Friday, March 15, 2013

The Imperfectionists: Life History of a Newspaper

An Imperfect Union

If the postmodern age began in 1979 with the publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, there was to be a time-lag of several decades between Lyotard’s pronouncement and the surfacing of an uneasy sense on the part of the public, reflected in literary and popular culture, that foundational entities like the press were changing in unpredictable ways.

In the article “Postmodernism,” by Gary Aylesworth, the author introduces Søren Kierkegaard’s description of society in The Present Age (1846) as a precursor of the postmodern concept of derealization: a concept that would manifest itself as a pervasive loss of identity by individuals and social institutions in the postmodern era.  As Aylesworth puts it:

                                    Kierkegaard, for example, describes modern society as a network
                                    of relations in which individuals are leveled into an abstract phantom
                                    known as “the public” (Kierkegaard 1962, p. 59). The modern public,
                                    in contrast to medieval and ancient communities, is a creation of the
                                    press, which is the only instrument capable of holding together the
                                    mass of unreal individuals “who never are and never can be united
                                    in an actual situation or organization” (Kierkegaard, 1962, p. 60).
                                    In this sense, society has become a realization of abstract thought,
                                    held together by an artificial and all-pervasive medium speaking for
                                    everyone and for no one.

Long before Kierkegaard came on the scene, the potency of a free press in civil society had been debated in Europe and in English and American discourse. Freedom of the press was defined, defended, and exploited in speeches and articles ranging from poet John Milton’s Areopagitica (an address to Parliament in 1644 opposing censorship), to the 1787 publication in New York newspapers of 85 letters by ‘Publius’ urging voters to ratify the Constitution. (These were the Federalist Papers of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay). More than a century later, in 1898, French author Émile Zola published J’Accuse (“I Accuse”), his letter indicting members of the French establishment in the Dreyfus Affair. Four decades later, with news now being carried on the airwaves, Winston Churchill made use of the radio to broadcast his speeches, as did Franklin Delano Roosevelt to deliver his fireside chats during the Second World War. For centuries then, authors and public figures affirmed their faith in a free press.

Similarly, writers in democratic societies have used classic and popular literature to explore the theme of the press as conduit of ideas and protector of contested freedoms in modern society. Analysis of the role of the press, and of the monetary cost of sustaining literary and journalistic ambition, by French author Honoré de Balzac in his novel Lost Illusions (1837) began a literary dialogue continued in George Gissing’s book on money and the high ideals of journalism: New Grub Street (1891), and in books like Evelyn Waugh’s satire of journalistic incompetence: Scoop (1938). By and large, proponents of free speech and expression, even the most jaded, have represented the press as a necessarily flawed but essential value-bearing institution. Applied to the span of Western history from the invention of the printing press to the end of the 20th century, therefore, Kierkegaard’s claim that the press is artificial, and society incohesive, comes across as groundless and idiosyncratic.

In modern times, numerous popular representations of the press in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have conveyed an idealized picture of news-gathering, and newshounds, as heroic and essential to the functioning of a free society. The high ideals and high cost of maintaining a free press have been dramatized in widely appreciated works such as Inherit the Wind, play: 1955, film: 1960; Z, film, 1969; All the President’s Men, film, 1976; Up Close and Personal, film: 1996; and Good Night, and Good Luck, film, 2005.

The theme of disillusionment with the Fourth Estate that has sometimes crept into popular depictions of the press (as in the 1981 film Absence of Malice) has at times eroded into cynicism and doubt of the fundamental efficacy of the institution (The Quiet American, novel: 1955; films: 1958, 2002; Network, film: 1976, The Year of Living Dangerously, novel: 1978; film: 1982; Broadcast News, film: 1987).

Yet even here, skeptical depictions of the news media have typically been limited to the exploration of questions such as how far an ambitious reporter might go to get a story or advance a career. In these dramas, it isn’t a question of whether the journalist’s quest is worthy, and certainly, it is never in doubt that the story must be told. Reporters and newscasters may struggle with the ethics of disclosure: what of the personal harm that might ensue if such-and-such a story comes out? In the world of journalistic drama, however, telling the story typically equates to telling the truth, and so has an absolute value against which lesser claims will inevitably be found wanting.

Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American is too complex a work to fit this simple schema. Greene’s seasoned journalist, Thomas Fowler, himself an ambiguous figure, befriends Alden Pyle, a young reporter whose apparent naïveté casts a dark shadow over the lives of his acquaintances. In The Quiet American, Pyle’s complicity with U.S. intelligence irreparably taints him; atypically for a dramatization of journalistic conundrums, The Quiet American reveals, beneath the dysfunction of the press, the dysfunction of democracy itself. This is a not a novel about the press, but about tainted agents of Western society.

Recent popular television series such as BBC’s 1950s drama “The Hour,” (2011) and HBO’s contemporary “Newsroom,” (2012), like the British television (2003) and American film (2009) versions of the drama State of Play, continue to please British and American audiences by virtue of a proven formula: an articulate ‘band of brothers,’ and a few ravishingly attractive sisters, battle the establishment to ensure that Truth–no matter how disturbing, no matter how incendiary–becomes known to the public at large. In the case of the British series “The Hour,” subterfuge and indirect allusions to the looming crisis in Suez are necessary to get around the government restrictions of a nation potentially at war, but the truth-telling imperative is the same for the fictional British journalists as for their American counterparts. Again according to formula, the newsroom, a hive of intensely collaborative activity, pits the betrayers and the false prophets against the often naïve and inexperienced–but gifted–truth-tellers. And the good guys win. Important elements of the formula for these successful series include a tight storyline, compelling characters whose relationships reprise familial bonds, and the development of popular ethical and political themes.

Perhaps the most typically dark, and at the same time conventional, realization of the contemporary formula for journalistic drama can be seen in “State of Play.” In both its British and American versions, “State of Play” is considerably darker than, for example, the 1981 film Absence of Malice.” In the contemporary drama the reporters’ quarry, a politician, is enmeshed in a deeply corrupt, even evil, web of political and corporate relationships that expose the deep dysfunction, in this case, of democracy. The darkness of “State of Play” – its exposure of something very like evil – should nevertheless not be mistaken for cynicism. As in earlier journalistic dramas, the convention that ‘truth will out’ is slavishly followed. Once again, it is the outing of truth–subsequent to reporters wrestling with journalistic ethics and a good amount of intrigue–that brings the nation back into political balance. However great the government dysfunction that is exposed to public view, the very act of publishing this dysfunctionality ultimately restores democratic values. It goes without saying that the reporters, albeit flawed individuals, are the heroes of this story.

Recently, the news media have in a few instances been represented in mainstream culture as being unequal to the task of fostering free inquiry (for example in Clint Eastwood’s 2010 film, Hereafter), or as being irrelevant to the major social events of the day (as seems to be the case with the international newspaper in Tom Rachman’s brilliantly mimetic novel, The Imperfectionists). Thus in The Imperfectionists, the Editor-in-Chief of an English-language newspaper in Rome discusses Berlusconi – not with her colleagues, but with her Italian ex-boyfriend. If big, controversial issues fail to feature in any of the linked stories in the Rachman novel, in the film Hereafter, it is controversy–introduced by a journalist who wants to write about evidence of the afterlife (in secular France)–that proves too much for the chic Paris media conglomerate that employs her, and the journalist is relieved of her duties. The story of the journalist‘s near-death experience does find its way into print, but only after she has sought and found a simpatico research scientist in Geneva, and landed a contract with a maverick publisher who isn’t afraid to take a risk on her work.

Doubt regarding the value of the bedrock institution of a free press has thus been recently dramatized as both the failure of media to take on controversy, and the failure of the press to maintain its social relevance.  A third trending thematic excoriation of the press can be seen in the British (1991) television series “House of Cards” and its American (2013) remake, in which an impossibly Machiavellian (older male) politician mentors and increasingly shapes the career of a (younger female) reporter–to his own ends. While there are significant differences between the British and the American series, both have in common the core situation of a young, ambitious reporter who makes a deal with the devil, binding herself inextricably to the politician’s power–over the course of events and over her. Any idealization of a free press that might be inherent in the larger framework of this particular story is going to be severely mitigated by the reporter’s political opportunism and her complicity with the scheming alpha dog of a politician. Because the politician in “House of Cards” is so very wicked, this drama is an outlier among journalistic dramas, a dark fable that surpasses mere cynicism: its focus on character makes this drama less well-positioned to deliver a statement on the health of democracy and the press.

