‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ by Tom Rachman

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman, Sceptre, RRP£14.99/ The Dial Press, RRP$27, 384 pages

Tom Rachman’s novel The Imperfectionists (2010) was a remarkably nimble and spirited debut. Its interwoven stories about a doomed newspaper and its dysfunctional staff were beautifully observed – and added up to a poignant vision of a great culture in decline.

Rachman’s follow-up is a much more whimsical affair. Exploring episodes in the nomadic life of Tooly Zylberberg, it ranges from the present to the 1980s. Although there are scenes in New York, Bangkok and Australia, we first encounter a 32-year-old Tooly in 2011, struggling to run a bookshop in an obscure corner of Wales. Even that occupation has a surprising backstory – we learn that she discovered the shop only after reading about it in a crumpled literary magazine she found on a Portuguese railway platform.

Tooly’s desire to sharpen her understanding of the more puzzling aspects of her past is awakened by a Facebook friend request from an ex-partner. Or rather, the request transforms a drunken appetite for “nostalgic prowling” into something more sober and strategic.

Instead of presenting Tooly’s travels in a conventionally linear fashion, Rachman chops them up and we skip between 2011, 1999 and 1988. The technique evokes the haphazardness of Tooly’s globetrotting and her capacity to flit between different enthusiasms. She is the sort of person who is continually seduced by bad ideas. In place of her parents (whose identity is elusive) she clings to advisers and manipulators. The most shadowy of these is Venn, a cynical Canadian whom she finds overwhelmingly charismatic. Venn “engineers” Tooly’s existence, starting when she is a child. While he seeks to persuade her that the value of relationships can be scientifically measured, a more benign influence derives from Humphrey, an elderly man of apparently Russian heritage who tries to nurture her interest in books and chess.

Humphrey is an appealing oddball who shares Tooly’s wanderlust and her sense of having been abruptly uprooted. The manner in which he articulates his worldview is delightfully wonky, calling to mind the narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer’s cultish Everything Is Illuminated (2002). He’s also endearingly perceptive, not least when he describes vodka as “like water, but with consequences”.

Rachman imbues most of his characters with this off-kilter charm. Even a pot-bellied pig has a distinct personality and is capable of making Tooly feel like she is under surveillance. Rachman presents quirkiness as something adorable rather than irritating, and our enjoyment of the novel depends on how readily we subscribe to this view. At the same time, he pointedly frames the banal and the personal within the context of world events, packing Tooly’s encounters with striking judgments on subjects as disparate as geopolitics and postmodern literary theory. Rachman’s characters are quick with opinions – “Japan was a boutique. China is the whole shopping mall”; “A politician cannot come from Illinois and be clean”; “Sometime around 2003, the twenty-first century seemed to detach from the twentieth.”

It is in this commentary, which can feel throwaway, that the reasons for the book’s title become apparent. When Venn tells Tooly, “You can’t blame yourself for having been swallowed by your times”, it’s a key moment in a novel that pictures recent history as a flawed attempt to unify people who are inherently and irrecoverably dissimilar. And among the recurring motifs, Tooly’s nagging attachment to Nicholas Nickleby is especially pertinent. After all, Dickens’s novel depicts a young person’s struggle to survive in a hostile world and – germane to Tooly’s itinerant experience – insists that the pain of parting is nothing compared to the joy of meeting again.

But as it meanders around the globe, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers often feels clever rather than compelling. Tooly’s personal history adds up to less than the narrative’s intricacy leads us to imagine. What’s more, the sense of place isn’t always convincing. There are some lovely details along the way: flayed toads (“pink-muscled, arms flung back’) in a bucket at the bazaar in Bangkok, or the young men whose performance in bed suggests a belief that “Olympic judges awaited in the closet with scorecards”. Yet Rachman’s second novel lacks the mix of crisp immediacy and beguiling nostalgia that defined The Imperfectionists.

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