Sunday, April 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #116: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Recipe for a literary novel: take one obscure, allusive title -- it doesn't need to mean anything. Stir together three plot strands set in separate time periods -- but be careful not to over-egg the mixture by having much happen in any of those plots. Blend in a main character with a carefully quirky name -- Tooly Zylberberg, for example -- while keeping her emotions muted, her desires obscure, and her appeal mysterious. Sift until every important moment and detail is concentrated in the last fifty pages. Top in advance-reader form with a fawning letter from an executive invested in the success of the book and garland with quotes for the author's previous book.

Tom Rachman's first novel, The Imperfectionists, was a marvel: the story of a mediocre European-based English-language newspaper, through the voices of a dozen staffers and hangers-on, covering decades and containing many meaningful revelations large and small. It was rightfully hailed as one of the best books of 2010. Four years later, Rachman is back with The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, which I'm sorry to say validates all of the cliches about second novels: it takes the things that were good about Imperfectionists and presents them in smaller, attenuated form, while straining hard in the direction of generic literary weight and importance.

The core problem with Great Powers comes from Rachman's decision -- presumably when planning the novel -- to focus his plot (such as it is) on the details of Tooly's history and to keep those details deliberately obscure until the end of the book. This wouldn't be so bad, if he told the story of a present-day Tooly trying to find out those secrets. But, instead, he presents a Tooly who already knows most of them -- which she and Rachman are very careful to never mention -- in a 2011 plotline, while doubling down by presenting events around those secrets in parallel plotlines in 1988 and 1999. This all takes very careful planning from Rachman to not actually explain such simple things like who Tooly's parents are and how she got to particular cities. Tooly does learn things at the end, but they are things most readers will have seen coming for a long time -- and her reaction to them, as it is to everything else, is dull and muted and undramatic. Rachman's attempted powerful scenes at the end mostly shows us things we've guessed and figured out, and, in his careful, literary way, Rachman avoids dramatizing them or making them emotionally resonant.

In 1988, Tooly is about to turn ten, and living with a man she always calls "Paul" in Bangkok. In 1999, she's twenty and free in New York, living with the Russian emigre Humphrey Ostropoler, part of what the back cover grandly calls "a group of seductive outsiders" but which seems to the reader to be just a semi-successful band of con artists. And in 2011, Tooly is on the far side of thirty, quietly running a bookshop in a small Welsh town when the inevitable Message from Her Past drops her back into that past and mixes her back up with both those "seductive outsiders" (besides Humphrey, that includes the flamboyantly self-centered Sarah and the tediously and sophomorically philosophical Venn, both of whom I assume are meant to be mesmerizing but come off as obnoxious, grasping jerks) and her 1999 boyfriend Duncan -- then a student at NYU she chased for a Venn-inspired and fizzled scam, now a successful lawyer.

In impeccable, gloriously readable prose, nothing much happens for over three hundred pages, as Tooly's story alternates among those three points of her life -- sadly, she's not very interesting, specific, or active in any of them. Every sentence of Great Powers is enjoyable, but the characters are either dull (Tooly, Duncan, Paul, Tooly's bookshop clerk Fogg) or cliched (Humphrey) or actively annoying (Venn, Sarah), and not nearly enough happens in this book, either in the world or in Tooly's head. If this is meant to be the biggest event of her life, surely she should actually have some kind of a reaction in the end?

Rachman has done better than this before, and he will again: this is a second novel, and those are famously mediocre. If you loved The Imperfectionists, it could be worth picking this one up -- some readers may find Tooly to have more personality than I did, or Venn and Sarah to be actually appealing in some way. If you've never read The Imperfectionists, go there.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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