The title of Tom Rachman’s newest novel seemed ambitious to me. And also ironic: I wondered if perhaps it was something like a twenty-first century Bonfire of the Vanities?
So I was thrown for a loop to find myself, in the opening pages of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers in the year 2011, in Caergenog, a village somewhere in Wales: and not just in this remote place, but in an improbable book shop in the company of Tooly Zylberberg and Fogg, her male shop assistant (and all around sweetheart, as far as I’m concerned).
The bookstore is full of musty old tomes, abandoned by their previous owners, but loved by Tooly and Fogg apparently. It’s a cozy scene, and one that readers will naturally enjoy, but it proves to be completely at odds with almost everything else that happens in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, and is quickly left behind.
How to present this book to you? Not as a straight review, as there are many good ones out there (in The Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even on NPR―which comes closest to how I saw the novel), with excellent summaries of the novel included.
Maybe I can start by saying that, despite its title, this book really is the life of Tooly (short for Matilda), whose story is about as warm and cozy as a refugee’s experience. It is, in fact, Tooly in three acts:
Act One: in 1998, at age 10 and living in Bangkok;
Act Two: in 1999, in her early twenties, living in New York City;
Act Three: in 2011, which she begins in Wales.
But these acts are broken up into scenes, and then shuffled, creating a narrative that moves back and forth in time, and yet remains surprisingly easy to follow.
And despite its breadth, Tooly’s story really isn’t so much about places as it is about the people who have brought her to them. And there are fewer of them than you might expect.
In fact, many of them make their appearance in Act One, including Paul (that’s how Tooly refers to him), a computer security expert whose ties to Tooly are puzzling, but who appears at least to be her guardian or pseudo parent and with whom she has traveled to Bangkok; and Sarah, high strung and slightly manic, who buzzes around Tooly like an overstimulated bee most of the time, and whose connection to her is unknown, but worrying; there’s Humphrey, somehow linked to Sarah, a middle-aged, slightly washed-up intellectual who speaks with a Russian accent and whom Tooly quickly trusts and forms a bond of affection with: and lastly, there’s Venn, whose charisma and apparent pragmatism and tendency to talk straight with Tooly draw her closer and closer to him.
The only other character of real importance to Tooly appears in Act Two, and that’s Duncan, who, in 1999, is a law student at NYU (with affluent parents), and who, by 2011, is the agent of her return to New York, from Wales.
What Rachman does, in roughly three hundred and eighty well-written pages, is keep the reader off balance, wondering who Tooly REALLY is; who, in fact, and where her parents are; why she has the life of a child set adrift; or, conversely, why she seems to have been abducted by Sarah, Humphrey and Venn.
Is she the victim of some terrible, hidden trauma in her early childhood? Is she a twenty-first century Princess Anastasia? Is she in a type of sketchy “protective custody”? Is she simply a valuable pawn to one of the characters?
More than anything, what reviews of the book revealed to me is how subjective the reading experience really is, and how cleverly Rachman hides his hand. Because while some describe Venn as “a charismatic figure who seems to live on the borders of criminality and violence, yet who is cast as Tooly’s great protector and friend” (The Guardian review) or as “a smooth operator “(New York Times), I found him to be an evil character, made frighteningly so by the cool banality of his amorality. And Sarah, described in the Guardian as “a fortysomething flibbertigibbet who comes unpredictably in and out of the story, now love-bombing Tooly, now abandoning her”, I saw as far more twisted and toxic.
I’d be interested to know what your thoughts, reactions and theories were while reading this book.
In Tooly’s predicament, I saw a little bit of Theo’s, in Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch (see LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD): a child torn from the usual protections of love and family, and drifting along in a vast and woefully inadequate adult world. The reader has every reason to expect Tooly to grow up bent and ruined, but from the opening pages of the novel, it’s clear that somehow, she has been saved from this fate.
Who is responsible for Tooly’s rescue from a life without love, and how does this story connect with the novel’s title?
Tom Rachman shares some of his thoughts in an interview for Word & Film:
“W&F: From an emotional or thematic standpoint, what do you most hope people will take away from this new novel?
TR: I like the idea of discussing the present day by talking about where we’ve been in the past quarter-century. So the three sections — it’s not told chronologically, they’re mixed up together — are poised at key moments in history. One is 1988, just before the end of the Cold War, when things were changing radically. Then there is 1999 to the year 2000, the point at which American power was perhaps at its peak, just before 9/11 and all of the challenges that came thereafter. And the third section is the present day. I hope that when people close the book maybe they think about the multi-layered meaning that I intended with the title: on the one hand, the great powers that are moving as the backdrop. But also the great powers within a single life, by which I mean the rise of your physical and mental powers through childhood and formative years to the peak and struggles of adulthood to decline in old age. And then also the ebb and flow of influences of different people and different events on you over the course of your life — so that at one stage some heroic uncle might suddenly start to look like a bit of a blowhard, and the quiet aunt in the corner starts to look like the wisest of the bunch.”
In many ways, it’s Venn who best embodies the brutal inhumanity and self-interest of the world’s great powers. Luckily for Tooly, there are enough kind and wise people among the mix to bring her to the doorstep of love, at novel’s end.