Review: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman

19104786>>Published: June 2014

“Fogg, it’s pointless. The only person in there who’s relevant is someone I’m not dealing with. If I trusted her to say anything useful, I’d have tried ages ago.”

“Go on—give us a name.”

“Even if you got her, she’s never saying anything by phone. And I’m not taking a pilgrimage to wherever she is now. She’d make me, for sure. Keep in mind that whatever I spend on travel comes straight out of World’s End—you know that, right? Its funds are mine. If I go broke, that’s it for the shop. This isn’t worth it.”

But that was untrue. The mere prospect of meeting someone from that time had already brought her rushing out here. And this visit with Humphrey—even speaking aloud the name Venn again—had stirred up such disquiet, all the puzzles as upsetting as ever. And Sarah had been there for all of it.

“Let’s find the lady,” Fogg proposed. “Then you can decide what’s to be done.”

“You must be enjoying it alone,” Tooly said. “Doing everything you can to keep me away.”

“Not at all,” he said. “Only, it’s a bit of a mystery story now.”

***

You know that feeling you get when you find a book that really sings to you? Great, then you probably also know what it’s like to eagerly dive into an author’s follow-up, only to find it seems to have either lost or jettisoned all that joy and wonderment that made their first book so—I hate this word but it fits—unputdownable. Such is my experience with Tom Rachman’s The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, his second book following 2010’s gloriously offbeat The Imperfectionists.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is the story of Matilda “Tooly” Zylberberg, owner and operator of the World’s End—a failing bookstore located in Caergenog, a small village of only a few hundred souls just across the Welsh border. She lives a relatively quiet existence alongside her co-worker Fogg, until an ex-boyfriend from more than ten years earlier contacts her about her ailing father, back in New York, which gives her reason to up and cross the pond in order to attempt to fill in some of the holes in her past.

Except it’s not that simple. From 2011, where the novel opens, Rachman jumps us back to 1999/2000 and 1988, opening additional windows on Tooly’s life in Manhattan near the turn of the millennium at age twenty, and diving all the way back to her childhood as she moves with her father Paul from Australia to Bangkok, Thailand. The novel continues in this fashion, tripping chapter by chapter between these three time periods as the narratives in each unfold linearly. Along the way, we’re given slow glimpses into Tooly’s past as her life in each time period unfolds like an iris gradually widening. In Manhattan, we meet Duncan (the aforementioned ex) and his roommates Xavi and Emerson; in Bangkok, we first get to know Paul, Tooly’s is-he-or-isn’t-he father, and then the flighty and unreliable Sarah, Venn the mastermind, and the lovely, loving Humphrey, a Russian ex-pat with a penchant for chess and the literature of great thinkers.

According to the book’s description, the strange odds and ends of Tooly’s youth “mystify and worry her still.” One of the larger problems with this novel is that at no point does this statement ring true. Yes, Tooly attempts to uncover pieces of her past she’d either forgotten or not entirely understood, but in no way does she seem especially bothered by any of it. She feels rather empty for most of the novel, a seemingly emotionless slate spurned to uncover the truth of her past more because the novel requires her to do so and not because she genuinely wants to investigate.

This apparent apathy and lack of momentum feeds into the second problem I had with the novel: that by the 130-page mark the mystery felt entirely in the narrative’s deliberate patchwork structure, and not at all in the characters or the actual details of Tooly’s life. One gets the impression that were the novel to be written in a linear fashion it would lose much if not almost all of its manufactured mystery. It’s only really when Fogg announces on page 144 that the narrative is indeed a mystery that one gets the impression they’re working hard to figure anything out.

But the worst offender, the thing that ultimately killed this title for me and made it a hell of a slog to get through, is that only Humphrey is at all likable, and most of the other characters feel like surface-level approximations of characters from a Wes Anderson film, oozing quirk for quirk’s sake; several times while reading I had the uneasy feeling that I was watching an author attempting to mimic the aesthetic of another without ever fully understanding what it is or why it works.

There’s a great deal of pontificating and long explanations at work in The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. Rachman’s narrative, at once sprawling (over time and place) yet confined and rather small in emotional scope, is populated by frauds and false intellectuals that feel manufactured specifically for a book, in order to craft a strange and magical beast, but only so far as the reader doesn’t slice it open and look beneath the skin to its clockwork interior. On a similar note, the novel’s most interesting stories—Humphrey and Sarah’s backstories—are dictated to us, but not shown, not experienced in any meaningful way other than as content with which to fill in the gaps.

When all is said and done, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is about a chance for Tooly to not only explore her strange and all over the place childhood in the company of grifters, thieves, and bullshitters, but to discover for herself her own definition of family, and how the men in her life—Paul, Venn, Duncan, and Humphrey—have all in some way embodied the idea of the father figure, though not one of them has been or could be what she really needed.

Whereas The Imperfectionists was a collection of short stories that formed the mosaic of a novel through the strength of its characters, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is more akin to a series of scenes strung together by plot more than by character—a disjointed and too quiet narrative about one woman’s incredibly eventful yet somehow utterly mundane upbringing.