Where, then, does Tom Rachman’s widely acclaimed tale of an English-language newspaper in Rome fit into the literary history of novels, films, and television series about the press?

In a way, the author of The Imperfectionists sketches an even more phantasmagorical, quirky image of the news media than does the auteur of the semi-surreal film Hereafter. Rachman’s reader gains awareness of this quirkiness at an almost subliminal level, precisely because the novel performs its central task: the exploration of individual identity, with such superb wit and finesse. The novel’s layered, realistic structure, determined by dual narratives, further conceals the quirkiness of its vision. A sequence of Short Story Chapters that delve into the psyches of individual characters runs along a parallel track, next to a quaintly stylized Founder’s Tale: the story of the launching of the paper in 1953 by Atlanta businessman Cyrus Ott, and its metamorphosis into an icon of the Ott family legacy. The chiseled prose of the Founder’s Tale describes the architecture of the “scribble gray” seventeenth century building in which the international paper will be housed. And we are given a good look at the newsroom’s interior:

                                    Ott rid the place of its dusty furniture and had all the interior walls knocked
                                    down, creating a wide-open newsroom, rimmed with tidy offices that
                                    looked inward, like box seats directed toward the stage. He bought wooden
                                    swivel chairs, varnished desks, brass banker’s lamps, a custom-built horseshoe
                                    table for the copy editors, shiny black phones for the reporters, thirty-eight
                                    Underwood typewriters imported from New York City, thick crystal ashtrays,
                                    and thick white carpeting, with a discreet bar in the east wall.

What a setting! Down to the finest retro detail. If this were a Balzac novel, we would soon be witnessing scene after scene unfold on this stage set. As it is, the main narrative of the novel–as developed in the Short Story Chapters–takes a different turn.

Set in the 1990s to 2007, the central narrative bristles with data-rich newsroom anecdotes. Like the Founder’s Tale, the Short Story Chapters narrative presents the reader with the furniture and floor plan of a newsroom that is presumably the setting for ideological battles and office politics:  a water cooler, a contested chair, an obituary writer’s undesirable cubicle by the supplies closet, a transparently welcoming editor-in-chief’s office and an overstuffed corrections editor‘s office piled with books and papers.

The Imperfectionists, then, seems plausibly to be the life history of a small international newspaper during its half-century of existence. The suggestion of a historical perspective is reinforced by chapter titles such as “Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls.” In addition, each Short Story Chapter is tagged with the name and title of the character featured therein (Chapter 1: Paris Correspondent––Lloyd Burko; Chapter 2: Obituary Writer–Arthur Gopal; Chapter 3: Business Reporter–Hardy Benjamin, etc.).

Yet having presented us with this Masterpiece Theater-style stage set of a newsroom, Rachman the storyteller determines that we spend most of our time outside it. In several of the Short Story Chapters, key scenes take the form of a vis-à-vis between the chapter’s main character and his or her alter ego or double. These encounters––arguments––dialogues––moments of truth, happen at home or at the airport, or in restaurants over lovingly described Italian cuisine and good red wine––they happen in night clubs, and in the abodes of a lover, a friend, and an interview subject––but they do not happen at the office.

Unlike the newsroom of the BBC’s The Hour, HBO’s Newsroom, or any film listed above, the newsroom in Rome is no hive; and the paper’s working unit is hardly a team: rather a loose affiliation of ex-pats who are, yes, described as relating to one another on a work basis, but not in the key scenes of their lives. Moreover, the issues that staff members deal with, individually and collectively, never rise to the level of the morality dramas that engulf journalists in more typical novels and films about the press.

