The Imperfectionists

Honolulu recently lost one of its daily newspapers – not unlike other cities bowing to the economy.   Employees of the paper went off to retirement, career changes, or just unemployment.

In The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman imagines the birth and death of an English language newspaper in Rome, and examines the lives of those who work for the daily.

At first, the book is impossible to follow – until you realize this is really a series of short stories – vignettes about people working and living.   Each chapter describes one of eleven lives connected to the paper – editors, writers, reporters, executives – as they strive to keep the newspaper going and have – more or less –relationships and personal lives outside the paper.   An italicized section at the end of each chapter backtracks to the newspaper’s origins, and continues to record its history over its fifty years.

The undercurrent is technology, the eventual cause of the end.   Rachman mixes humor with reality as he chronicles the lives inside the paper.  A seventy-year-old former top reporter who hasn’t graduated from his word processor, finally gives up trying to submit stories by fax.   An aspiring features editor, stuck in the obit section, uses email to bypass real conversation (around the watercooler) with his supervisor, and gets the attention of the managing editor.

Rachman takes his time through the saga, and carefully reports on each life, each with its own separate chapter; at times, one will have a cameo in another’s, or even a supporting role.  Some chapters are better than others: CFO Abbey finds herself seated next to Dave on a transatlantic flight, after she has had him fired.

Rachman neatly, sometimes ironically wraps up the ending…that CFO goes to Lehman Brothers for a more secure future.  All loose ends are tied – even the real motivation behind the paper’s genesis is revealed, and the eleven do what’s expected – retire, change careers, or not.  Most of the employees have “married based on their earning prospects, took out mortgages because of this place…they’re ruined.”   And…

“ The paper – that daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species – had never before missed an appointment. Now it was gone.”

Unfortunately, no one really cares. Life goes on. The news still gets wherever it’s headed – faster and more than you need to know.