Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is either a series of tightly connected short stories, or a novel with very distinct voices and plots in each chapter, but whatever its exact form, it follows the staff of a declining international newspaper through the decline and inevitable fall of their paper (and the industry).
An aging and nearly destitute correspondent in Paris, Lloyd, sets the scene in the opening chapter as he struggles to find any story worthy of publication. His editors remind him that stories must be about War or Terrorism to be published, and not, as he hoped, about the mating pattern of a Parisian bird (or something like that). The reader is invited to feel further pity-mixed-with-scorn (what’s the word for that?) as we learn that Lloyd has no email or internet through which to file his stories and must instead run down the street to fax things from a corner shop. In his antiquated and hilarious attempts to stay relevant the reader is invited, in this first chapter, to the setup of the rest of the book: the newspaper, like Lloyd, is trapped thirty years earlier. It has failed to innovate (it doesn’t even have a webpage!), failed to secure new investment, failed to be the right kind (of media) for the moment.
The rest of the book follows this same trajectory. Each chapter introduces a new character from the paper – from the Business writer to the Accounts Payable staffer through the editor and publisher – and in each chapter the heartbreaking failures and compromises and betrayals of each character is set up to both stand alone and to stand in for the paper itself with varying degrees of success. The chapter, for instance, that follows a loyal reader as she steadfastly reads the entire paper cover-to-cover, refusing to know the news of the current day, and so finds herself fifteen years behind the present, is a bit on the nose for the failure of the newspaper itself to keep with the current moment.
What stood out to me was how entirely pathetic and entirely depressing each character and chapter turned out to be. Marital betrayals, dead children, sexual propositions refused, all manner of humiliations abound. Most marvellous, perhaps, is the creative ways Rachman finds to make each character suffer in a uniquely quotidian and yet exceptionally painful way. Though I do think cheating and affairs appear more than once, the rest of the time the tragedy that befalls each character is remarkably unique though similar enough in that it is always a consequence of their willingness to ignore the obvious ways in which they are been used, manipulated, lied to, etc. (*cough* yet another stand in for the paper and their concentrated effort to ignore its inevitable decline).
Which is to say it’s not a cheery book, even while being objectively funny and engrossing. I admired it for the specificity of setting, of the narrative structure of shifting (but obviously thematically overlapping) perspectives and the invitation to explore the inside of an ‘industry in decline’ (as they say). So nothing outrageously brilliant or like rush-out-your-door-to-read-it, but certainly worth your time if you stumble upon it, or have the masochistic desire to feel Sad About The State of Things (though tbh, you hardly need a novel about the decline of the newspaper industry to get you to that point).