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The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

Review

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

Tom Rachman’s 2010 novel, THE IMPERFECTIONISTS, effectively used the structure of linked stories to describe the demise of an international newspaper and the lives of the quirky personalities who attended to it in its final days. Demonstrating the impressive confidence of a more seasoned novelist, in THE RISE & FALL OF GREAT POWERS, Rachman employs an even more ambitious narrative structure to create a Bildungsroman about a young woman trying to construct a coherent life story from the scraps of her past. He marries the same proficiency at character development he displayed in his first novel with humanity, wit and a keen sense for the shaky balance of modern life, to forge a fully satisfying reading experience.

The story of Rachman’s protagonist, Tooly Zylberberg, unfolds in three discrete years --- 1988, 1999 (as it morphs, accompanied by the faux tension of Y2K, into 2000) and 2011, and in locales as disparate as Bangkok and a dilapidated apartment in Brooklyn adjacent to the rumble of the Gowanus Expressway. What makes it every bit as intriguing, though decidedly more challenging as a work of art than THE IMPERFECTIONISTS, is that this novel is an intricate chronological puzzle.

Tooly, in her mid-30s when the novel opens, presides, with a single employee named Fogg, over the imminent failure of a bookstore, fittingly named World’s End, in a small Welsh town close by Hay-on-Wye. But just as we’re grounded in that setting, the story shifts to Tooly’s life as a nine-year-old in Bangkok in 1988 and then to her at age 21, when she invites herself into the lives of three graduate students living in Morningside Heights. There’s no discernible pattern to these jumps in time, and Rachman isn’t generous in offering clues for decoding them, but in time, the fragments of Tooly’s life are stitched together to create her story.

"Rachman...marries the same proficiency at character development he displayed in his first novel with humanity, wit and a keen sense for the shaky balance of modern life, to forge a fully satisfying reading experience."

In that story, the most appealing character by far is Humphrey Ostropoler, a Russian emigrant (“Marxist, non-practicing,” by his own description) who has amassed a “huge library that was notable chiefly for its wretched condition.” When he’s not pontificating on the ideas of John Stuart Mill or another favored philosopher, he’s playing chess or ping pong, all the while doing little to sustain his physical existence. He and Touly first meet in Thailand, and from that point their lives are linked permanently, even when they’re separated by great distances. “The people who loved me are all in books,” Humphrey confesses to Touly, as an elderly man in 2011, living in near squalor in Sheepshead Bay, where she cares for him in some of the novel’s tenderest and most vivid scenes.

Tooly is a wanderer by nature, sustained by mysterious deposits in her bank account until she reaches age 21 and a credit card that magically renews itself. But as she moves into adulthood, she’s hungry for human connection, not least with Humphrey, a man whose life has been a failure by any objective measurement. Rachman endears Tooly to us by teasing out the emotions that underlie her affection for her often frustrating companion. “To her knowledge,” she muses as she sits reading to Humphrey from NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, her favorite novel, “he had achieved nothing to outlast his life --- no offspring, no legacy.” And yet, she wonders, “why not just use life as one pleased?”

Equally central to Tooly’s story is Venn, a man into whose shadowy orbit she’s delivered during her Thai childhood, thanks to Sarah Pastore, whose relationship to the young girl doesn’t become clear until late in the novel. Venn “was a man of a thousand acquaintances and hundreds of lovers,” Tooly reflects as an adult, “yet she was his only friend.” His influence over her is at least as important as Humphrey’s, if seemingly less benign. Is he a grifter, a technology genius, or an international terrorist? Rachman holds out hints of all three. Of the novel’s principal characters, he’s the one whose story seems to call most for further development. What is clear is that Venn and Tooly “were akin: living among others but estranged from everyone, recognizing the pretense,” with “no interest in riches, only in remaining free of the fools who reigned, and always would.”

The real accomplishment of this novel is that our perceptions of Rachman’s characters, at least those who appear in all three of its time period, constantly are being reshaped. With a relatively small amount of dramatic action, Rachman, aided by his structural choice, sustains a high level of narrative tension that moves Tooly’s story forward, even as it’s dipping into the past.

As strange as it may appear on the surface, it’s easy to identify with Tooly's quest. Like her, each one of us is faced with the task of constructing a personal narrative to make sense of our lives. For some, that task is made easier by family ties, memory and a cache of agreed-upon stories. THE RISE & FALL OF GREAT POWERS is an enchanting glimpse of what happens when those structures have to be invented, sometimes out of the thinnest of air.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on June 27, 2014

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers
by Tom Rachman

  • Publication Date: June 10, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: The Dial Press
  • ISBN-10: 0679643656
  • ISBN-13: 9780679643654