Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

published 2010





He was also notable as the only pupil not to wear the school blazer, which he evaded with a falsified doctor’s note claiming “seborrhoeic dermatitis”. None of the teachers dared ask what this affliction consisted of – a fortunate turn, since Jimmy himself could only have guessed. The reason for his subterfuge was simply that he preferred to wear a donnish tweed jacket with elbow patches, in whose left pocket he kept a copy of Ulysses – the Modern Library edition, missing the dust jacket – and in whose right pocket he stored his calabash pipe and a tin of Mac Baren Club Blend tobacco. The balance between left and right pockets was grossly uneven, Ulysses being a notably heavy volume, so he evened it out with fountain pens, which often exploded, bleeding a constellation of indigo blotches into his right pocket. 




observations: The Paris-based International Herald Tribune stopped operating under that name last week: now it is the International New York Times. That’s seen as the end of an era – although the paper has had various names in its life. It was an iconic part of the American experience abroad, and it was the paper Jean Seberg was selling in a Paris street at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless – the scene that was described as worth the price of admission on its own. (Though of course the paper had a different name then - New York Herald Tribune.)

Tom Rachman’s book is a wholly fictional picture of an international paper produced in Europe for cosmopolitan people. The fact that he worked for the International Herald Tribune is naturally coincidental. (It’s sometimes hard to remember that the book is set in Rome – it feels as if it should be Paris.) It is in the form of a set of chapters, each centred on one person directly connected with the paper.

It is a lovely book: funny, sad, real, with very recognizable characters and conversations and relationships. Didn’t we all know someone like Jimmy, above, as a teenager? On the next page Jimmy’s friend wonders what on earth Molly Bloom from Ulysses looks like. Luckily Clothes in Books can show him:





He gets a job on the paper because his arcane knowledge and pedantry come in handy – excellent description of what a journalist needs.

Just picking three pages at random: There is the character Hardy who ‘has written a thousand words, which is greater than the number of calories she has consumed since yesterday’. There is the lunchtime slander session about colleauges: ‘Kathleen misses the point, Clint Oakley can’t even do a basic obit, Herman is living in another era.’ There’s the page that has the very important Puzzle-Wuzzle – we never do find out what that consists of.

Although very specific to this particular paper, the book gives a great and very truthful picture of the way journalists operate – (compare with Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning) and is saturated with the sadness of a world where newspapers are disappearing, and journalism is changing beyond all recognition. A book that really does describe and define its era, as well as making you laugh and wince in equal measure.

The top picture, from the Smithsonian, is of artist Guy Wiggins
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8 comments:

  1. Sounds interesting, with your "funny, sad, real" but I'll stick to the meth dealers and the bare-knuckle brawlers....time is short!

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    1. Fair enough - the book has very little fighting and is not very hard-boiled...

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  2. Moira - Oh, I confess I do like journalism stories. And I had to chuckle when you ask the question about whether we all knew someone like Jimmy. I know I did. Must use someone like that as a character in my own work some time. And one more note - I hate to see eras end like that *sigh.* I know times change and that's fine. But there's often a little wistfulness with it.

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    1. Yes indeed to all you say. One of the things I liked about the book is that it's very realistic about the world, and about journalism, and about progress, but it still allows you that nostalgic affection for the old days....

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  3. Another book that sounds fascinating. I loved the description of the pen bursting. And the nostalgia of the disappearing world of newspapers is especially appealing. I don't know much about that, although my uncle and cousins have a small town newspaper in Mississippi and have made the transition to new ways of doing things in newspaper publishing. I did spend many, many years working for a small publisher of reference books. On the technical end, but still... Probably won't make it onto my reading list anytime soon because I have already added too many.

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    1. Publishing must have changed as much as journalism in the past couple of decades - do you feel nostalgic for it? Journalists are terrible for living in the past and painting a golden picture of it...

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    2. Yes, it has changed, and I do feel nostalgic for it, even though my introduction to publishing reference periodicals was on the technical side of pulling a bunch of abstracts together into a publication and creating the index. But in that job, I worked directly with editors with history backgrounds, and everyone I worked with was very interesting -- and cared a lot about their work and the quality of the product. It was sad to see all that replaced with mostly offshore abstracting and indexing services.

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    3. That's very interesting - I know very little about technical publishing...

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