"Write what you know" is an unattributed admonition that has brought forth many a bumper crop of tight-leashed, tarmac-trapped first novels. Tom Rachman must have had that dire warning against over-excursioning in view at all times, tattooed on his screen saver.
Rachman is a journalist. He is, in fact, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, has served as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, and worked as an editor at the International Herald Tribune. In his debut novel, The Imperfectionists, there are no unearned imaginative flights, no indulgent Icarus risks. He reports scrupulously on a world he knows: the messy lives and staccato decline of journalists and journalism, and their reciprocal failures, flaws, and fulminations. Far from perfect -- Rachman has given himself an eponymous out -- it is a solid, smart book of humbly restrained ambition.
The Imperfectionists weaves together the birth, tiny peak, and lurching demise of an English-language newspaper in Rome and the self-destructive empire of the journalists who mess up their lives as they grind out their stories -- all of them bound by a common, fatal romantic attachment to the craft. Indeed, it's a shared world of immolation; the newspaper, till the end, never has a website.
The paper, which is unnamed -- allowing it to function both as a character and a symbol -- was founded in the middle of the last century by Cyrus Ott. Ott, a vaguely Charles Foster Kane-ish industrialist, is somehow inspired to create "an international English-language newspaper. Based in Rome and sold around the world." His motivation is revealed at the end, but we have our earlier suspicions.
The paper's history, and the Ott family's saga, are told through a series of quick, italicized introductions to each chapter. It's a device that gives the novel a supple tension; stitch them all together and they represent a narrative through-line of the newspaper's life, beginning in 1953 and ending in 1997, when the paper is put out of its decaying misery and majesty.
Following each of these somewhat breathless set-pieces are chapters that roll out the newspaper's cast. Each of them is titled with a headline that speaks in newspaperese, with a corresponding byline. There are 11 of them, clever conceits like "Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls" by Paris Correspondent Lloyd Burko, and "The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists" by Cairo Stringer -- Winston Cheung.
The risk of a novel about journalists is that there are so many default archetypes that the characters end up as clones, barely if at all genetically modified. Rachman takes the bait, and we've got a procession of biscotti-cutter characters. Spouses cheat, dreams are beached. No one gets what he wants; careers that are loathed end up with a shimmery beauty only when they are lost or threatened. There's the burned-out Paris stringer Lloyd Burko, whose younger wife seeks sexual companionship with their neighbor. There's the naïve stringer, the rogue foreign correspondent, the penny-pinching number-cruncher.
And there's the corpulent copy editor, Herman Cohen, who has served in every editorial role over 30 years and takes perverse satisfaction in compiling an internal document called "Why?" "a monthly internal newsletter in which he decants his favorite blunders from the paper." Rachman, like many others, is a designated mourner of lost standards. Herman loves the paper despite, or perhaps because of, its imperfections; I wish Rachman rose to that noble sentiment better than this flat book-flap prose: "To his mind, it was the publication that a weathered novelist or a spy might fold under his arm."
Many of these chapters are glumly predictable and lazily written. Descriptions are largely nouns on the move: "bicycles huddle," "weeds clamber," "light slices." Rachman's character descriptions are mostly 2x4 thuds. "No matter the time of day, Menzies is at his desk. The man has nothing in his life but news."
Rachman also struggles with the omniscient narrator technique, injecting value judgments like a medieval priest bestowing indulgences. He has a fondness for the cheap aphorism: "If history has taught us anything … it is that men with mustaches must never achieve positions of power." His dialogue can be clumsy and veer into too easy wit: "Hardy is on a diet that started, roughly, at age twelve. She's thirty-six now and still dreaming of butter cookies."
But sometimes Rachman finds his voice and stretches. Arthur Gopal, an obituary writer, journeys to Switzerland to interview a dying feminist icon. While he's away his young daughter is killed in an accident. The doppelgangers of death are beautifully handled. As is Gopal's awkward return to the newsroom and the curious comfort its sad spiral gives him: "Several cubicles are empty nowadays, the former occupants long retired but never replaced, their old Post-its fluttering whenever windows open." Abandoned Post-its. Write what you know.
