The Rise and Fall of Great Powers
By Tom Rachman
Doubleday, 400 pages
Tom Rachman’sfirst novel, The Imperfectionists, chronicled the demise of an English-language newspaper in Rome from the points of view of 11 of the paper’s employees. In loosely linked, expertly wrought chapters, Rachman spun a series of sinister vignettes about the dark side of human ambition, each one garnished with a twist in the tale. The Imperfectionists was an international bestseller in 2010 and justly celebrated by reviewers. “I almost feel sorry for Rachman, because a debut of this order sets the bar so high,” wrote Christopher Buckley in the New York Times Book Review. Buckley needn’t have worried. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Rachman’s second novel, is no sophomore slump. It is so accomplished, so original, and so different from The Imperfectionists that it elevates its author into the first rank.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers doesn’t need 11 protagonists; its heroine, Tooly (née Matilda) Zylberberg, contains multitudes. In an opening sequence of rapid-fire flashbacks, Rachman divides her into three. We are introduced to Tooly at 32, as the contented owner of an impossibly quaint bookshop in Wales. We meet Tooly at 20, a charming grifter adrift in Manhattan). And we come upon sweet, vivacious Tooly at nine, acting cute on a plane as she emigrates to Bangkok. In every scene, our heroine is quirky and adorable, a cheerful, sunny soul. Yet at all three locations and points in time, there’s an undercurrent of wrongness, a faint whiff of murk.
Nine-year-old Tooly lives with a nervous, reticent man named Paul, who treats her with terrified caution. (“He shook her hand, as was his morning custom…Even passing the salt, Paul avoided her fingers, placing the shaker close to, rather than in, Tooly’s hands.”) Her mother is out of the picture—Tooly and Paul have a trumped up story for any “outsiders” who ask—and Paul moves the two of them to a different country every year, which seems awfully fishy. Though nothing Paul does is inappropriate, and Tooly herself seems unconcerned, it’s impossible for the reader not to feel anxious. Is Paul her legitimate guardian, or is he some kind of kidnapper, grooming his unsuspecting nine-year-old charge (in Bangkok, no less) for sinister pursuits?
Twenty-year-old New York-based Tooly is equally worrisome. She’s still adorable, with mismatched sneakers and madcap ways, but she misuses her feminine wiles to seduce a perfectly nice young man named Duncan and weasel her way into his circle of grad-school friends. Duncan is in love with her, but she’s indifferent. Even worse, she plans to trick him out of his inheritance once she gets the chance.
Thanks to Rachman’s trifurcated plot, we already know that everything turns out okay. After all, we’ve met Tooly at 32, so we know she makes it out of both Thailand and New York, and grows up to be the proprietress of a Welsh bookstore, not a prostitute or criminal. Still, for most of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, the reader frets. Big Tooly is suspiciously incurious about her about her past, which suggests she’s repressing something foul.
We’ve already determined Little Tooly is a blank slate: so feckless, so innocent, and completely at the mercy of various confusing and unpredictable adults. First is Paul; then there’s a terrifyingly glamorous woman named Sarah, who plucks Tooly out of school one day and takes her on a mad adventure in Bangkok. They eat mangos and rice from a stall, ride motorbikes, and set a cage full of kingfishers free in the wild animal market. “I’m stealing you,” Sarah says, to Tooly’s baffled glee.
Sarah introduces Tooly to an old Russian bibliophile named Humphrey, who teaches her to play chess and praises her intellect. (“You know who you are reminding me of?” he says. “John Stuart Mill. He was child prodigy like you, always eating watermelon.”) Then she installs Tooly in a warehouse filled with call girls, drug addicts, and shady characters of all stripes. Tooly follows them around, as placid and obedient as a puppy. Finally, Sarah presents Tooly to Venn, a mysterious petty con-man who’s the ringleader of them all.
Under Venn’s aegis, Sarah, Humphrey and Tooly travel all over the world; there’s some bizarre symbiotic relationship between the four of them, but the reader can’t figure it out. All we know is that Tooly worships Venn, who pops into and out of her life at random, acting like a first-class jerk before vanishing forever. Good riddance, we think, but grown-up Tooly, safely ensconced in her bookshop in Wales, is still completely in his thrall: “For years, she had awaited Venn’s return. She had moved from one country to another, taken on lovers, changed jobs, yet retained the expectation of another life—a wormhole through which she’d one day slip, rescued by his company.”
When an email comes one day from Duncan, promising news of Tooly’s “father,” Tooly ditches the bookstore and sets off on a transatlantic wild goose chase. On the way, she’ll revisit old haunts and reconnect with everyone she once knew: Sarah, Paul, Humphrey, Duncan, and even, eventually, Venn. No longer will her past resemble one of Humphrey’s ragged books: “histories with half the pages and half the centuries missing, causing the Ming Dynasty to contest the Wars of German Unification with one swish of the page.” But a funny thing happens on the way to Tooly’s childhood. The more we learn about her upbringing, the less interested we are in her.
It’s not that the book turns dull, or even that we stop rooting for (or worrying about) Tooly. It’s just that the riddle of her character starts to seem less compelling than the people and places we encounter on the way to solve it. As we follow Tooly through New York and Europe and Bangkok, the novel’s setting overwhelms its subject; what’s more, whenever secondary characters like Sarah and Humphrey and Venn come on stage, they steal the show.
This isn’t necessarily bad—as the plot unfurls, we keep reading avidly. It’s just a bit puzzling. Why are we still entranced by Rachman’s novel as our fascination with his heroine wanes? Rachman feeds us a clue in the form of a quote from Tooly’s favorite book, which she’s carried around like a talisman since she was nine years old:
“May I—may I go with you?” asked Smike, timidly. “I will be your faithful hard-working servant, I will, indeed. I want no clothes,” added the poor creature, drawing his rags together; “these will do very well. I only want to be near you.”
“And you shall,” cried Nicholas. “And the world shall deal by you as it does by me, till one or both of us shall quit it for a better. Come!”
Nicholas Nickleby, like Tooly herself, suffers from the curse of the Dickensian hero; his sidekicks and enemies are forever more interesting than he. And yet Tooly, like Nicholas, expertly escorts her readers along the twists and turns of a captivating plot.
It’s not her job to be personally compelling so much as it is to serve as plucky girl guide; in her company, we wander through Manhattan and Bangkok, dodging danger as we go. We encounter evil, true love, love unrequited, and villains who crackle with malice. We meet bad parents who mean well, and worse parents who don’t, and we travel from the back alleys of Bangkok to the seedy streets of Brooklyn.
With such richness around us, why would it matter if our heroine comes to seem a wee bit bland? It would be terribly unfair to disclose the particulars of Rachman’s spectacular ending: Suffice it to say that by the time the novel finishes, we are utterly fulfilled. We are also reluctant to leave Rachman’s book behind. It begs, like the best of Dickens, to be carried around and reread.
Much was made, last year, of the supposedly “Dickensian” attributes of Donna Tartt’s 700-plus page colossus The Goldfinch. But Tartt’s touch was much too heavy for Dickens; she strained too hard to imitate, and by the end of the book (whose action creaked noisily throughout) her tiresome hero Theo Decker got thoroughly on our nerves. Rachman, on the other hand, engineers his wonderfully complex plot with the lightest of touches; by the end of his book, the reader is utterly enchanted by his delicate homage. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers would have been at home in the 19th century; it also succeeds marvelously in ours. It’s the book The Goldfinch wanted to be.