The Imperfectionists is a 2010 novel, or necklace of short stories, about an English-language newspaper in Rome. At first it seems weirdly unwilling to be a book about news. There’s a lot of quite resonant portrayal of the business of filling the paper, the desperate hunt for copy or fight for bylines, but for a while I felt like I could be reading about almost any enterprise in which grubby human motives hide behind an idealistic facade.
It’s one of those satires where you don’t laugh much but you’re not really supposed to. It’s good that it’s done as linked short stories: Every chapter focuses on a new person in the paper’s world, and that’s a big relief since I was usually happy to escape these people’s company. The chapters are often poignant but man, when they ended, I breathed a quick sigh of relief.
Slowly a few commentaries on news in itself, what it means to have a social construct “news,” begin to emerge. For example, most of these characters are deeply lacking in self-reflection. (Self-absorption, yes. Self-containment, sometimes. Self-reflection, no.) Sometimes they get to keep their illusions and facades, sometimes the inner illusions remain even though the facade has been stripped off and others see what’s wrong, and sometimes–rarely–they’re confronted with a reality they had hoped would never come after them. This might play as ordinary irony: Reporter, analyze thyself. But I think it’s also about the way news distracts. The whirling zoetrope of news offers an escape from the hard personal changes forced by the slow daily round of chores and obligations.
There are two chapters toward the end–the last two, actually, I think–which are pretty brilliant. One is about the paper’s most devoted reader, who forestalls a reckoning with the worst day of her life by collecting the paper but only reading it very, very slowly, so she is years behind the outside world. Her apartment is a fragile time capsule, where cell phones are banned and the Bush fighting a war in Iraq is his father. Yesterday’s news becomes her barrier against today, a barrier all the more absurd because nobody does this, news is disposable by its nature. You’re supposed to throw it away! Yet both throwing it away and keeping it turn out to be ways of distracting oneself from the eternal (death, judgment, hope) by means of the temporal.
Since the book is set in Rome there are several mentions of Catholicism, but I’m pretty sure zero people in this book go to Mass–that inbreaking of the eternal into the temporal, every sacrifice the one sacrifice on Calvary. From details in the book and in the acknowledgments I’m guessing the author is Jewish, but the book’s Jews are (I think) unstintingly secular. Arguably these stories are evidence that the loss of the eternal is also a loss of time, a transformation of today into mere news. From a story to a succession of events.I’ll say that this impression is strengthened by the way in which the book is false to what news is. None of these people are players in news (in fact there’s great poignancy in the contrast between the events which get reported and the personal tragedies they actually experience) and until the very end, when a Where Are They Now section points a skeletal finger at the 2008 financial crisis, there’s little sense that news affects them. A headline mentions that an African-American senator is running for President; in fact this news affected me personally, since I get my health insurance on the exchanges and was uninsured before that. Nothing like that ever comes up in The Imperfectionists, unless you count the news about the news business–the rise of the internet, etc–which we never see the paper’s reporting on. A newspaper is mostly a record of real things affecting real people, either immediately or gradually, but in this book it’s essentially contrasted with reality.
The chapters about particular players are linked by very short sections which add up to a history of the paper itself, its rise and fall. This is part of why the last chapter is so good. We’ve seen the paper’s founder amassing an art collection, Turner and Pissarro and Chagall. (Nothing before the
nineteenth late eighteenth century iirc, which seems significant.) In the last chapter his grandson has become a hermit, hiding in the mansion with the dog who’s his only friend. The newspaper he publishes, but doesn’t care about, is drowning in the flood of content. From paintings to newsprint to the 24-hour news cycle to Twitter, more and more immediate, until you’re flooded with humanity and you turn against all of it, all of the wreck and nonsense, and the founder’s grandson is repulsed by the human figures in the paintings he otherwise adores.
This final chapter asks, Should you love humans? Should you have that old-fashioned newspaper appetite for us, for our faces and our crimes? The book does love its humans, and you’ll feel for them, you’ll be touched as well as appalled by them. But its final shocking cruelty suggests maybe you should reconsider.