Nor does any large issue of Italian or world politics impinge on the Imperfectionist staff member’s attention in any significant way. In the chapter entitled “The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists: Cairo Stringer–Winston Cheung,” there are several references to current events. But in this darkly rendered tale of pathos, the hapless Winston is locked in a death-match with his evil twin: reporter Rich Snyder; therefore every reference to the political realities of the Middle East, and to the danger and difficulty of reporting in the region, is subsumed by the storyline woven around Snyder’s colossal ambition.

At best, membership in the world of postmodern journalism provides a ticket to life-altering synchronicity. Rachman characters Arthur Gopal, Hardy Benjamin, Herman Cohen, and Kathleen Solson each undergo a sea change that reverberates deeply in their personal lives, transforming their self-image, openness to experience, and capacity for happiness. Yet except for the character of Arthur Gopal, whose awakening leads to professional advancement, these modifications of identity have nothing to do with the experience of working for the press.

In Chapters 2-6 of The Imperfectionists, a couple stands at the core of each separate narrative. In addition to the two rivals, Cheung and Snyder, locked in mortal combat, unbeknownst to Cheung, for one available job opening, the narrative sequence discloses two romantic couples: Hardy-Rory and Kathleen-Dario, a couple bonded by unquestioned friendship: Herman-Jimmy, and the oddest couple of them all, Arthur-Gerda, the interviewer and his subject who become bonded by the proximity of death, and the experience of loss and renewal.

For all of these couples, no matter how temporary their bond, change is in the air. Cheung learns the hard way from his encounter with Snyder, his evil twin: he will never be so trusting again. A subtle tour de force renders the complicated entanglements of symbiotic couples Hardy-Rory and Herman-Jimmy, as well as the complex bond uniting co-equal couple Kathleen-Dario.  And in what is perhaps the best story in the book, the obituary writer and his subject share a rare philosophical dialogue prompted by their existential situations, challenging one another to face the truth about their lives.

Hardy Benjamin accepts the limitations of her younger, feckless, Irish lover: Rory is unreliable, the none-too-bright companion of a clever woman, and a petty thief. The author has great fun with their dialogue, replete with instances of Hardy needing to dumb-down her vocabulary for Rory’s sake. At the core of their relationship is a Rubix Cube with its message from Hardy’s beloved father. No one seems to understand why Hardy chooses Rory over, say, a life of solitary self-respect, with the supporting memory of her father’s esteem. But Hardy doesn’t need esteem, she needs a lived life and, yes, sex. Rory is far from the perfect mate, but Hardy’s eyes are wide open, and she rejoices in the symbiosis as the best life has to offer.

Herman Cohen and pal Jimmy become a duo based on superficial similarity. They are the only two Jewish students at a Presbyterian private school, where the charismatic Jimmy takes Herman under his wing and protects him. In the ensuing years, Herman repays his debt of gratitude several times over, housing Jimmy, nursing him, feeding him, and above all idealizing him for the unwritten masterpiece that Herman faithfully expects his friend to produce, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Like the union between Hardy and Rory, this is an unequal friendship, a symbiosis in which one person, Herman, does all the giving. Surprisingly then, it is Jimmy who decides to break the spell. Worn out from the burden of Herman’s untested high regard, Jimmy spells it out for his pal: he never is, he never was, going to write that masterpiece. No genius, Jimmy, but for all his mediocrity, he possesses a spark of self-respect, of self-knowledge. Nevertheless, once the scales have fallen from Herman’s eyes, and the idealization is withdrawn, Herman has no interest in continuing the friendship.

Kathleen Solson, the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief, is a powerful woman, expert and capable even though, we know, the paper is not thriving as it did in the past. At the beginning of Kathleen’s chapter (“U.S. General Optimistic on War” Editor-in-Chief – Kathleen Solson) we see her typically in command of the situation, and of herself, performing well on a panel at a media conference despite the fact she has just discovered that her bored, underemployed husband is having an affair. But this isn’t the real storyline. At the conference, Kathleen has a brief conversation with a young man named Winston Cheung, but this isn’t the real storyline either. Suddenly, Kathleen is approached by a man from the audience–her former lover, Dario de Monterecchi–and the real story begins.

