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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Well Begun and All Done: The Imperfectionists

The book: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Opening line: "Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks."

Closing line: "Now it was gone."

Sometimes, at the end of a book, something happens--something you weren't expecting to happen. When this something happens, you are taken aback. Occasionally, you become frustrated, particularly when you suspect that, had you been paying closer attention, you would have--not seen the event coming necessarily--but you would have a deeper appreciation for what you've just read.

Such a happening happens at the end of The Imperfectionists. This is a comic novel, but, at the end, a sad event--a small tragedy in its own right--occurs, and the reader is left to wonder whether he or she could have seen it coming--perhaps should have seen it coming. And we further suspect that, were we to go back and reread the novel, we would see the foreshadowing, the minor events, which, added together, make the ending inevitable.

Perhaps we're giving too much credit to the author, Tom Rachman, because we want to believe he didn't just throw in some gratuitous bit of pathos to lend his novel "weight." Because we enjoyed this book, and, despite the fact that it is primarily played for laughs, feel that it had plenty of "weight" already.

The Imperfectionists tells the story of an English-language newspaper in Italy that is on the verge of bankruptcy. Each chapter focuses on and is told from the point of view of a different member of the newspaper's community. Also, each chapter includes a sort of "epilogue," which provides the paper's history. In a way, the chapters are completely self-contained short stories, but they weave together to provide a blackly comic picture of an institution in decline.

Every reader will have his/her own favorite characters. Perhaps for obvious reasons we found ourselves attracted to Herman Cohen, the punctilious corrections editor, whose battle-cry is "Credibilty!" and who frequently updates the newspaper's "Bible," an ever-growing compendium of rules and offenses:

"literally: This word should be deleted. All too often, actions described as 'literally' did not happen at all. As in, 'He literally jumped out of his skin.' No, he did not. Though if he literally had, I'd suggest raising the element and proposing the piece for page one. Inserting 'literally' willy-nilly reinforces the notion that breathless nitwits lurk within this newsroom. Eliminate on sight--the usage, not the nitwits. The nitwits are to be captured and placed in the cages I have set up in the subbasement."
Rachman also has a talent for understated irony. At the end of the novel, one of the characters decides to abandon the newspaper business for "an industry that would never betray her. So she settled on international finance and found a post at the Milan offices of Lehman Brothers."

The book is a breezy read with a cast of likably imperfect characters. When you get to the end, you may be frustrated by the seemingly random bit of darkness that intrudes. On the bright side, though, the thought of going back over the novel to look for clues is not especially onerous.

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