Eventually, Gopal's long and loving obituary is shrunk to a column because of an editorial decision to feature a novelty story -- the death of a serial exaggerator. "World's Oldest Liar Dies at 126" is the sadly arch title of the chapter, at once mocking tabloidism while underscoring the tragedy of Gopal's own experience with life cut short. It gives me hope that Rachman can learn to live with the elliptical, to bury the lede.
Meanwhile, these personal agonies track against the parallel writhing of the newspaper industry. This won't be news to most readers, but Rachman treats it like a business magazine feature. "Newspapers were spiraling downward," he writes. "Competing entertainments abounded, from cellphones to video games, from social-network sites to online porn. Technology was not merely luring readers; it was changing them." Rachman, meet Pound: Old Ezra wrote "Literature is news that stays news." Not "Literature is old news that stays old."
Over time, the Ott family starts to fall apart. Its reputation is sullied by corruption, fraud, toxic spills. Money grows tight. Eventually, they send Oliver Ott, the fragile and weak-kneed grandson of the founder, who was useless in any of the family's other holdings, to run the newspaper. But Oliver never shows up for work, preferring to rattle around as a kind of Oscar Wildean dilettante in the long-shuttered mansion where Cyrus had lived and died. Oliver's comfort and confidante is his beagle Schopenhauer, and he speaks directly to him, the soliloquies serving as clumsy narrative exegesis. In one scene, the genetically pallid heir, who has never read a single issue, uses the paper as a placemat for his pet. "Once the plate is clean, Oliver scrunches up the paper, specked with gravy and goblets of gristle." There's a lot of this dramatic overkill.
Finally, subvention is no longer possible. The Ott board forces Oliver to show up and tell the employees the ride is over. He trembles at the thought and brings his dog for companionship, although he leaves him outside the conference room. The best he can muster is "I'm totally useless at this sort of thing -- they shouldn't have given me the job in the first place." When he's finished with his task, he rushes out of the room, only to find a limp Schopenhauer, his neck twisted by an embittered employee.
Like the crawl in a movie that is "based on a true true story," the final italicized chapter tells us what happens to all the characters. Everyone is scattered -- to a lobbying job, to primate research, back to journalism in America, to international finance. Arthur Gopal "to everyone's surprise … got the most prestigious job, moving to New York as a reporter for a major newspaper." The device is too tidy by far; nothing in this book is left to the imagination.
The Imperfectionists never surprises. By the time Oliver stumbles upon a letter which reveals that Cyrus Ott really started the newspaper because he was in love with Betty -- one of the two editors he hired to run it -- our expectations have beaten him to the discovery. When a canned copyeditor seduces the CFO who fired him, simply to humiliate her, she's the only one who doesn't see it coming.
And Rachman could have made more of the period he chose. Rome in the late 50s and 60s is the city of Fellini and Pasolini, of cultural chaos, post-war liberation and crushing poverty. But this ferment and creativity are absent from The Imperfectionists -- it's a strangely sanitized Italy of quaint restaurants, streets, and bars.
The Imperfectionists is a novel written by a newspaperman for people who love newspapers. It is forthright and buttressed; written by someone who gets the lede and the nut graph. It doesn't really truck with post-modern contrivances. But despite its, yes, imperfections -- and they are not insubstantial -- there is something unexpectedly moving about this novel. It took me a while to figure out what that is. Rachman cares about his broken-down, dream-busted characters. He actually loves them and grieves for them in an unabashed way that is totally unironic, uncool, uncontemporary. And he loves his profession, too, which is dying as irremediably as Schopenauer. He cherishes the fading, radiating sound waves of impact that a certain kind of journalism once had. The thump-jump-thump of the manual typewriter, scotch neat, nailing an exclusive: these are Rachman's idea of sweet. In one of his better paragraphs, he writes straight out of his uncontained omniscience:
Admittedly, the paper's readership is only about ten thousand people nowadays, but at least they are passionate. And the postmarks come from all around the world, which is heartening. For many… the paper is their only link to the greater world, to the big cities they left, or the big cities they have never seen, only built in their minds. The readers constitute a sort of fellowship that never meets, united by loved and loathed bylines, by screwed-up photo captions, by the glorious corrections box.
Tom Rachman has written an obituary disguised as a novel.
Read an Excerpt
"Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls"
Paris Correspondent-Lloyd Burko
Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks. He steadies himself on the knob and shuts his eyes. Chill air rushes under the door; he curls his toes. But the hallway is silent. Only high-heeled clicks from the floor above. A shutter squeaking on the other side of the courtyard. His own breath, whistling in his nostrils, whistling out.