Powerful woman or not, the real story of Kathleen is the story of her failed affair with Dario, and subsequent marriage to a man she doesn’t respect: she thinks of Nigel as a “funny man.” When Kathleen and Dario inevitably start to meet again, she is initially contemptuous of him as well. Informed that Dario, like his father, has had a breakdown, she muses, “A pleasant man, but weak. He had a breakdown, poor guy…that’s what he is: P.R. material.” But things are about to change. At an earlier rendezvous, Kathleen insisted on an honesty session, and learned some unpleasant truths about herself. Now she is about to be disabused of the illusion that she is the one in control of the relationship with Dario, just as she used to control him sexually. Dario tells her that they can only be friends. Kathleen protests. As in their brief encounter the day of the conference, Dario has caught her off guard, upsetting her balance.

By the end of the story, Kathleen’s disrespect for Dario has dissolved and been replaced by a kind of reliance on his emotional authority. The reason for this transformation is not entirely clear, but seems to have something to do with Dario’s image of her as “goodness.”  The second time he describes her so, Dario elaborates: “…driven. Like a mole.” It is not a flattering image, but appears accurate.

The Kathleen-Dario couple is the most mysterious of Rachman’s partnerships. Both Kathleen and Dario have complex motivations vis-à-vis the other. Each is restless, dissatisfied, and passionate, but also possesses a core of self-knowledge, and therefore of compassion for the other. We wonder where this relationship will go. Why did Dario seek her out in the first place? Is this a story about a life lesson––the usual life lesson learned by high profile women successful in their work––or one with a lack of resolution? The Kathleen-Dario union is an imperfect union to be sure––perhaps it is no union at all––but it is not a symbiosis. This mysterious relationship is an equal one, especially once Kathleen’s defenses have been breached. It is a truth-telling friendship, and in this instance, truth brings the friends closer together.

We never really learn anything of importance about Kathleen Solson as the head of a struggling international newspaper. Instead, we learn what she is like in bed, and in intimate encounters with her husband and former lover. That is carrying the a-historical aspect of the novel pretty far.

 In Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black, Julien Sorel misses the opportunity to join Napoleon’s army, thereby losing the chance to be a hero to himself––all because he is born too late. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre Bezukhov sets out to observe the battle of Borodino, but naïve as he is, and untutored in military matters, he can’t seem to locate the “position” of the Russian troops. Once the battle has been joined, Pierre becomes so disoriented that he can’t find the locus of the battle action. The classics of literature have some wonderful examples of characters missing their date with history, which is tantamount to missing one’s date with destiny.

Perhaps Rachman’s Editor-in-Chief never had a date with history to begin with; perhaps it was always her destiny as a character to be realized as an individual pursuing authenticity in the private sphere. It seems significant, however, in relation to the overall schema of the novel, that the author takes the most apparently powerful figure in the newsroom, and inverts her story arc so completely, that the reader knows her marginally as a public persona, but knows her privately, intimately, best of all the characters in the newsroom.

If the author’s portrait of the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief in Chapter 5 represents the fulfillment of the couples trope, it also prefigures a turning point in the novel.  In the novel’s next section––approximately the third quarter of the book––Chapters 6, 7, and 8, Rachman continues to profile individual staff members of the newspaper, in a sense rounding out the gallery of  his characters while developing disparate themes. Chapter 6 relates the story of the death-match between Cheung and Snyder, Chapter 7 relates the tale of Copy Editor Ruby Zagat, and Chapter 8 relates the story of News Editor Craig Menzies. 

Each of the three chapters in the third quarter of The Imperfectionists echoes patterns established in the first half of the novel. Cheung and Snyder are locked in a negative symbiosis. Ruby Zagat, one of three Short Story characters without a doppelgänger, is as isolated, and alienated, as Lloyd Burko, Paris Correspondent, the main character in Chapter 1 ––in spite of the fact that Ruby works in the office, at the putative center of the news hive. Chapter 8, like the earlier chapters introducing Benjamin, Cohen, Solson, and Cheung, gives short shrift to Craig Menzies’ role at work. Very little drama centers around Craig Menzies, News Editor; instead, the narrative tells the tale of his personal life. Thus does the author divulge the seamy saga of the infidelity of Menzies’ girlfriend, counterpointed by Menzies’ growing involvement in tinkering with inventions in his basement workshop. Following the portrait of a co-equal couple, Kathleen and Dario, in Chapter 5, the couples theme undergoes a degradation: the rivalry between Cheung and Snyder is an unequal contest–a tale of exploitation, and the Menzies-Annika tale is a variation on sex, lies, and videotape.

