Saturday, August 21, 2010

Not so fine print

By the time the dog could get the day’s newspaper to its master, the latter was already reading its digital version. “Should I get the paper from tomorrow or not,” asks the dog to its master. Unless Yann Martel decides to make something out of this New Yorker cartoon, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is most probably going to be the last mainstream work of fiction on the totem of past generations— newspaper.

Rachman’s entertaining debut is a warts-and-all account of a “stolidly black and white” Rome-based English newspaper’s heyday and decline in 1954 and 2007, respectively. Brace yourself for a peek into a self-contained universe where the editor-in-chief is pondering sleeping with an old flame while the paper is staring at the abyss and the publisher’s basset hound is called, wait for this, Schopenhauer. Rachman tells his tale in eleven chapters through eleven characters associated with the daily, whose circulation is down to its last 10,000 and it doesn’t have a website.

Rachman displays a David Lodge-kind of ability in etching out a farrago of zany characters, who could have easily walked into any Luis Bunuel production: be it the Business Reporter Hardy Benjamin (“practically forty and I still resemble Pippi Longstocking”); or News Editor Craig Menzies (“has nothing in his life but news”); or Copy Editor Ruby Zaga, who spends every New Year eve in a different hotel to ward off the ennui of her perpetual singledom; or Paris Correspondent Lloyd Burko’s struggle against what he sees as “encroaching entropy”; or Cairo Correspondent Rich Snyder, who vocalises with the matchless authority of a man who has never been known to hit a note on pitch; or Ornella, the obsessive reader, who is intent on finishing every old edition, leaving herself trapped in the past and blithely unaware of the present; or Corrections Editor Herman Cohen, whose true calling in life has always been as a proofreader (“finally, arcane knowledge and pedantry came in handy”).

Rachman’s impressive journalistic credentials (AP correspondent, International Herald Tribune’s Paris editor) shine throughout the book. Be it the way he names the chapters with headlines straight out of Onion (“Kooks With Nukes”, “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126”, “Global Warming Good For Ice Creams”) or the Houellebecquian way of describing the characters’ tics.

While the book’s tone may inspire comparisons with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, its soul is more attuned to Michael Frayn’s Towards The End Of The Morning. Rachman has been able to demystify the print industry for the lay audience. I would prefer the Financial Times review of the book, “These journalists could just as easily be in banking or in advertising (the influence of Joshua Ferris’ downturn drama ‘Then We Came To The End’ is certainly present), or in any field that people fight to get into, but then, years later, fight to escape.” Thus, the uninitiated are to understand that there are hardly any Mikael Blomkvists in journalism. Most are as much a journalist as Tintin was. My former editor wasn’t far off the mark when he remarked that “journalism is the last resort for rejects of the world”, where sub-editors moan about lack of recognition and reporters fit that new full form of MBA doing the rounds: Mediocre But Arrogant.

To Rachman’s credit, the action most worth reading in the book is not at the centre of things but where edges meet — at the end of each chapter, Rachman chronicles the newspaper’s inception till its demise. What started as a product of fashion and a multimillionaire’s (Cyrus Ott) fancy ended up as follows: “The greatest influence over content was necessity — they had holes to fill on every page and jammed in any newsworthy string of words, provided it didn’t include expletives, which they were apparently saving for their own use around the office.”

The Imperfectionists is to be seen as more than just a piece of fiction. Last year, 15,000 newspaper jobs ended up in ether across the world and, you needn’t be a cynic to predict that the bleeding has just begun. The advent of 24-hour TV news and online information sites are increasingly making a newspaper’s information stale before it appears. One train of thought doing round has been aptly put by Kurt Andersen in Vanity Fair: “Life is manically parceled into financial quarters, three-minute YouTube videos, 140-character tweets. In my pocket is a phone/computer/camera/ video recorder/TV/stereo system half the size of a pack of Marlboros. And what about pursuing knowledge purely for its own sake, without any real thought of, um, monetising it? Cute.” Onion even did a story titled “Nation Shudders At Large Block Of Uninterrupted Text”. Thus, Rachman’s book is a grim reminder to the newspapers that a reinvented business model to sustain professional news-gathering is of absolute necessity. Slamming across a newswire copy that could easily be read online will no longer do. Make your opinions count. We are living in a world where Beaverbrooks and Hearsts will be seen as benign in the wake of the Internet’s dominance.

It’s a shining testimony to Rachman’s writing abilities that while the book raises questions more pertinent than ever before, the humour quotient never lags.Inan industry where bastardisation is the name of the game, this is, all rights reserved, inglourious basterdy at its very best.


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