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.

Links: Venting

Edith Wharton‘s birthplace is now a Starbucks.

Jeffrey Eugenides on his novel in progress: “You have to come up with a new song for every book. For now, I’ve got the song for this book. And that’s when it becomes fun. That’s why you don’t want to finish too quickly. Because the part that’s fun comes between the discovery of the song and the singing of the last note.”

Justin Cronin
: “I went to Iowa in the ’80s [and] Raymond Carver was the patron saint of all that we did, but I realized that that did not suit me particularly well. What made me want to be a writer in the first place were big, fat, epic stories that you could get yourself completely lost in.”

Northern Illinois University Press recently launched an imprint, Switchgrass Books, dedicated to Midwestern fiction.

A film version of Ha Jin‘s Waiting may soon begin shooting in China.

The Library of America’s new blog looks at fictionalizations of the life of Elizabeth Bishop.

What I chafe at is this sense that difficult books are most meaningful as an experience when you’ve bested them, outlasted them, pinned them to the ground by enduring them to the bitter end.”

On a not-unrelated note: Celebrating John Barth‘s The Sot-Weed Factor on its 50th anniversary. (I read it as a teenager and stopping about 200 pages in, but I don’t recall why I quit; I vividly recall loving it.)

Watching the World Cup with Aleksandar Hemon.

On the difficult task of editing Mark Twain‘s autobiography: “So we had to edit Clemens’s editing of the editor’s editing…”

A reader realizes that Tom Rachman‘s entertaining book about a floundering English-language newspaper in Rome, The Imperfectionists makes more sense if you treat it as a collection of linked stories and not, as the cover suggests, a novel.

Finally, a list that exposes the silliness of lists.