NPR • The Seattle Times • The Globe and Mail • Kirkus Reviews • Daily Mail • The Vancouver Sun
From the author of The Italian Teacher and The Imperfectionists comes a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.
Look in the back of the book for a conversation between Tom Rachman and J. R. Moehringer
Following one of the most critically acclaimed fiction debuts in years, New York Times bestselling author Tom Rachman returns with a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.
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.
Tom Rachman—an author celebrated for humanity, humor, and wonderful characters—has produced a stunning novel that reveals the tale not just of one woman but of the past quarter-century as well, from the end of the Cold War to the dominance of American empire to the digital revolution of today. Leaping between decades, and from Bangkok to Brooklyn, this is a breathtaking novel about long-buried secrets and how we must choose to make our own place in the world. It will confirm Rachman’s reputation as one of the most exciting young writers we have.
Praise for The Rise & Fall of Great Powers
“Ingenious . . . Rachman needs only a few well-drawn characters to fill a large canvas and an impressive swath of history.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“A superb follow-up to 2010’s The Imperfectionists . . . ambitious and engaging.”—The Seattle Times
“Engaging and inventive . . . full of wonderfully quirky, deeply flawed, but lovable characters . . . On the spectrum of interesting literary childhoods, Tooly Zylberberg—the protagonist of Tom Rachman’s second novel—would rank somewhere in the vicinity of Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“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.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“[A] read-it-all-in-one-weekend book.”—The New Republic
“A compelling page-turner . . . intricate, sprawling, and almost Dickensian.”—USA Today
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About the Author
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His pencil wavered above the sales ledger, dipping toward the page as his statements increased in vigor, the pencil tip skimming the pad, then pulling up like a stunt plane, only to plunge at moments of emphasis, producing a constellation of increasingly blunt dots around the lone entry for that morning, the sale of one used copy of Land Snails of Britain by A. G. Brunt-Coppell (price: £3.50).
“Take the Revolution,” he called out from the front of the bookshop. “The French see it completely diﬀerently than we do. They aren’t taught it was all chaos and Reign of Terror. For them, it was a good thing. And you can’t blame them. Knocking down the Bastille? The Declaration of Rights?”
The thrust of his argument was that, when considering the French people and their rebellious spirit—well, it wasn’t clear what Fogg intended to say. He was a man who formed opinions as he spoke them, or perhaps afterward, requiring him to ramble at length to grasp what he believed. This made speech an act of discovery for him; others did not necessarily share this view.
His voice resounded between bookcases, down the three steps at the rear of the shop, where his employer, Tooly Zylberberg—in tweed blazer, muddy jeans, rubber boots—was trying to read.
“Hmm,” she responded, a battered biography of Anne Boleyn open on her lap. She could have asked Fogg to shush, and he would have obliged. But he reveled in pronouncing on grand issues, like the man of consequence he most certainly was not. It endeared Fogg to her, especially since his oration masked considerable self-doubt—whenever she challenged him, he folded immediately. Poor Fogg. Her sympathy for the man qualiﬁed him to chatter, but it made reading impossible.
“Because, after all, the fellow who invented the guillotine was a man of medicine,” he continued, restoring books to the shelves, rifﬂing their pages to kick forth the old-paper aroma, which he inhaled before pushing each volume ﬂush into its slot.
Down the three creaking steps he came, passing under the sign history—nature—poetry—military—ballet to a sunken den known as the snug. The bookshop had been a pub before, and the snug was where rain-drenched drinkers once hung their socks by the hearth, now bricked up but still ﬂanked with tongs and bellows, festooned with little green-and-red Welsh ﬂags and Toby jugs on hooks. An oak table contained photographic volumes on the region, while the walls were lined with shelves of poetry and a disintegrating hardcover series of Shakespeare whose red spines had so faded that to distinguish King Lear from Macbeth required much scrutiny. Either of these venerable characters, dormant on the overburdened shelves, could at any moment have crashed down into the rocking chair where Tooly sat upon a tartan blanket, which came in handy during winters, when the radiators trembled at the task ahead and switched oﬀ.
