Newspaper Obituaries/ Tom Rachman’s *The Imperfectionists*

Sometime over the last few years I started to appreciate the New York Times‘ obituaries for the first time.  I started reading parts of the NYT at a pretty young age but I don’t know that I ever made it through an obituary in my youth, unless perhaps for someone like John Lennon.  My new interest in the genre must have had something to do with getting older myself, although I have to say that I think it’s less about that or anything morbid than appreciating the obituary as a concentrated little life narrative.  I’ve never done this, but I’ve considered bringing in some examples to a class, perhaps with wedding announcements, as a way to think about life narratives and their conventions and forms.  The NYT ones are usually little gems, filled with surprises, twists, and wonderfully vivid and odd details.

Today has an especially good collection.  (Or at least, these are the ones in my Sunday paper — of course now the concept of “today’s paper” is mutable.)  The longest one is of Poppa Neutrino, “an itinerant philosopher, adventurer and environmentalist… who founded his own church, crossed the Atlantic on a raft made from scrap and invented a theoretically unstoppable football strategy.”  He invented “the Neutrino Clock Offense, a system of secret hand signals, based on the face of a clock, designed to let passer and receiver communicate while a play is in progress. Despite his best efforts, Mr. Pearlman was unable to persuade any college football teams to adopt it.”

Also on the page are Eleanor Galenson, a psychoanalyst who revised Freud’s accounts of the origins of sexual identity and concluded “that children make the discovery of genital difference between the ages of 15 to 19 months, and that this has an impact on their play, their relationship with their own bodies, their relationship with their parents.” Also Bernd Eichinger, screenwriter and producer of many films including the Hitler film Downfall, criticized by Wim Wenders for generating a “kind of benevolent understanding” of the Nazi leaders by virtue of seeing the world through their perspective.  (Maybe a missed opportunity here: why no mention of the Downfall internet meme?)

And finally — in some ways this is my favorite kind of obituary, a mini-biography of someone one is guaranteed never to have heard of before — an account of the life of Milton M. Levine, who made his fortune on “Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm,” over 20 million of which have been sold since he invented it in 1956, inspired by the red ants at a July 4th picnic.  The obit concludes, “I found out [the ants’] most amazing feat yet… They put three kids through college.”

There’s a neat story or section in Tom Rachman’s excellent novel The Imperfectionists about the writing of an obituary.  This novel revolves around a broad cast of characters who worked at various times, from the 1950s through the present, for an English-language newspaper in Rome; Rachman worked at the International Herald Tribune so I presume that’s the model, although the novel’s paper seems maybe like a more second-rate version of the IHT?  The book reminded me a little of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad in its revolving/expansive/overlapping cast of characters.  It’s not as innovative as Egan in its use of this structure, however, perhaps a bit more like Winesburg, Ohio or (a more recent example) Olive Kitteridge.

The novel has a bit about a journalist with a flagging career who’s been assigned to do “preparedness” for an obituary of a forgotten Austrian feminist of the 1960s and 70s: “preparedness” meaning the research a paper does ahead of time for a potential subject of an obituary.  A potentially awkward situation, of course:

[N]othing is worse than obit interviews.  He must never disclose to his subjects why he’s researching because they tend to become distressed.  So he claims to be working on ‘a profile.’  He draws out the moribund interviewee, confirms the facts he needs, then sits there, pretending to jot notes, stewing in guilt, remarking, ‘Extraordinary!’ and ‘Did you really!’  All the while, he knows how little will make it into print — decades of a person’s life condensed into a few paragraphs, with a final resting place at the bottom of page nine, between Puzzle-Wuzzle and World Weather.

I won’t give away how it turns out, but the experience is surprising in various ways.

The novel is a valedictory love letter to print journalism and simply to print itself in its pre-internet forms.  This passing detail from the final chapter, about one of the book’s more peripheral characters, nicely captures that mourning and the sense that from our perspective, 1950-2000 or so feels like an era, an era of print’s gradual decline, not understood until close to the end:

Winston Chang, after a period of sleeping in his parents’ basement, found work at an exotic-animal refuge in Minnesota.  He adored the job overall but disliked lining the monkey cages with newspaper — even the sight of headlines made him panicky these days.  However, this was not to bother him for long: the local paper folded, and he switched to sawdust.  Soon, even the monkeys forgot the comforts of newspaper.