Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Out of Office. . .

We often don't know much about the private lives of our colleagues, and that's probably a good thing.

Suffice it to say, if they seem unhappy and unfulfilled at work, their home lives are probably also a mess. Such is the case with the group of people working at an English language newspaper in Rome, profiled in Tom Rachman's entertaining The Imperfectionists . The novel is structured in a series of sketches, each focusing on a different character including the workaholic editor, stringer reporters in Paris and Cairo, the staff responsible for writing obituraries and the daily Puzzle-Wuzzle, the news editor and even one of the paper's most loyal readers - a woman so dedicated to reading every word, of every edition, that she is several years behind, but refuses to catch up on world events in any other way. In one episode, the accounts payable manager who has just fired a copyeditor ends up sitting next to him on a long trans-atlantic flight and certainly is made to pay for her actions. My favourite character was Herman Cohen, the Corrections Editor, who delights in adding new grammatical laws to the paper's style guide which is known simply as the "Bible", and who publishes a regular newsletter highlighting the biggest mistakes that made it to print. It has the simple pleading title of "Why?"

In between the stories is a running history of the paper as, over a few decades, it goes through several owner and editor changes and tries to survive (like every newspaper) in the internet age. There is a lot of bravado and ego among the newspaper staff, but most are grappling with office politics and less than ideal personal relationships and Rachman provides deliciously biting and unexpected conclusions to the various conflicts that arise. The writing is clever and astute and certainly brought back memories of a couple of years working in campus journalism - a stressful time I chiefly remember as being rife with the conflicting extremes of joyful exhilaration and the most utter misery. (And yes, it is difficult to write good headlines, especially in pre-computer days!)

The Imperfectionists is one of the most enjoyable novels I've read this year.

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