Chapter 9, the story of a Reader, inaugurates the novel’s dénouement: the resolution of the Short Story character themes along with the synchronizing of the Short Story and Founder’s Tale timelines.  It is from the beginning of Chapter 9, the story of Dario’s mother, Ornella De Monterecchi, that The Imperfectionists starts to read more like a novel, and less like a collection of short stories. This is partly due to the fact that characters from an earlier story–Dario, Cosimo–are mentioned, and another–Kathleen–actually makes a brief but pivotal appearance in Ornella’s tale. A change in the quality of the narrative, however, is also due to the author’s late development and resolution of the novel’s surreptitious theme: the story of a newspaper, and the resolution, in the last three chapters, of the place of individual identities within the context of the life history of a newspaper.

In what sense, then, is The Imperfectionists the life history of a newspaper? Does the newspaper described in the novel even have a name? (I couldn’t find one.) The newspaper’s life history begins with its founding by American entrepreneur Cyrus Ott in 1953. What were Ott’s reasons for founding the paper? Those who haven’t already guessed the answer will discover it in the final chapter. In the meanwhile, the reader is presented with newspaper staff from the 1990s on; the disclosure of their personal, even intimate, lives, however, provides scant enlightenment as to the purpose or functioning of the Rome paper. If anything, it would appear that the paper exists solely to provide employment, and the excuse to live abroad, for staff members.

What issues does the paper champion? What is its utility in a democratic society? Unlike most representations of the press in literature, Tom Rachman’s novel presents us with a newspaper defined by, rather than defining, the tendencies of the day. The demise of the paper is significant because the paper’s trajectory is generic, its stations of the cross––diminished readership, loss of subscriptions, loss of advertisers and, ultimately, loss of market share to the Internet––mark the same territory as the path traced by print media worldwide. In reconciling the Short Story and Founder’s Tale timelines, therefore, the author brings his quirky account of a quixotic enterprise into the “actual” world of narrative realism.

The reconciliation of the novel’s two timelines is not accomplished simply by having them dovetail at a certain point in the narrative, though this does happen. By the end of Chapter 11, the timelines have become synchronized. Crucially, however, Rachman uses Chapter 9 to develop, metaphorically, themes inherent in the positing of disparate timelines, themes reflected in the transformative concepts of Time and the News as experienced by Reader Ornella De Monterecchi.

Ornella is the newspaper’s most devoted reader. For once in The Inperfectionists, a titular character’s name tag: Reader, denotes a role which Rachman will fully explore. For reasons that are perhaps over-determined, Ornella reads each copy of the newspaper from front to back, stopping to ask questions so as to learn about the world. Due to the thoroughness of her reading, Ornella is permanently stuck in the past (as, indeed, is her beloved newspaper).  The chapter’s first scene opens on Ornella reading the April 23, 1994 edition of the paper–in February of 2007.

In another, more crucial sense, Ornella is stuck in the past: she is missing the April 24, 1994 edition of the paper, an edition whose absence stands for a day on which Ornella experienced violence and a threat to her life: the day when her husband Cosimo had his ‘breakdown’–in fact an outbreak of violence against his wife. In the dialogue that ensues when Ornella turns up at the office to request the April 24, 1994 paper from the archives, and commandeers Kathleen as her listener, the truth comes out. Typically for The Imperfectionists, it is the divulging of a personal and private truth, rather than a truth vital to the wellbeing of democracy, that unblocks the stream of time, allowing Ornella to move on past the trauma she suffered that day. Before resuming her reading ––with Marta, her maid, as interlocutor––in her quest for the missing edition, Ornella spills and disrupts the carefully (not to say obsessively) sequenced newspapers. Rejoicing in her liberation from the imposition of an arbitrary timeline, Ornella continues her dogged pursuit of understanding the world through knowledge of current events, this time as a reader of today’s paper. When Marta asks, “Which today?” Ornella answers, “The today you brought in. The one in the plastic bag.”

