Book review: ‘The Rise & Fall of Great Powers,’ by Tom Rachman

In 2010, Tom Rachman published a witty novel about a failing newspaper based in Rome that charmed a great number of people, particularly journalists, who wished their failing newspapers were based in Rome. Proving himself a clever ringmaster of quirky, ink-stained hacks, Rachman constructed “The Imperfectionists” as a series of character studies intricately snapped together to produce unexpected moments of tragicomedy.

His new novel, “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers,” is weightier, more focused and considerably more melancholy, but it still exhibits the author’s impish wit and his fondness for tangled stories. In fact, untangling is the central action of this plot, so beware diligent summaries that might suffocate its pleasures.

The heroine is Tooly Zylberberg, a peripatetic young woman who appears to have no connections to anyone or any place. We meet her soon after she has purchased a moldy bookstore covered with cat hair in a tiny Welsh village. “She considered bookselling to be a terminal vocation,” Rachman writes, revelling again in his romantic attraction to doomed literary endeavors. Tooly’s shop features shelves labeled “Artists Who Were Unpleasant to Their Spouses,” “History, the Dull Bits” and “Books You Pretend to Have Read but Haven’t.” No matter how worthy these used tomes may be, “they lived as did the elderly — in a world with little patience to hear them out.”

Except for spying on old acquaintances on the Internet — “nostalgic prowling” — Tooly seems like someone out of time, wholly divorced from the world. She has only one employee: a “touchingly buoyant” young man who always appears “as if recently awakened by a fire drill.” These two misfits might have continued lugging books and swapping quips until the shop inevitably failed. But one day Tooly receives a note from an old boyfriend informing her that her father is gravely ill.

“Her father?” she wonders. “Whom could he mean?”

“The Rise & Fall of Great Powers” pursues that question in a languid, self-consciously convoluted manner. The novel’s chapters rotate through three time periods about a dozen years apart: 1988, when Tooly is 10 years old in Bangkok; 1999, when she’s living with college friends in New York; and 2011, when she sets off to find her father in America.

Mingling these time frames and withholding explanations about characters’ relations to each other, Rachman raises the stakes of this minor mystery somewhat higher than the novel can ultimately afford. But that structure reflects the peculiar, dizzying life that Tooly led for 30 years. “Her past cohered so poorly,” Rachman writes. “All she heard was inconsistencies, blank patches, and . . . questions.” Now, she must confront “not just the muddle of her past, but the muddle of her present.”

Constantly shuttled around the world under false pretenses, she was cradled in deception, raised in lies, schooled in fraud. Years later, thoughts of her adolescence “stirred up such disquiet, all the puzzles as upsetting as ever.” When she finally steps off that merry-go-round to settle in a little Welsh town, she has no idea who she really is or to whom she belongs. Her spirit, so long cramped into a crouch of deceit, is both wary of others and desperate for true affection.

Honestly, I found it impossible not to fall in love with shape-shifting Tooly. As an adult, she sports an ironical sense of humor and an attraction to dusty old books. As a child, her straight-faced mirth and wordplay are break-your-heart irresistible. Rachman works at that confluence of poignancy and sentimentality popularized by “Little Miss Sunshine.” If you know Elizabeth Kelly’s wonderful novel “Apologize, Apologize!,” you already have some familiarity with the kind of precocious preoccupations that young Tooly engages in. For instance, struck by the word “shall” while reading “Nicholas Nickleby,” she anticipates the thrill of impressing her classmates: “May I go with you?” they will ask, to which Tooly will reply, “You shall!” Later, seeing something called “Unique Leg of Camel” on the restaurant menu, she objects, “Isn’t every camel leg one of a kind?”

Just as resilient as her weird circumstances demand, she’s always willing to construct a home and family from the scraps at hand. Among the novel’s most charming scenes are her interactions with Humphrey, a “Marxist, non-practicing,” who claims he escaped from the U.S.S.R. after six years of detention. Chaotic wordsmiths separated by half a century, the girl and the old Russian relish their private banter — “conversation and debate.” From Humphrey, Tooly receives a scattered and highly impressionistic education in science, history and philosophy:

“You have read Spengler yet, darlink?”

“What is Spankler?” she asks.

“You are ten years old, and you not read Osward Spengler? How is this possible?”

He’s a fantastical character, full of faux fury and outrageous pronouncements that would enchant any bright, lonely 10-year-old. “While speaking, Humphrey gesticulated wildly, as if skywriting the names of his idols,” Rachman writes. “He was of the firm opinion that, had the Great Thinkers been around, had they stumbled across this house, they’d have become his personal friends. ‘Sir Isaac Newton and I, we are like two peas in a pond.’ ” But the real peas in this pond are Humphrey and Tooly. “You open up whole new world for me,” he tells her, and from this crazy old man she absorbs a love of books, which will be her most dependable friends in the tumultuous years ahead.

“The Rise & Fall of Great Powers” eventually lays out the whole trajectory of Tooly’s life and shines light on the dark mysteries of her scrambled childhood. But those improbable revelations are never really the point in this novel. Tooly has been the victim of a sustained act of abuse and neglect, the dimensions of which she can hardly comprehend. Now beyond resentment or blame, she just wants a usable past and someone worthy of her tender heart. Rachman is certainly such a person, and in these pages, you may discover that you are, too.

Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

THE RISE & FALL OF GREAT POWERS

By Tom Rachman Dial. 384 pp. $27

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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