If you didn’t already, take a look at the subtitle. I did not like this book and was, in fact, offended by it. Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists takes us into the inner workings and private lives of a cadre of professionals at an English-language newspaper based in Rome. The novel is told in a series of intertwined vignettes, each profiling one person related to the struggling paper with tiny reveals along the way, culminating into a larger story at the end. These profiles, however, lack substance — and in the end the book amounts to a largely useless collection of stereotypes. It’s also sort of a depressing book in general, especially as it wears on and the paper’s financial situation worsens.
Rachman’s strong points are entirely technical — solid pacing, a broad range of distinct characters, snappy and largely believable dialogue, and the novel also benefits from Rachman’s journalism background as a foreign correspondent and editor, by lending the events and atmosphere of its stories believability and credibility.
That said, of course there’s a “but” and it’s a big one. In terms of substance, the novel is actually quite lazy, and he rests too comfortably on a some idea he has in his mind of flat, stereotypical people. The profiles of our imperfect characters in The Imperfectionists, while numerous, offer little beyond the surface. They are one-dimensional and in the glimpse we get of them, there’s no way to penetrate into their minds.
To make matters worse, there’s sort of an “old boys club” mentality behind a lot of the stereotypes he feeds us, which is unsurprising given the industry he’s coming from, but usually good writing attempts to break these things down as opposed to bolstering them up.
There’s Hardy, a desperate and plain woman who frantically cooks for and clings to a bum of a man who uses her and even steals from her because she’s afraid of being alone. Also, Ruby, who’s desperate as well, but an older woman who spends her time dousing herself in an ex-lover’s cologne, drunk dialing him, and cuts herself when he refuses to speak to her. Then there’s, the editor in chief Kathleen who is of course a domineering “bitch” who and tries to rekindle her relationship with an ex who tells her he’s not interested because she is too aggressive in bed. Oh right, and of course, there’s the bored pretty housewife Annika who does yoga all day and cheats on her husband. There are also male characters, who generally receive better treatment, but are similarly one-dimensional stereotypes — the useless older man, the overly ambitious hotshot, etc. It’s just awful.
The worst offense for me personally is the story of Winston Cheung, a naive college grad applying for a stringer position with the paper in Cairo. Winston is described as a Chinese American, wears glasses, rattles off his list of credentials and is unable to get to the point, is nervous around people and prefers research and basically is the stereotype of the weak Asian male. He gets bowled over by a fast-talking reporter and develops an interest in a woman who of course has no interest in him and screws him over, too. I think a decent amount of other reviewers found this story to be “hilarious,” but I thought it was pretty racist and offensive. At one point the character of Winston actually says “I think I prefer books to people — primary sources scare me.” Seriously?! Then why did he decide to pursue journalism?? This makes no sense. Come on. Go fuck yourself, Tom Rachman.
The problem in The Imperfectionists is not just that he includes these characters, of course, since obviously they exist in real life. The problem is not including anything else, but more importantly not giving them anything that takes them from the one-dimensional stereotype of “fast-talking overly ambitious hotshot” “clingy desperate woman” “the aggressive female boss” or “meek Asian male” into actual people, into a book with real substance and something to say. The beauty of the “slice-of-life” format for novels is that because it tends to result in the narrowing of their focus, the format offers a opportunity to lend characters real depth and dimension, and that’s exactly where Rachman fails.
I’m not surprised that this book was popular. I was engaged at first, too, especially given my brief dalliance with journalism. Tom Rachman seems to have a strong grasp of the basics of crafting a strong sentence, pacing and the inner workings of the newspaper industry. What Tom Rachman doesn’t seem to understand, however, is people and what makes a good novel as opposed to just technical writing skills, and because of it, his book falters, and is unable to rise above being a string of well-edited sentences. As the book nears its end it gets increasingly depressing, but I was just glad it was over.