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The Last First Draft of History

Book #19 (May 28, 2010): The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Christopher Buckley reviewed this on the front page of the New York Times Book Review a couple of weeks ago and by the time I finished the first paragraph or two I stopped reading the review because it was already clear to me that it was a book that I wanted to read and I didn’t want any of it spoiled for me. Buckley made it sound like it was a brilliant new novel by a brilliant new novelist and I think he was pretty much right on both accounts. The novel is about the operations of an international English-language newspaper published in Italy and each chapter is about someone involved in the operations of the paper, with interstitial segments about the paper’s history. The action of the book proper takes place around 2006 or 2007.

Rachman’s writing is sharp and his characterization is deft. At first what I thought he was up to here was comedy or perhaps a satirical poke at the death throes of the newspaper business in the oncoming age of Internet news, and this is certainly part of what the book is about, but in the end it’s clear that Rachman is up to a great deal more than that. Some of what’s here is funny, some of it’s sad, but in the end the book sort of tore my heart out, and I didn’t see that coming. I like the way Rachman draws his characters in gradually broadening strokes, making them at first seem fairly one-dimensional and then bringing out new elements in them that are almost always surprising. There’s an optimism to his view of humanity; most of these people turn out to be better, or at least more understandably human, than they seem at first. Of course, a few also turn out to be real shits. But with a few exceptions, they’re all people you’d like to know, even if on occasion you might prefer to know them from a safe distance.

There’s not much plot in the long run, but each major character is the protagonist of a single chapter, appearing thereafter as bit players in the stories of others. If the book as a whole has a protagonist, it’s the newspaper itself. This is a difficult technique to pull off and Rachman does it well. He’s one of those writers who writes beautifully without seeming to write beautifully; he just effortlessly seems to know the right words and the right details to bring out in order to paint rapid character portraits that never seem at all hurried. I wish I wrote this well. I wish every other writer I’ve read so far this year wrote this well. (And, in all fairness, a couple of them do.)

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About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and two cats, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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