Reading The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman was perfectly timed for me as I painstakingly consider pursuing a graduate degree in journalism (painstaking mainly because I’ve already been through the rigor of law school). Like myself, others considering a career in this field will surely find this book amusing and touching in its satirical account of a once premiere news publication based in Rome. Slowly but surely the fictional newspaper is winding down and succumbing to the new world of journalism due to the Internet and citizen-reporting among other nuances of modern technology. While the newspaper is the foundation of the story, like many great novels, the real focus of this one is the dynamic characters that make it all happen.
An American businessman decides to establish an English-language newspaper in Rome in the 1950s. He leaves behind his wife and child in the United States. His family and investors assume he has made the decision in pursuit of a noble ambition: news, reporting, writing, journalism. But what’s the real story?
Using a chapter per character style of narration (where each chapter could serve as a short-story), Rachman gives us an account of the dying newspaper in 2004 and a glimpse into the life of each featured staff person. Inserted in between the “present day” chapters are glimpses from the past, from the early days of the establishment. Most of the staff in 2004 consists of American expatriates living in Rome. They lead lives that are seemingly glamorous on paper but turn out to be less than dreamy as you learn more. From the news editor to the copy editor to the foreign stringer, each has a story with its own unique angle. For the most part, there is an underlying dissatisfaction, a conflict, an unease. If I were to meet an American journalist based in Rome I would be intrigued and envious. Rachman’s characters highlight the complexities underlying any such assumptions.
In addition, Tom Rachman breaks down a number of preconceived notions about journalism as a career while also portraying his characters in an empathetic light. They are far less than perfect and their lives pretty ordinary. But through their suffering and misery comes self-discovery. Through fiction, Rachman captures the inner workings of a profession that is highly coveted even now when we have reached an age of digital technology and citizen journalism. His fictional account reinforces what is probably true about most professions – it reinforces what many of us know but often forget: things are never as they seem. I am left wondering: is it still worth it?