She tucked back her short black hair, points curling around unpierced lobes, a gray pencil tip poking up behind her ear. The paperback she held before her aimed to discourage his interruptions, but behind its cover her cheeks twitched with amusement at the circling Fogg and his palpable exertion at remaining quiet. He strode around the table, hands in his trouser pockets, jingling change. (Coins were always plummeting through holes in those pockets, down his leg and into his shoe. Toward the end of the day, he removed it—sock coming half oﬀ—and emptied a small fortune into his palm.) “It behooves them to act decisively in Afghanistan,” he said. “It behooves them to.”
She lowered the book and looked at him, which caused Fogg to turn away. At twenty-eight, he was her junior by only a few years, but the gulf could have been twenty-eight again. He remained a youth in their exchanges, deferential yet soon carried away with fanciful talk. When pontiﬁcating, he toyed with a brass magnifying glass, pressed it to his eye socket like a monocle, which produced a monstrous blue eye until he lost courage, lowered the lens, and the eye became small and blinky once more. Whatever the time of day, he appeared as if recently awakened by a ﬁre drill, the hair at the back of his head splayed ﬂat from the pillow, buttons missing midway down his shirt and others oﬀ by an eyelet, so that customers endeavored not to spy the patch of bare chest inadvertently peeping through. His cargo pants were torn at the hip pockets, where he hooked his thumbs while declaiming; the white laces on his leather shoes had grayed; his untucked pin-striped shirt was frayed at the cuﬀs; and he had the tubular collarbones and articulated ribs of a man who scarfs down a bacon sandwich for lunch, then forgets to eat again until 3 a.m. His careless fashions were not entirely careless, however, but a marker in Caergenog that he was distinct in the village of his birth—an urban sophisticate, no matter how his location, how his entire life, militated against such a role.
“It behooves them?” Tooly asked, smiling.
“What they have to realize,” he proceeded, “is that we don’t know even what the opposition is. My friend’s enemy is not my—” He leaned down to glimpse the cover of her paperback. “She had thirteen ﬁngers.”
“Anne Boleyn did. Henry VIII’s wife. Had thirteen ﬁngers.”
“I haven’t got to that part yet. She’s still only at ten.” Tooly stood, the empty chair rocking, and made for the front of the shop.
It was late spring, but the clouds over Wales bothered little with seasons. Rain had pelted down all morning, preventing her daily walk into the hills, though she had driven out to the priory nonetheless and sat in her car, enjoying the patter on the roof. Was it drizzling still?
“We took in the Honesty Barrel, didn’t we?” This was a cask of overstock that passersby could take (suggested contribution, £1 per book). The problem was not the honesty—encouragingly, most people did drop coins into the lockbox—but the downpours, which ruined the volumes. So they had become seasoned sky-watchers, appraising the clouds, dragging the barrel out and in.
“Never put it out in the ﬁrst place.”
“Didn’t we? Forgetfulness pays oﬀ.” She stood at the counter, gazing out the front window. The awning dribbled brown raindrops. Looked a bit like. “Coﬀee,” she said.
“You want one?” Fogg was constantly seeking pretexts to fetch cappuccino from the Monna Lisa Café, part of his attempt to court an Estonian barista there. Since Tooly preferred to brew her own tea, Fogg was obliged to consume cup after cup himself. Indeed, Tooly had ﬁrst discerned his crush on the barista by the frequency with which he needed the toilet, leading her to remark that his cappuccino conspiracy was aﬀecting the correct organ but in the incorrect manner.
“Back in a minute,” he said, meaning thirty, and shouldered open the door, its bell tinkling as he plodded up Roberts Road.