Though the frame story, or Founder’s Tale of Chapter 9, is still stuck in the past (in the frame story it is 1994, in the Short Story timeline, 2007), the intransigence and unknowability of the past begins to thaw out from this point on. In 1994, key moments in the newspaper’s life history are transpiring: Milton Berger retires as Editor-in-Chief, Kathleen is hired, and Corrections Editor Herman Cohen, in a mistake of historic proportions, nixes a website for the newspaper. On the Short Story axis, in 2007 Kathleen, nearing the end of her tenure, is destined, through her encounter with Ornella, to gain further insight into factors that have shaped her personal life.

Having presented his reader with Ornella’s epic struggle with Time and the tendentious nature of current events, Rachman procedes to reconcile the two timelines of his novel, and to close the narrative with Chapter 10: an ‘Up in the Air’ encounter between CFO Abbey Pinnola and Dave, “The Lay-off,” and Chapter 11, featuring the closure of the newspaper and a portrait of the couple comprised of Oliver Ott and his dog Schopenhauer.

Rachman’s ‘Up in the Air’ chapter describes a brief dialogue on an airplane between Dave, recently laid off from the Rome newspaper, and the CFO who gave him the axe. The spurious couple Abbey-Dave, created by the happenstance of being seatmates on an international flight, appears to consist of flirtation punctuated by discomfort on the part of CFO Abbey, certain as she is that only she is aware whose decision it was to fire Dave.

Thematically, Abbey-Dave represents a devolution of the couple bond as a trope connoting the possibility of authentic feeling in the private realm of the postmodern world fashioned by the author. For in the couple’s final encounter in a hotel room, Dave’s behavior reveals both that he knew all along who had decided to fire him, and that far from being interested in flirting with Abbey, he is out for revenge. This penultimate chapter reverses the priorities of earlier chapters: Abbey’s nickname at the newspaper, “Accounts Payable,” overrides the meaning of her personal name, just as the, so to speak, naked economic relationship governing the actions of Abbey and Dave overrides any possibility of empathy, or feeling of commonality, that they might have, the one for the other.

By the end of the Abbey-Dave chapter, the Founder’s Tale has reached 2004. Cyrus Ott (1899-1960) is, of course long gone, and has been replaced at the helm of the Rome newspaper first by his son, then by his feckless grandson Oliver, a true exemplar of fin de race if ever there was one. By 2004, the story of the Rome newspaper is the story of newspapers everywhere:

Newspapers were spiraling downward…As readership plummeted, advertisers fled and loses mounted…Kathleen appealed for color pages and for a website…The Ott Group Holdings were varied enough to offer something. How about this newspaper they owned in Rome? It would be ideal for Oliver…”But I don’t know anything about the business,” Oliver replied.

Three years later, it is 2007 in the final Short Story chapter and in the about-to-end life of the newspaper. Oliver Ott, given to frequent disappearances and to long walks (and talks!) with his receptive hound, has proved a disaster as Publisher, but certainly no more of a disaster than the myriad forces of happenstance that have borne down upon that wobbly enterprise: the English-language newspaper based in Rome. In the meanwhile Oliver, during one of his peregrinations through Cyrus Ott’s mansion, has discovered a document disclosing the raison d'être of the newspaper. In an unsent letter to Betty, Cyrus Ott had written: “You asked why I came here to Rome. I never cared about the news. I came to be in the same room as you, even if I had to build that room, fill it with people, with typewriters and the rest.”

Just so, the Ott family newspaper, founded for entirely personal reasons by a man who ‘never cared about the news,’ having fulfilled its mission for over five decades, of furnishing employment for staff, and providing intelligent reading matter for subscribers such as Ornella De Monterecchi, by decision of the board of Ott Family Holdings, is ordered closed in 2007.

