The Imperfectionists, By Tom Rachman

Dispatches from beyond the cringe

Reviewed,Jonathan Sale
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:02

The proprietor talks only to his dog. The obituary writer is only slightly more alive than those he writes about. The female sub-editor is torn between her need to hang on to the job and her desperate desire to be sacked. The original proprietor started up the paper so that he could employ an old flame, even though he had to have her husband on the payroll too.

However bad things are for them, journalists can take some consolation from the fact that their situation cannot be quite as disastrous as at the fictional newspaper portrayed in The Imperfectionists: a funny novel of the sweet-and-sour variety, its humour leavened with real sadness. Although it is never given a name, The Daily Loser would do as a working title for this international newspaper written in English by Americans based in Rome, with a dwindling band of stringers in Europe and an even faster dwindling band of readers. It doesn't have a website. Members of staff stagger their going-home times so they don't have to share the lift.

In an opening passage that will seem only too convincing to struggling freelancers, the paper's occasional correspondent in Paris tries to interest the news editor in a feature about a French delicacy consisting of a blind finch drowned in cognac, only to receive the perennial put down of "You have anything else?" The book ends with the plight of the most loyal reader who, abandoned by her husband, has had nothing to do since 1976 except to read the paper so obsessively that each issue takes her several days. Since she refuses to miss a single copy, she remains in a 1990s time-warp – and then she hits the bumpers with 24 April 1994, which is missing.

The most toe-curling character is an ace bullshitter of a reporter, or possibly a mere blogger, who claims to have met Osama Bin Laden: "Back in Tora Bora. Good times". He latches on to a young, would-be journo, takes over his bed, nicks his laptop, appropriates his cash, and sleeps with the hackette he fancies.

Tom Rachman has worked as a foreign correspondent and his characters, although exaggerated, ring only too true. To avoid former colleagues who might recognise themselves, he would be best advised to stick to the novel writing. They might take a dim view of the hackette's sneering verdict that "Journalism is a bunch of dorks pretending to be alpha males."

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