Consulting the fact-files

One of the Amazon reviewers mentions that Brad Pitt has bought the movie rights which is funny because when I got to the end of The Imperfectionists I thought to myself, they’re going to have to change this ending before this novel is fit for the big screen.

That’s not what I normally think about when I get to the end of a book — what needs doing to make it a movie … but it crossed my mind this time because I was trying to put my finger on why, ultimately, this book didn’t satisfy me and it reminded me of how I feel when I watch a movie that might be beautifully shot and wonderfully acted but emotionally unfair. The sort of movie that’s all a bit too bleak and too real without the catharsis.

As I already admitted in yesterday’s post, I love learning about what it’s really like to work for a newspaper which almost everyone in this book does.

And the most striking aspect of this book is the breadth of unbelievably well-drawn characters. How can one author (and a new one) be so fluent in such a range of human beings? It made me jealous.

Despite the intelligence (or because of it), the reading is light and fast. Like an Agatha Christie we’re introduced to a complete cast — each gets their own chapter and plays a cameo when it someone else’s turn. Several times I had to flick back to previous chapters the way I would flick back to the character list at the start of an Agatha Christie … not in a bad losing-track way but in a good, comforting double-check way.

But, even if out of the 13 characters we meet, a handful meet a nice fate, this “tragi comedy” veers too close to meaningless and in places, horribly spiteful (I can’t get specific without spoilers but the thing about the dog almost made me cry!) The book is “tragi” the way the English tend to do clinical depression – in a very off-hand, light-hearted, charming and funny way — but depressive nonetheless.

The bit I bet Hollywood will alter is the way the stories wrap together towards the end — so that The Imperfectionists transforms from a string of brilliant insights into a coherent “here’s the moral of the story.”

But The Imperfectionist did remind me of two lessons I have learnt before even if I don’t think either were part of the author’s intention. One, is that work is work and two is that it’s important not to let the facts get in the way of a good decision.

  • Work is work – I’ve learnt this from listening to and interviewing and following around people who seem to have a dream job (just like the characters of this novel.) Musicians who have a top spot in an orchestra, successful freelance journalists, photographers whose work hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. But all of the people I met were forced to accept if not the same sort, then the same level of trade-off’s that we sometimes imagine are peculiar to office workers. Many of us may day dream about running off to join the circus, but when you get there you still have the politics of the gamekeepers. I’m not saying that some of us aren’t stuck in wrong jobs, when right ones would change our lives. But I am saying that it’s very easy to fantasise and romanticise what other people do for a paycheck.
  • Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good decision – When I was in college I used to visit the careers library which was one of the most pointless undertakings in my hunt for what-to-do-next. The library was lined with “fact-files” — big binders with print out’s of Career Descriptions which were slotted into protective plastic sheaths. For each career the following sort of information was provided: skills you’d need, the necessary degree(s) to get and the minimum level of academic achievement to prove; the trajectory — entry level realities, promotions, highest possible position; salary odds — from unliveable starting amounts to not-very-reassurining progressions with the odd mention of what 1-2% of the highest paid might demand when they reached 50; the obvious and less obvious organisations that needed people to do this kind of work; which trade magazines or newspapers to read to scan for employment and then there was the Other Notes section. If none of the above proved demoralising this was the space left over that contained statements like “journalism is a highly competitive field and few who set out to make a living from it will achieve that”

Thankfully the Internet took off after I left college and these days job-seekers aren’t reliant on these sorts of binders to inform life altering decisions.  And this is where books like The Imperfectionists come into it — it’s very strange but there are very few novels about what work is like, but there are some and this is a good one for that. There’s also never been so many memoirs to chose from — the misery kind but also the “here’s what it’s really like to be a spy  — or a war reporter or a UN worker” variety. And what’s great about stories is that they don’t let the facts get in the way of how life and work actually unfold.

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