as his compromise. Doing good work isn't without cost in that chapter, but there's a nobility in his choice. He starts out as one kind of pleasant, flawed man, and turns into another.

Journalism isn't dying because the people who work in the industry are all cravens and fools. It would be convenient and comforting if that were true because then all you'd have to do is swap out the bad folks for good ones, and everything would be fine. But that's not remotely the case. Rachman's novel doesn't want to deal in any substantive way with the reasons the news business is undergoing monumental change, and so he settles for an easy solution, and for unpleasant characters. If Rome is supposed to be a microcosm, the paper just one example of what's happening to us all, then The Imperfectionists shares the same flaw Rachman thinks the newspaper business does. The novel doesn't see further than the city, and it sees the people who populate it with a crooked eye. It doesn't make for perspective, or even for exceptionally good entertainment.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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