The Pathos Department

Writing at, Alyssa Rosenberg observes that the characters in Tom Rachman‘s The Imperfectionists, a comic novel about a failing newspaper in Rome, are each “pathetic in some way”:

[T]he Paris correspondent is a lame, fabricating drunk; the business reporter is an older woman, settling for a man who mocks and uses her; the editor is humiliating herself pursuing an old flame; one candidate for a Cairo stringer position is hopelessly inexperienced, the other a horrendously selfish bastard; the copy editor is passive-aggressive; the news editor is betrayed; the chief financial officer fires the wrong person when asked to make layoffs and somehow thinks he’ll forget she’s responsible; the publisher is the weakest scion of a failing business line.

This is a flaw to Rosenberg, though, because “Rachman’s novel doesn’t want to deal in any substantive way with the reasons the news business is undergoing monumental change.” Thank goodness.

The Imperfectionists is designed to take a host of known foilbles about newspaper people—the persnickety copy editor, the deadwood correspondent, the out-of-touch publisher—and inflate them to the point where comedy begins to touch on the absurd. That strategy is probably the most clear about halfway through the book, when Winston Cheung, a college grad with no journalism experience, tries out for a job as a stringer in Cairo. He’s anxious enough about being bullied by an award-winning international correspondent gunning for the same job, and a friend’s savaging of his first attempt at a news story only makes things worse:

“I have to say, you spend way too many words getting to the nut of this story. Also, I felt the undersecretary’s goatee received too much attention. Frankly, I wouldn’t even mention it.”

“I thought it was germane.”

“Not in the lead. Don’t get me wrong—I like your attempts to insert color. But I felt you were trying too hard at times. Like this bit: ‘As he spoke, the yellow Egyptian sun shone very brightly, as if that golden sphere were blazing with the very hope for peace in the Middle East that burned also within the heart of the Palestinian undersecretary for sports, fishing, and wildlife.'”

“I considered deleting that line.”

“I’m not even sure it’s grammatical. And, for the record, the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do not ‘hark back to an ancient spelling mistake.’ Not that I’ve ever heard.”

This is the banter-heavy territory of comedies The Front Page and His Girl Friday; I’d no more trust The Imperfectionists to tell me something about the changing face of journalism than I’d expect Airplane! to teach me something about air traffic controllers. The novel isn’t always so antic, and its 11 character sketches don’t always settle into a consistent tone, which is as it should be; not all pathetic people are created equal. But Rachman isn’t solely fixated on showing how pathetic his characters are. He has a knack for finding the details about his characters that make them empathetic, even when they’re making profoundly bad life decisions—none more than that passive-aggressive, disliked copy editor who has more going on in her life that she lets on. Nobody in The Imperfectionists is equipped to deal with the sweeping changes that are crippling the paper, but that’s the point. The crisis is so big that it can’t prompt an easy solution; all it can do is reveal character.

4 thoughts on “The Pathos Department

  1. I guess the book’s refusal to “deal in any substantive way with the reasons the news business is undergoing monumental change” is just further proof that fiction is dead. Somewhere, David Shields nods his head in concurrence.

  2. Putting this one on my to-read list. Comic novels with flawed characters with whom one can empathize–that’s my A list.

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