Faintly, a woman's voice drifts in. He clenches his eyelids tighter, as if to drive up the volume, but makes out only murmurs, a breakfast exchange between the woman and the man in the apartment across the hall. Until, abruptly, their door opens: her voice grows louder, the hallway floorboards creak-she is approaching. Lloyd hustles back, unlatches the window above the courtyard, and takes up a position there, gazing out over his corner of Paris. She taps on his front door.
"Come in," he says. "No need to knock." And his wife enters their apartment for the first time since the night before. He does not turn from the window to face Eileen, only presses his bald knees harder into the iron guardrail. She smoothes down the back of his gray hair. He flinches, surprised to be touched.
"Only me," she says.
He smiles, eyes crinkling, lips parting, inhaling as if to speak. But he has no reply. She lets go.
He turns finally to find her seated before the drawer where they keep old photographs. A kitchen towel hangs from her shoulder and she wipes off her fingers, damp from peeled potatoes, dishwashing liquid, diced onions, scented from mothballed blankets, soil from the window boxes-Eileen is a woman who touches everything, tastes all, digs in. She slips on her reading glasses.
"What are you hunting for in there?" he asks.
"Just a picture of me in Vermont when I was little. To show Didier." She rises, taking a photo album with her, and stands by the front door. "You have plans for dinner, right?"
"Mm." He nods at the album. "Bit by bit," he says.
"What's that mean?"
"You're shifting across the hall."
"You're allowed to."
He hasn't resisted her friendship with Didier, the man across the hall. She is not finished with that part of her life, with sex, as Lloyd is. She is eighteen years younger, a gap that incited him once but that, now he is seventy, separates them like a lake. He blows her a kiss and returns to the window.
The floorboards in the hallway creak. Didier's front door opens and shuts-Eileen doesn't knock over there, just goes in. Lloyd glances at the phone. It has been weeks since he sold an article and he needs money. He dials the paper in Rome.
An intern transfers him to the news editor, Craig Menzies, a balding worrier who decides much of what appears in each edition. No matter the time of day, Menzies is at his desk. The man has nothing in his life but news.
"Good time for a pitch?" Lloyd asks.
"I'm a tad busy, actually. Could you zing me an e-mail?"
"Can't. Problem with my computer." The problem is that he doesn't own one; Lloyd still uses a word processor, vintage 1993. "I can print something and fax it over."
"Tell me by phone. But please, if possible, could you get your computer working?"
"Yes: get computer fixed. Duly noted." He scratches his finger across the notepad, as if to tease out a better idea than the one scrawled there. "You folks interested in a feature on the ortolan? It's this French delicacy, a bird-a sort of finch, I think-that's illegal to sell here. They stick it in a cage, poke out its eyes so it can't tell day from night, then feed it round the clock. When it's full up, they drown it in Cognac and cook it. Mitterrand ate one for his last meal." "Uh-huh," Menzies responds circumspectly. "But sorry, where's the news?"
"No news. Just a feature."
"You have anything else?"
Lloyd scratches at his pad again. "How about a business piece on wine: sales of rosé outstripping white for the first time in France."
"Is that true?"
"I think so. I still have to double-check."
"Do you have anything more timely?"
"You don't want the ortolan?"
"I don't think we have space for it. It's a tight day-four pages in news."
All the other publications Lloyd freelanced for have dumped him. Now he suspects that the paper-his final string, his last employer-is looking to send him away, too.
"You know our money problems, Lloyd. We're only buying freelance stuff that's jaw-dropping these days. Which isn't saying yours isn't good. I just mean Kathleen only wants enterprise now. Terrorism, nuclear Iran, resurgent Russia-that kind of thing. Anything else we basically take from the wires. It's a money thing, not about you."
Lloyd hangs up and returns to the window, gazing out at Sixth Arrondissement apartment buildings, white walls dirtied where rain drizzled and drainpipes leaked, the paint peeling, shutters closed tight, courtyards below where residents' bicycles huddle, handlebars and pedals and spokes jammed into each other, zinc roofs overhead, capped chimney pipes streaking white smoke across white sky.
He walks over to the closed front door and stands still, listening. She might come back from Didier's unbidden. This is their home, for Christ's sake.
