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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

I have little patience with authors who stitch together short stories to make
them look like a novel.   Even masterworks such as Faulkner’s
Go Down, Moses,
Anderson’s
Winesburg, Ohio or Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, for all their
virtues, seem to violate some truth-in-advertising law of the literary world.  Or
if there isn't such a law, there ought to be one.  The
publishers should put a disclaimer on the cover:  
no
real novel here
.  Like the coffee "creamer" at your office
that has no real cream in it, these books are mas-
querading as something they aren't.  

Given this skepticism, I approached
The Imperfectionists,
the high-profile debut novel by Tom Rachman with more
than a few trepidations.  Each of the eleven chapters
presents a stand-alone story, invariably about a person
connected to an English-language newspaper operating
out of Rome in the years following World War II—a pub-
lication that comes across as a cross between
The
International Herald-Tribune
(where Rachman formerly
worked) and the now defunct
Rome Daily American.  To
add to the challenges of integrating these stories into a whole, Rachman
focuses on a different protagonist for each chapter, and varies the settings and
concerns—some interludes deal with family conflicts at home, others with
incidents on the road, or painful memories dredged up from the past.   We may
find ourselves in Rome for one story, but in Cairo or Atlanta for another.  

Yet—
mirabile dictu!—Rachman makes this mélange work as a coherent whole.   
Generally the structural flaw in a book of this sort stems from the disparate
pedigrees of the various sections of the book—too often the chapters don’t
read like chapters, but betray their origin as separate pieces published
previously in various magazines.   Typically, they convey an impression that the
author only decided to “fit” the tales into a novel after most of them were
written.  But
The Imperfectionists has a very different ambiance.  The book
comes across as a work that Rachman had envisioned, from the start, as a
unified whole.   He furthers the integration of the story lines by a series of
between-the-chapters interludes that convey the history of the newspaper,
also by a clever sequence of chapter headings drawn from headlines, and the
use of key characters in previous stories as cameo players in later ones.  Above
all, he builds up to a final capstone story that conveys a sense of overall closure
that rarely accompanies the “Frankenstein monster” sewed-together short
story collections of other authors.

Yet the structural ingenuity here is only a small part of the attraction of
The
Imperfectionists
.  Rachman’s vignettes are compelling, and attempt that difficult
intersection of humor and pathos that few authors master, and almost none
consistently.   Sometimes Rachman tries too hard, and my least favorite
chapters here work too hard for laughs.  A story about a bumbling
correspondent in Cairo, who is manipulated by a more seasoned journalist,
comes across as forced—albeit saved by some jaunty dialogue.  Another
awkward section presents an eccentric reader who is years behind in reading
the paper:  in 2007, she is still reading newspapers from April 1994, and tries to
prevent anyone from telling her about historical events that have happened
since then.

Yet when Rachman focuses on more plausible story lines, with less overt
comedy, he achieves some sublime effects.   A story about coworkers from the
newspaper who, by chance, end up seated next to each other on an trans-
Atlantic flight, is deftly realized, and comes with a surprise ending of O’Henry
caliber.    Another strong chapter captures the pathos of a female business
reporter who is eminently practical in her career, but in her private life ignores
the most obvious warning signs as she pursues a ne’er-do-well boyfriend.   The
humor, in these parts of
The Imperfectionists, is applied with a lighter touch, and
the plotting is both tight and character-driven.

Best of all, a marked cumulative irony builds up over the course of this book.  
The one constant in
The Imperfectionists, from start to finish, is how little the
quest for journalistic excellence motivates the various characters.  Even the
publishers and editors who seem to have the most passion for the newspaper
business are, ultimately, revealed to have some other plan, some other goal in
mind.  In a throwaway subplot, Rachman makes clear that the paintings the
newspaper’s founding publisher purchased to please an editor made more
money than decades of actually operating the periodical.  How fitting, given the
individual stories we have followed through the course of this book!

This gradual disclosure of hypocrisies and hidden agendas provides an ideal
setup to the dark comedy of Rachman’s conclusion.  Here the various themes
and characters intersect, and the sham idealism and petty flaws of each
protagonist come together like an especially satisfying chess problem.  Finally,
the title—
The Imperfectionists—is shown to be all too apt.  But certainly not
because of what Tom Rachman has delivered, which may not achieve perfection,
but certainly gets close.
The Imperfectionists

by Tom Rachman
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