Sunday, May 02, 2010

By Christopher Buckley
Published: April 29, 2010

By Tom Rachman
272 pp. The Dial Press. US$25

This first novel by Tom Rachman, a London-born journalist who has lived and worked all over the world, is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off. I still haven’t answered that question, nor do I know how someone so young — Rachman turns out to be 35, though he looks even younger in his author photo — could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles. The novel is alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, and it’s assembled like a Rubik’s Cube. I almost feel sorry for Rachman, because a debut of this order sets the bar so high.

 Left - Tom Rachman photo by Alessandra Rizzo

“The Imperfectionists
” takes place in Rome. The characters are, for the most part, the staff of an unnamed English-­language newspaper founded in the 1950s — for reasons not revealed until the end — by an eccentric American businessman with the perfect name of Cyrus Ott. By 2004, his grandson, Oliver, will be in charge of the fates of the staff members whose stories make up the novel. More’s the pity, since Oliver’s only concern in life is for his basset hound, Schopenhauer.

Each of the novel’s chapters is about a particular staffer (or, in one case, a reader), from the editor in chief on down to a lowly copy editor. The stories interlock, or interlace or inter-something. By the end, we’ve come to know the newsroom through a sort of Cubist lens, with everyone viewed from various angles. Each chapter could stand alone as a short story. And the end of each chapter comes, in the manner of O. Henry or Saki or Roald Dahl, with a firecracker bang of discovery. There are also short italicized narratives in between the larger ones, mostly dedicated to the Ott family. I don’t mean to make the book sound overcomplicated or in any way challenging to read. It isn’t, but it’s so intricately constructed you may find yourself skipping back and forth to connect the dots and assemble the pieces of the puzzle.
The full review at NYT.

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