When the dinner hour arrives, he bangs about as clamorously as possible, crashing the door into the coatrack, simulating a coughing fit on his way out, all to ensure that Eileen across the hall hears him leaving for his supposed dinner plans, although no such plans exist. He simply will not sit down for another charity meal with her and Didier. He wanders down Boulevard du Montparnasse to kill time, buys a box of calissons to give to his daughter Charlotte, and returns home, as stealthy now as he was noisy before. When he enters the apartment, he raises the front door on its hinges to dull the squeak, clicks it gently shut. He doesn't turn on the main light-Eileen might see it under the door-and fumbles in the kitchen, leaving the fridge ajar for illumination. He opens a can of chickpeas and digs straight in with a fork, catching sight of his right hand, which is mottled with age spots. He switches the fork to his left hand, the decrepit right thrust deep in his trouser pocket, hugging a thin leather wallet.
Been broke plenty of times. Always spent better than he saved. On tailored shirts from Jermyn Street. Cases of Château Gloria 1971. Shares in a racehorse that almost landed in the money. Impromptu vacations to Brazil with impromptu women. Taxis everywhere. He takes another fork of chickpeas. Salt. Needs salt. He drops a pinch into the can.
At dawn, he lies under layers of blankets and bedcovers-he doesn't use the heating anymore unless Eileen is here. He'll visit Charlotte today, but doesn't relish it. He turns on his other side, as if to flip from her to his son, Jérôme. Sweet kid. Lloyd flips again. So awake, so weary. Lazy-he's become lazy. How did that happen?
He forces off the covers and, shivering in his underwear and socks, makes for his desk. He pores over old phone numbers-hundreds of scraps of paper, stapled, taped, glued in place. Too early to call anyone. He grins at names of former colleagues: the editor who cursed him out for missing the first Paris riots in '68 because he had been drunk in the bathtub with a lady friend. Or the bureau chief who flew him to Lisbon to cover the coup in '74, even though he couldn't speak a word of Portuguese. Or the reporter who got the giggles with Lloyd at a Giscard d'Estaing presser until they were flung out and upbraided by the press secretary. How many of these ancient numbers still work?
The living-room curtains brighten gradually from behind. He parts them. The sun is not visible, nor clouds-only buildings. At least Eileen doesn't realize his money situation. If she found out, she'd try to help. And then what would he have left? He opens the window, breathes in, presses his knees into the guardrail. The grandeur of Paris-its tallness and broadness and hardness and softness, its perfect symmetry, human will imposed on stone, on razored lawns, on the disobedient rosebushes-that Paris resides elsewhere. His own is smaller, containing himself, this window, the floorboards that creak across the hall.
By 9 a.m., he is trooping north through the Luxembourg Gardens. By the Palais de Justice, he rests. Flagging already? Lazy bastard. He forces himself onward, over the Seine, up Rue Montorgueil, past the Grands Boulevards.
Charlotte's shop is on Rue Rochechouart-not too high up the hill, thankfully. The store isn't open yet, so he wanders toward a café, then changes his mind at the door-no money to waste on luxuries. He gazes in the window of his daughter's shop, which is full of handmade hats, designed by Charlotte and produced by a team of young women in high-waisted linen aprons and mobcaps, like eighteenth-century maids. She arrives later than the posted opening time. "Oui?" she says upon seeing her father-she only talks to him in French.
"I was admiring your window," he says. "It's beautifully arranged."
She unlocks the shop and enters. "Why are you wearing a tie? Do you have somewhere to go?"
"Here-I was coming here to see you." He hands her the box of candies. "Some calissons."
"I don't eat those."
"I thought you loved them."
"Not me. Brigitte does." This is her mother, the second of Lloyd's ex-wives.
"Could you give them to her?"
"She won't want anything from you."
"You're so angry with me, Charlie."
She marches to the other side of the shop, tidying as if it were combat. A customer enters and Charlotte puts on a smile. Lloyd removes himself to a corner. The customer leaves and Charlotte resumes her pugilistic dusting. "Did I do something wrong?" he asks.
"My God-you are so egocentric."
He peers into the back of the shop.
"They're not here yet," she snaps.
"Your workers? Why are you telling me that?"
