on June 10, 2014
Genres: Coming of Age, Fiction, Literary Fiction
Source: the publisher
Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her still.
Taken from home as a girl, Tooly found herself spirited away by a group of seductive outsiders, implicated in capers from Asia to Europe to the United States. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared.
Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My views of the book are my own and unaffected by this consideration.
In his début novel, The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman transformed the demise of print journalism from a news item all too easy to dismiss — most often reported online, naturally — into a witty, affecting and ultimately elegiac set of stories about the lives of the reporters, editors, and executives at a single doomed international paper. Rachman’s writing was empathetic and entertaining, but as incisive as it was about what we give up as the world moves forward, the book didn’t coalesce into a novel, but remained discreet stories that often left me wanting to know more about the characters that moved offstage all too quickly without the paper itself becoming the central focus and core of the novel.
In The Rise and Fall of Great Powers Rachman revisits many of the same themes: impermanence, nostalgia, and the impact of changing technology before adding a few more rich veins of fictional contemplation — the role of literature in creating identity, the construction of families and understanding the narrative of your own life. There’s a lot swirling around in this cauldron, but Rachman has the skill and talent to structure the story into a complex and satisfying book.
Using rotating timelines, Rachman drops us into Tooly Zylberberg’s life at three seemingly disconnected moments. Opening in 2011, Tooly is in her early 30s, living in Wales where she runs a moldering used bookstore with the assistance of Fogg, a dreamy autodidact who has never quite managed to leave. The business is, as so many book centered businesses are today, in precarious financial shape, but the solitude and relative isolation have allowed Tooly to settle down and find a measure of belonging if not true peace or certainty. While her life is largely analog, separate from the frantic changes that propel modern life, she is no Luddite and ventures periodically onto Facebook to search out past acquaintances. Much to her surprise, one of those ghosts sends her a message: “Desperately trying to reach you. Can we talk about your father???”
The difficulty is that the old boyfriend, Duncan McGrory, at the other end of the exchange never knew her father. Who can he be talking about? With this question hanging, Rachman jumps back to 1988 and introduces us to Tooly as a precocious and charming ten year-old in Singapore. Her companion, a man she calls Paul, is probably her father, but their relationship seems oddly distant and constrained. Paul’s job as a computer consultant to far-flung US Consulates and Embassies, keeps the duo on the move. A practiced transient Tooly is chagrined at being forced to repeat a grade as the result of a snafu in transferring her records. But then a mysterious and glamorous woman appears and spirits her away from the drudgery and humiliations of school and her solitary life.
Finally we meet a 21 year-old Tooly in 1999, living a squatters life in New York with an older Russian emigre called Humphrey. As each of these narratives move forward, we begin to piece together the picture of how these seemingly disconnected existences form the whole cloth of Tooly’s life.
In all three periods, a cadre of oddballs, neer-do-wells, fly-by-night operators surround Tooly. She thinks she knows and understands these adults, but it is clear there is much that she misses and misconstrues. There is a great deal of reading satisfaction in discovering the truth along with Tooly, but while many reviews have focused on the mystery of who her parents are, it becomes clear that while the answer is not immediately evident to the reader, it’s not a mystery to Tooly. What Tooly doesn’t know, and doesn’t understand, are the real reasons how she ended up living a life so far out of the mainstream and who really acted in her best interests. The truth, Tooly discovers, is horrifying and far more banal than the fictions she believed. Tooly’s search isn’t to find out the truth of her parentage, but rather, to move past her childhood preconceptions and see others with adult clarity.
As affecting as Tooly’s life story and journey of discovery is, the novel isn’t just a witty and well structured coming-of-age story, but also a satirical and rueful homage to the history of literature and power of technology. Rachman clearly relished naming his characters with Dickensian flourish and filling the book with references to 19th century novels, while making it clear that despite the power of the book, it’s era is likely gone forever. As this great power falls, another rises: computing. As in The Imperfectionists, Rachman is fascinated by technological transformations. He stuffs the book with instances in which computers, cell phones and even television, chart and rechart possibilities for his characters, influencing and altering their relationships. Again and again he returns to the central questions: are we at the mercy of the tides of history or can we be the agents of our own destiny?
There’s a lot to think about and savor in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers from diverting characters, to the book’s elegant architecture, to how to be a good person. Best of all, it’s delivered in a package that is compulsively readable and saturated with sly dark humor. Definitely a strong contender for one of my favorite reads for 2014.