Death by incompetence

Fellow displaced journalist Paul O’Connor (OK, OK, I fired him, but THEY made me do it) reviews a novel about the death of a newspaper. Just reading the review made me sad, but I think I’ll give the book a try anyway.

By Paul T. O’Connor

THE IMPERFECTIONISTS: A NOVEL.  By Tom Rachman. Dial Press. 288 pages, paperback. $15; $5 Kindle edition.

Call me old-fashioned, but in the novels I read, I want a story, a plot, a few major characters, other minor characters, both major and minor well developed, a timeline, some conflict and a building toward a conclusion.

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists has only a few of these elements, yet I liked it nonetheless.

Thirty-four percent of the way through the novel, I asked myself an embarrassing question: Despite its being obvious in the title that this was a novel, was I really reading a collection of short stories? It was a plausible question considering that the chapters each had a different main character, with several of those characters serving in the background in other stories as the anthology collected episodes along a jumbled 50-year timeline and a common setting, Rome.

Having now completed 100 percent of the book, I could make an argument that The Imperfectionists is really more an anthology than a novel, but no one would care, and I wasn’t an English major anyhow.

Set between approximately 1957 and 2007, the novel is about the birth, prosperity and demise of an English-language international newspaper in Rome. It attracted my attention because it is really the story of a newspaper’s death, one death that epitomizes the slow death of an entire industry in which I spent my career. If there is a main character in the novel, it is the newspaper itself.

And the paper’s demise comes for all the real reasons that newspapers are dying – competition from the Internet and newspaper business managers who both failed to foresee, or to even see, the threat until it was too late; a bad economy; more managerial incompetence; a generation less likely to read newspapers, and even more managerial incompetence.

The chapters are very good. We start with Lloyd Burko, now very old and hanging on by the skin of his rather thin wallet in Paris. A former star foreign correspondent, Burko is now reduced to scratching for free-lance articles, trying to sell the exceptional article that is so because it isn’t true. There are also excellent chapters about a reader who feels she must read every story in the newspaper, yet cannot keep up with the daily delivery, so in 2007, she’s still reading an edition from 1994 and begging people not to tell her what has happened in the world in the intervening 13 years.

She’s a metaphor, of course, for the newspaper company managers who in 2005 and 2006 still thought it was 1994 and that profits were still going to be in the 20+-percentage point range. Certainly, in the final chapter, when Rachman presents a third-generation publisher who is totally disengaged from the paper, unwilling to visit the office or even answer phone calls from the business managers and editors, all alone in the world except for his dog, the author is providing a figure symbolic of what happened in several newspaper companies.

I read this novel on my new Kindle, a reading experience much nicer than reading Moby Dick on my iPhone. The Kindle is easy to hold and see. After a few pages, I was as much engrossed in the material as I would have been with a book, maybe more so because I didn’t have to keep shifting the book around to get comfortable.

Still, I agree with those who say that something is lost with an e-reader. It is the pleasure of holding and smelling and accumulating books. (Of course, it was my overstuffed bookshelves that led me to buy the Kindle because I’m out of space.)

Some of the Kindle’s deficiencies will be eliminated in a software update promised for early March, most notably actual page numbers. As I read this book, I could only guess at the book length in that I would move through three or four screens and then see that I had progressed one percentage point through the book.

Rachman has earned excellent reviews with this, his first novel, and he deserves them. The writing is terrific, the individual stories funny and odd, the characters complex and very true to the oddballs one meets in newspapers.

It’s a fun read, even in a dark humor, newsroom humor, kind of way.

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3 Responses to Death by incompetence

  1. wishnevsky says:

    I agree about the kindle. And how managerial incompetence has destroyed not only the Newspaper industry, but American manufacturing in general. And once the pointy haired bosses destroy their own livelihoods, they attack the workers, and play Titanic lifeboat drill. Save the rich, let the poor folks drown, as the Old Timey song has it

  2. Diane Lamb says:

    Wish, I believe we are there now. Another excellent review at Briar Patch.

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