"You got here too early. Bad timing." Charlotte claims that Lloyd has pursued every woman she ever introduced him to, starting with her best friend at lycée, Nathalie, who came along for a vacation to Antibes once and lost her bikini top in the waves. Charlotte caught Lloyd watching. Thankfully, she never learned that matters eventually went much further between her father and Nathalie.
But all that is over. Finished, finally. So senseless in retrospect-such effort wasted. Libido: it has been the tyrant of his times, hurling him from comfortable America all those years ago to sinful Europe for adventure and conquest, marrying him four times, tripping him up a hundred more, distracting and degrading and nearly ruining him. Yet now it is mercifully done with, desire having dwindled these past years, as mysterious in departure as it was on arrival. For the first time since age twelve, Lloyd witnesses the world without motive. And he is quite lost.
"You really don't like the candies?" he says.
"I didn't ask for them."
"No, you didn't." He smiles sadly. "Is there something I could do for you, though?"
"I don't want your help."
"All right," he says. "All right, then." He nods, sighs, and turns for the door.
She comes out after him. He reaches to touch her arm, but she pulls away. She hands back the box of calissons. "I'm not going to use these."
Back home, he runs through his contact numbers and ends up calling an old reporter buddy, Ken Lazzarino, now working at a magazine in Manhattan. They exchange news and get nostalgic for a few minutes, but an undercurrent runs through the conversation: both men know that Lloyd needs a favor, but he can't bring himself to ask. Finally, he forces it out. "What if I wanted to pitch something?"
"You never wrote for us, Lloyd."
"I know, I'm just wondering if."
"I do online strategy now-I don't have a say in content anymore."
"Is there someone you could get me in touch with?"
After listening to several variations of no, Lloyd puts down the phone.
He eats another can of chickpeas and tries Menzies again at the paper. "What about me doing the European business roundup today?"
"Hardy Benjamin handles that now."
"I know it's a pain for you guys that I don't have this email stuff working. I can fax it, though. It won't make a difference."
"It does, actually. But look, I'll call if we need something out of Paris. Or give me a ring if you have something newsy."
Lloyd opens a French current-affairs magazine in hopes of stealing a story idea. He flips the pages impatiently-he doesn't recognize half the names. Who the hell is that guy in the photo? He used to know everything going on in this country. At press conferences, he was front-row, arm raised, rushing up afterward to pitch questions from the sidelines. At embassy cocktail parties, he sidled up to the ambassadors with a grin, notebook emerging from his hip pocket. Nowadays, if he attends press conferences at all, he's back-row, doodling, dozing. Embossed invitations pile up on his coffee table. Scoops, big and little, pass him by. He still has smarts enough to produce the obvious pieces-those he can do drunk, eyelids closed, in his underwear at the word processor.
He tosses the current-affairs magazine onto a chair. What's the point in trying? He calls his son's mobile. "Am I waking you?" he asks in French, the language they use together.
Jérôme covers the phone and coughs.
"I was hoping to buy you lunch later," Lloyd says. "Shouldn't you be down at the ministry at this hour?"
But Jérôme has the day off, so they agree to meet at a bistro around Place de Clichy, which is near where the young man lives, though the precise location of Jérôme's home is as much a mystery to Lloyd as are the details of the young man's job at the French foreign ministry. The boy is secretive.
Lloyd arrives at the bistro early to check the prices on the menu. He opens his wallet to count the cash, then takes a table.
When Jérôme walks in, Lloyd stands and smiles. "I'd almost forgotten how fond I am of you."
Jérôme sits quickly, as if caught out in musical chairs. "You're strange."
"Yes. It's true."
Jérôme flaps out the napkin and runs a hand through his floppy locks, leaving tangled tents of hair. His mother, Françoise, a tobacco-fingered stage actress, had the same hair-mussing habit and it made her even more attractive until years later, when she had no work, and it made her disheveled. Jérôme, at twenty-eight, is tattered already, dressed as if by a vintage shop, in a velvet blazer whose sleeves stop halfway up his forearms and an over-tight pin-striped shirt, cigarette rolling papers visible through a rip in the breast pocket.
"Let me buy you a shirt," Lloyd says impulsively. "You need a proper shirt. We'll go down to Hilditch & Key, down on Rivoli. We'll take a taxi. Come on." He speaks rashly-he couldn't afford a new shirt. But Jérôme declines.