Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 336 pages; 2010.
In recent years I’ve read several short story collections masquerading as novels. For example, both Alaa As Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers told the individual and interconnected stories of residents living in the same building, the former in Cairo, the latter in Manhattan.
Colum McCann did something similar in last year’s prize-winning novel Let The Great World Spin, using Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire act between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974 as a kind of bridging link to tell the stories of a diverse range of characters living in the city at that time. Even Christos Tsiolkas has got in on the act: his Commonwealth Prize-winning novel, The Slap, looks at the lives and loves of various residents in the Melbourne suburbs, using a controversial slap at a family barbecue as the particular incident that links all the short stories together.
Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists uses this structure too, but this time the link is a busy newspaper office in downtown Rome where each of the characters is employed. The unnamed paper is an English-language publication with a global readership and is largely staffed by expat Americans. There are 11 characters all told, so that means there are 11 short stories, each of which are roughly 25 pages in length. That’s plenty of space to flesh out their eccentricities and foibles, and to develop them into fully-rounded human beings. But not enough that you get more than a brief snap shot of their present day lives circa 2007.
In between each chapter (short story) Rachman provides a brief update on the newspaper’s progress, moving from its establishment in 1960 at a time “when nobody’s making real money out of something like this”, through to its peak in the early 1980s when circulation hit 25,000 and journalistic standards were high, and then charting its slow decline as circulations and revenues got hit, first by television then the internet, until the present day in which circulation is down, the paper lacks a website and closure looks imminent. It’s a fascinating potted history of the newspaper game, some of which cuts very close to the bone for this particular reader!
The newspaper theme is borne out by the chapter headings, which are all headlines — “Global warming good for ice creams”, “Markets crash over fears of China slowdown”, “Bush slumps to new low in polls” — under which the relevant job title of the particular character is also listed — everyone from corrections editor, to news editor, editor-in-chief to publisher are represented.
And while much of the content is tongue-in-cheek satire of journalism (think Evelyn Waugh’s delightfully funny Scoop and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning), there’s an undercurrent of despair running through it, too: the highly experienced Paris correspondent, who has been replaced by “freelancers selling jaw-dropping stuff”, is so desperate to earn a commission he fabricates a lead story; the 30-something business editor who works long, hard hours is so lonely and starved of companionship she becomes involved with the dodgy Irish chap who burgles her flat; the obituary writer has been so sidelined in his career it takes the death of someone close to him to spur him on to achieve better things.
But, typically, the chapter I most enjoyed — “The sex lives of Islamic extremists” — was the stand-out funny one. It tells the story of Winston Cheung, a hapless graduate, who moves to Egypt in order to apply for the job of Cairo stringer despite the fact he doesn’t have a clue about journalism (“Every day in Cairo news events take place. But where? At what time?”). He is led astray by a highly experienced foreign correspondent, Rich Snyder, who is competing for the same job. Rich wears combat trousers, never stops boasting about his scoops and awards (“It’s so dumb – I hate getting awards. And journalism is not a competition. It’s not about that, you know. But, whatever.”) and is an expert freeloader. When he runs off with Winston’s house key and laptop, it looks like Winston’s chance at getting the job is over…
As a novel, I’m not sure this is a great one, but it’s definitely an entertaining one and provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business. I have KevinfromCanada to thank for tipping me off about The Imperfectionists and would urge you to read his review for another take on the same book.
Alternatively, you can wait for the film: apparently Brad Pitt’s production company has snapped up the rights to it.