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Since, way back in the 1990s, I got to read all the new fiction I wanted for free (i.e. I was the assistant to the book review editor at New York Magazine), I have a real hang-up when it comes to buying new books. What that means is I often read no books, since I like to consume fresh media, and the New Yorker is always drifting on my bedside table. Last week I felt disgusted with myself for becoming one of those parents who no longer reads so I bought Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists at Book Court. No less than Christopher Buckley, on the front page of the Times Book Review made it sound like just the satire of the newsy world I needed.
This first novel by Tom Rachman, a London-born journalist who has lived and worked all over the world, is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off. I still haven’t answered that question, nor do I know how someone so young — Rachman turns out to be 35, though he looks even younger in his author photo — could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles. The novel is alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, and it’s assembled like a Rubik’s Cube. I almost feel sorry for Rachman, because a debut of this order sets the bar so high.
I regret the purchase. It isn’t funny.
The title should have tipped me off. Why all these The _________ist constructions? I loved The Anthologist, but even then it struck me as a generic title. In this case I practically had to describe every chapter to the clerk before it rang a distant bell. I certainly never would have come up with the title. Why not The Paper? Or What Not To Do in Rome? The lack of oompf of the title proved to be true of the whole novel.
The Imperfectionists tells the take of the rise and fall of an unnamed English-language daily in Rome, each chapter told from the point of view of a different disaffected staff member. Obit writer, copy editor, publisher, and so on. Their cumulative stories created a narrative arc of sorts—can the paper survive the digital age?—but since the conclusion was forgone at the start there was no tension. Each chapter read as a character study, some more within-the-fevered-brain than others, packing in quirky traits and bad romances as asides over coffee, white wine, cocktails. I always thought I would write a novel, but in each attempt I founder on plot. Rachman’s strategy read to me like the feint of a professional feature writer. I may be flattering myself too much, but we tend to be good at detail and voice, but we can’t make it go.
Now I wonder, should I buy Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom? Or just let it come to me? I also loved the chapter published in the New Yorker. But you just can’t trust these book reviewers (see, another The _________________ist!). They don’t have to pay.