Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionists is about a mixed group of newspaper people -- reporters, editors, foreign correspondents, publishers and readers -- and about a small international English language newspaper headquartered in Rome. Canadian author Tom Rachman has created a kaleidoscope of 11 interlocking short stories, each one focused on a different character. Each story is titled with a newspaper headline and ends with a clever twist. The novel spans the 50 years of the paper's existence, right up to today's decline of print journalism.

A typical Roman street, taken on my last visit there.

The setting is so vivid that I not only got to walk the scenic streets of Rome, but continue right along inside the homes of people who live there. Private lives and work lives are contrasted with extraordinary insight.

Reviews of this book mentioned the humour, but as I listened to the audiobook narrated by Christopher Welch [Recorded Books: 9 hr 45 min] I felt it was more poignant than funny. I empathized deeply with the characters and was saddened by their troubles. After I had finished the audiobook, I read the paper book and discovered that some parts made me laugh. So I learned something new about myself. The visceral experience of audio can override my brain's recognition of what is comical about human foibles.

For example, there's the chapter "The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists," in which two Americans are each hoping to get a Cairo stringer assignment. I felt bad for poor Winston Cheung, who was in over his head and annoyed by Rich Snyder, a blowhard opportunist. Yet check out this dialogue:
"I remember when I was in the Philippines during People Power back in the 1980s, and everyone's all, like, 'Oh man, Tagalog is so hard.' And I'm, like, 'Bull.' and within days, I'm, like, picking up chicks in Tagalog and stuff. That was after two days. Languages are totally overrated."
"So your Arabic must be excellent."
"Actually, I never speak foreign languages anymore," he explains. "I used to get so keyed into cultures that it was unhealthy. So I only talk in English now. Helps me maintain my objectivity."
In "Global Warming Good for Ice Creams" a cranky corrections editor fusses:
"GWOT: No one knows what this means, above all those who use the term. Nominally, it stands for Global War on Terror. But since conflict against an abstraction is, to be polite, tough to execute, the term should be understood as marketing gibberish. Our reporters adore this sort of humbug; it is the copy editor's job to exclude it. See also: OBL; Acronyms; and Nitwits."
The Imperfectionists is perfect: smart and funny and thought-provoking.

Readalike: A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan).

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