Thursday, 30 June 2011

Paper People

I decided to get Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists at the advertised 20 per cent discount. The sales assistant mentioned a "coupon", but turns out all I had to do was to surrender that section of the newspaper in exchange for the price cut.

At a discounted price of RM48 it was still expensive, never mind the "bonus" interview featuring Rachman and Malcolm Gladwell and accolades such as the New York Times Book Review of the Year.

At least the book didn't disappoint.

Formerly a journalist with Associated Press, Tom Rachman was born in 1974 in London, but grew up in Vancouver. The Imperfectionists is his d├ębut novel; he's now in London, working on his second.

Tom Rachman's newspaper novel

This novel charts the fall of a fictional newspaper headquartered in Rome, through the vignettes of key characters involved with it. Each chapter is dedicated to one character, complete with a headline. Spliced in between are the milestones in the paper's history, rendered in eye-gouging italics.

Among others, we meet an obituary writer and trivia section custodian, who struggles with his editor and later, a family tragedy; the grizzled corrections editor who can't seem to keep up with the Internet-powered changes in his world of words; a frumpy, bitchy, bitter copywriter who has a love/hate relationship with her career; and a news editor/aspiring inventor who tries to deal with his girlfriend's cheating.

Rounding up the cast is the struggling, starving freelancer who's miles away from it all, and is therefore, clueless about how the news mill he writes for is run; the equally clueless descendant of the paper's founder; and one who is perhaps the paper's most loyal reader.

Despite my very brief stint in journalism, and even though the setting and ethnicity is different, I can still recognise bits of former colleagues in the characters. In myself are fragments of struggling freelancer Lloyd Burko and obsessive-compulsive corrections editor Herman Cohen. As for the premise itself - well, it's one that's playing out everywhere.

The format may look odd, breaking the story up and interrupting the momentum, but thanks to sharp, witty prose and an innate knowledge of the industry, this 200-plus-page obituary to newsprint that Rachman has written is one fun, morbid ride. The character's individual stories, though interesting and funny, are somewhat peripheral to the world crumbling around them.

In The Imperfectionists one can truly see the physical newspaper's slow, painful spiral to oblivion. Despite knowing what's to come, the pages keep turning. Writers/journalists/publishers of every stripe will find the depressing tone of the book strangely comforting in its familiarity.

Hence my bafflement at this book being marketed as fiction. It's as real as it can one wants it to be.

They could have done without the Rachman-Gladwell section. Omitting that would probably cut the price by 30 per cent.

The Imperfectionists
Tom Rachman
Dial Press (2011)
281 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-34367-1


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