Now that the word of work, at least in the form of the newspaper, has shut down for Rachman’s characters, what remains to them in the private world of intimate relationships, of which so much has already been said? The author provides several indices. Firstly, in a general way, the reader will have picked up on the fact that, just as the last quarter of the The Imperfectionists reads more like a novel than earlier parts of the book, so the feeling tone changes from one that is sometimes upbeat (Hardy-Rory), or hopeful in regard to the capacity for self-transcendence (Kathleen-Dario, Arthur-Gerda), to one of or cynicism or even despair. Secondly, the couple bond, having devolved from co-equal, to symbiotic, to spurious, appears in a final travesty of coupledom in the relationship of Oliver and hound Schopenhauer.

Now far be it from me to cast aspersions on the man-dog relationship, but Schopenhauer, with his long, strokable ears, hang-dog expression, and attentive demeanor, was clearly an enabler of the very worst sort, one who raised no objection to Oliver’s fecklessness, nor did he protest his master’s laziness, his capacity for self-deception, or his avoidance of responsibility. If you think this is harsh, recall the verdict passed by the dismissed newspaper staff. Indeed, ‘someone’ agreed with me wholeheartedly, ‘someone’ who was present at Oliver’s announcement of the closure of the newspaper, ‘someone’ who noticed Schopenhauer tied to a leg of Kathleen’s desk––SPOILER ALERT!!! Yes, and that ‘someone’ made sure that the complicitous Schopenhauer would not leave the building under his own steam.

Finally, there is the tidy Where are they now? addendum that completes the frame story––into which the Short Story characters have entered; here we discover few surprises. For Rachman’s characters do pretty consistently go on being themselves. Those who have become older versions of themselves, like Herman Cohen, emanate placid contentment and forgetfulness. Previously awakened to his career ambitions by dying interviewee Gerda Erzberger, Arthur Gopal unsurprisingly becomes the one who makes the most successful career move. Hardy Benjamin moves to London and pays Rory’s rent; Kathleen Solson moves to Washington, where she is likely to be living and working still, and maintaining her husband Nigel in suitable fashion––after all, if we follow the logic of Tom Rachman’s endings, we can make our own assumptions.

In a similar ceremony of leave-taking from the characters of her novel How it All Began, author Penelope Lively comments,

An ending is an artificial device; we like endings, they are satisfying, convenient, and a point has been made. But time does not end, and stories march in step with time….These stories do not end but they spin away from one anther, each on its own course.

Like Penelope Lively, Tom Rachman is enough of a realist to create characters the reader can care about; thus the convention of Where are they now?  seems appropriate, if not convincing. Why does this catalogue of individual endings fail to convince? 

Because The Imperfectionists purports to be the story of a newspaper: founded for love, kept going time and again out of inertia, lacking any grand mission. This newspaper (does it have a name?) never published anything like J’Accuse. In the fictional world this newspaper inhabited, it probably would not have been among first to publish The Pentagon Papers, or an interview with Deep Throat, or articles referring to early evidence of WMD. Twice desecrated (by the blood of Cosimo, by the dog food of Schopenhauer), the newspaper has been reduced in the end to its mere material components.

But if the fictitious Rome newspaper deserved to be reduced to its material substrate–-like the newsprint used to line monkey cages by Winston Cheung––the same cannot be said for the icons of print journalism: The Times, The Observer, The Guardian, Le Monde, The New York Times, The Washington Post: upholders of a great tradition which Rachman’s novel is, perhaps unfortunately, too disillusioned, too cynical, and––emphatically––too postmodern to represent. For Kierkegaard, writing in the mid 19th century, the public was the creation of the press. Though not necessarily approving of this development, Kierkegaard nevertheless noted how the press provided for a greater cohesiveness in modern society. Two of the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights under the Establishment Clause–Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press––are foundational rights of the United States Constitution, concrete realizations of the Founders’ stated intention, in the Preamble, to form a more perfect union. Will such  promises continue to bind the public together in the America (or in American ex-pat colonies) of postmodernity? Conceived and guided by imperfectionists, the rapidly transforming media of the 21st century can aspire to represent, at best––for the time being––an imperfect union.


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