THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

And now, for the rest of the story

In sections, the private lives of a paper’s editors and reporters unfold

In his debut Tom Rachman documents the losses and gains of relationships. In his debut Tom Rachman documents the losses and gains of relationships. (Alessandra Rizzo)
By Matthew Peters
May 2, 2010

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“The point of any relationship is obtaining something from another person.’’ So says Kathleen Solson, editor of the English-language Rome-based newspaper whose fortunes circumscribe the lives of the characters of Tom Rachman’s engaging and intelligent first novel, “The Imperfectionists.’’ If these characters are not quite perfectionists in their professional lives, they are mostly diligent and talented. But they are imperfectionists in their private lives, and much of the interest of Rachman’s writing lies in the warm precision with which it documents the losses and gains involved in their relationships.

The dramatic context of Kathleen’s words illustrates Rachman’s command of unobtrusive irony. She speaks them to an old boyfriend, whose gentler sensibility compels him to disagree with her. Not only does the moment reveal the incompatibility of the two, but it undermines for the reader Kathleen’s bracing assurance. For it is clear that at the moment she says the words, Kathleen loses something: She is diminished in the eyes of her former lover.

The novel contains many wry, subtly presented, and rather sad moments of this kind. It is divided into sections, each of which addresses an event in the life of a single character who works for the newspaper (or in one case, of an obsessive reader of the newspaper). In this respect, the novel feels more like a collection of short stories than a novel.

Rachman is adept at delineating character not only over the course of a chapter but also on the smaller scale of a sentence or short paragraph. This is particularly true of the presentation of Ruby Zaga, a copy editor at the newspaper, whose loneliness is interrupted and then made suddenly more painful after a brief moment of passion with a man who instantly rejects her. In her confused disappointment she resolves to leave Rome and her job and return to New York. On the bus back to her apartment she sees the flood-lit cupola of St. Peter’s: “As they drive past, she cranes her neck to keep the basilica in view until the last possible moment. Then it is gone.’’ Her action nicely illustrates her unspoken knowledge that the decision to leave the city is self-deceiving. Her life is in Rome, however unsatisfactory it may seem to her.

Rachman is also skillful at presenting character through dialogue, as is the case in the opening chapter, which focuses on Lloyd Burko, an aging, embattled Paris correspondent. Burko’s taut, snappy speech rhythms reflect his frantic efforts to discover a news story important enough to be reported in an increasingly pared-down newspaper. In the hope of finding information that he might work up into an article, he meets with his son, Jerome, who works for a French ministry. Jerome is silent, withdrawn, uncooperative; Lloyd is despairing. “ ‘But do you have any ideas? I did buy you lunch yesterday.’ He adds, “ ‘I’m kidding.’ ’’ But he wasn’t kidding. He was desperate and then quick to correct his clumsiness. His professional concerns only point up the imperfection of his relations with his son.

Less subtle, but no less effective, are Rachman’s comic treatments of character. Foremost among them is the presentation of Rich Snyder, the appallingly egotistical freelance foreign correspondent, who harries the young Cairo stringer Winston Cheung. As in the portrait of Burko, Snyder is embodied largely through dialogue. (“I’m into extreme sports myself: ultramarathons, kitesurfing, tennis.’’) Like many comic characters Snyder tends toward caricature. In this respect he is a modern-day version of the foreign correspondents found in Evelyn Waugh’s satire on the press, “Scoop,’’ especially in his telegraphic speech to Winston from the field: “Aid groupie satphone. Charges by minute. Talk fast. How’s research?’’

At times Rachman’s relative lack of experience as a writer of fiction is shown in passages of varying quality. Marta, a cleaner, “sprays the cleaning fluid in a blue mist that forms into beads on the pane; they hold briefly, then streak downward. She works faster than normal because her husband, Wojciech, is waiting downstairs, sitting on a park bench, leg hopping up and down, scratching dust with his dress shoe, dirtying the hem of his cheap gray suit, which Marta ironed that morning.’’ The cameo of the husband (we never see or hear of him again) wonderfully evokes his mysterious, frustrated impatience and anxiety; but the detail of the cleaning fluid is static and contributes little.

A more major criticism may be made about the structure of the novel. The chapters are separated by smaller sections, which recount the founding and development of the newspaper. The writing here is relatively flat; it seems an artificial attempt to bind the narratives of the individual characters.

But this should not detract from the achievements of the novel. Rachman has created a series of vividly memorable characters. His writing is usually sharp, controlled, and absorbing. It is a fine debut.

Matthew Peters is a freelance critic who lives and works in Cambridge, England.

THE IMPERFECTIONISTS By Tom Rachman

Dial, 272 pp., $25