by Tom Rachman (New York: The Dial Press, 2010. 272 pp)
Tom Rachman studied at the University of Toronto and Columbia University. Rachman worked as an editor and reporter for the Associated Press before moving to Paris to take a job as an editor for the International Herald Tribune. He now lives in Rome.
Book review by Donovan Richards
There are times when the setting of a story carries such strength that it acts as a central character in a plot.
"The Island" demonstrates this role for fans of the hit television series Lost because they recognize the centrality of this setting in a captivating story about characters in a topsy-turvy world.
In a similar manner, Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists, portrays — through the lives of its employees — the story of a daily, international newspaper situated in Rome. Each chapter spins a separate narrative — almost like small novellas — united only by the common employer and employees found at the newspaper.
As the title of the book suggests, Rachman's characters embody the imperfections of life; they struggle on the job and at home, desperately trying to keep marriages, relationships, families, and the paper afloat. For example, a chief financial officer must exhibit a tough external façade in order to demand respect despite the fact that her love life is shattered.
An Industry — and Worldview — on Life Support
Through the course of the book, technology threatens the 20th century foundations by which the paper was built. A corrections editor illustrates this point when he is more concerned with keeping tabs on grammatical mistakes than producing quality news correspondence on the web. The struggling characters personify the story of a newspaper on life support as the world changes around it.
The Imperfectionists gives poignant reminders that nobody is capable of controlling all the possible scenarios in the complex private and work lives of human beings. The book's characters toil for success and security but are ultimately unable to acquire any of it.
Rachman also illustrates the vice of emotional and professional detachment through the paper's publisher. With mounting debt that threatens to cripple the company, the publisher does nothing. He has the capacity to enact change, but would rather avoid the inevitable conflict of being involved in the paper's day-to-day functions.
Real Insights From a Fictional Business
There are lessons for those in business. From an institutional perspective, just like the newspaper in the book, no company has the luxury of assuming profits in perpetuity. Without constant innovation, businesses die just like the fictional newspaper in the book.
Concerning the newsroom, Rachman writes, "This room once contained all the world. Today, it contained only litter" (p. 269). Market demands often necessitate change. When adaptation fails to occur, businesses shift from centers of productivity and service to inefficient, dying relics of the past. It seems to me that some of the turmoil in media companies exhibits these factors.
Pros and Cons
Although Rachman masterfully weaves most of the characters into an overarching narrative about the progress and decline of the paper, I found some of the chapters to be out of place.
Where most of the book builds upon previous chapters, continually referencing names of fellow employees occupying the same workplace, certain characters depicted in a couple of chapters have minimal association with the rest of the people introduced in the book. While these unfamiliar characters have interesting stories, they do little to further the narrative.
On the whole, The Imperfectionists strikingly portrays the broken nature of human relationships and human institutions. Nobody is perfect but beauty can exist in our imperfections. When individuals do too little, like Rachman's lazy publisher, or seek to control too much, like many of the other characters depicted in the book, businesses and relationships deteriorate.
The Final Scoop
This novel is an excellent reminder that businesses and relationships prosper only when leaders under pressure resist temptation towards destructive behavior. Success exists in a healthy median between emotional detachment and professional resignation on one side and excessive, over-controlling work patterns on the other.
Although The Imperfectionists reads as a what-not-to-do for business professionals, certain characters find redemption despite the failure of the newspaper. I recommend this book for those interested in media companies and to anyone who enjoys character development and storytelling that creates a giant web of relationships among characters who make the whole of the book greater than the sum of its parts.
In the first chapter, for example, Bill makes a keen observation about Satan’s tempting of Jesus. In each of the three temptations, “Satan leads Jesus to higher ground.” They go from wilderness to the top of the temple to a high mountain. “Satan knows the intoxicating air of exaltation.” The Spirit of God, conversely, is more of a “down-and-outer,” leading Jesus down to the Jordan, down into muddy baptismal waters and then out to the wilderness. “Satan points us up. God points us down.” (p. 26)
Donovan Richards earned an M.A. in Business and Applied Theology from SPU and works as a consulting analyst for See Seven. You can read more reviews on Donovan's blog.