She stepped outside herself, standing before the shop and contemplating the church parking lot across the street, her old Fiat 500 alone among the spaces. She stretched noisily, arms out like a waking cat, and gave a little squeak. Two birds ﬂuttered oﬀ the church roof, talons out, battling over a nest. What species were those? But the birds wheeled away.
Caergenog—just across the Welsh side of the border with England—was populated by a few hundred souls, a village demarcated for centuries by two pubs, one at the top of Roberts Road and the other at its foot. The high ground belonged to the Butcher’s Hook, named in recognition of the weekly livestock market across the street, while the low ground, opposite the church and roundabout, was occupied by World’s End, a reference to that pub’s location at the outer boundary of the village. World’s End had always been the less popular option (who wanted to carouse with a view of iron crosses in the church graveyard?) and the pub closed for good in the late 1970s. The building stood empty for years, boarded up and vandalized, until a married couple—retired academics from the University of Bristol— bought the property and converted it into a used bookshop.
Their business plan had been to subsist on spillover custom from the annual literary festival in nearby Hay-on-Wye, and the eleven-day event did funnel trade to World’s End. Unfortunately, it had a negligible eﬀect during the remaining three hundred and ﬁfty-four days in the calendar. After a decade, the Mintons sought a buyer for the business, while retaining ownership of the seventeenth-century timber-and-stone property they had restored, including frosted pub windows, wrought-iron servery, plus inn rooms upstairs. An ad on the village bulletin board—crowded out by the notice of a performance by the Harlech Youth Brass Band—received no responses. Nor did a subsequent insertion in The Abergavenny Chronicle. Nor the distracted efforts of a gum-chewing real-estate agent named Ron. Their ﬁnal attempt involved classiﬁeds in a small-circulation literary publication, one crumpled copy of which found its way onto a train platform in Lisbon in 2009, where Tooly had picked it up. The ad said, “Bookshop for Sale.”
On Tooly’s visit to the place, the Mintons admitted that theirs was a money-losing business and that revenue had declined each year since their arrival. The best that Mr. Minton could say was “Perhaps it’d be interesting for someone who wants to read a lot. With a bit of youthful energy and such, you might do better than we have, ﬁnancially speaking. But you won’t get rich.” Tooly paid their asking price for the business, £25,000, which included the stock of ten thousand volumes. They were moving back to Bristol, and agreed that the low monthly rent for the shop would include her accommodations upstairs, along with the use of the sputtering purple Fiat.
For Tooly, to suddenly become the owner of thousands of books had been overwhelming. Tall shelves ran down the shop from front to back, the highest-altitude stock unsold, dusty, resentful. On the walls were framed prints: a nineteenth-century map of the world; a cityscape of Constantinople; an Edward Gorey illustration of a villain clutching a sumptuous volume, having shoved its owner oﬀ a cliﬀ. The caption was a quote from John Locke:
Books seem to me to be pestilent things, and infect all that trade in them...with something very perverse and brutal. Printers, binders, sellers, and others that make a trade and gain out of them have universally so odd a turn and corruption of mind that they have a way of dealing peculiar to themselves, and not conformed to the good of society and that general fairness which cements mankind.
Against the stacks rested a stepladder that Tooly was always moving to Mountaineering and that Fogg—not recognizing her joke— kept returning to French History. Hidden behind every row was another of as many copies again, a shadow bookshop. On the ﬂoor were unsorted boxes, so that one clambered rather than walked through the place. And the damask carpeting was matted with molted cat hairs, once attached to a long-departed pet named Cleopatra.
To indicate sections, the Mintons had attached cardboard signs to the shelves, the subject in tiny cursive if written by Mr. Minton or in looping print with indicative sketches if by Mrs. Minton. Most sections were ordinary: Trees, Plants, Fungi; Recipes & Eating. Others were peculiar (always in Mr. Minton’s tiny print), including Artists Who Were Unpleasant to their Spouses; History, the Dull Bits; and Books You Pretend to Have Read but Haven’t.
Tooly had neither read most of her stock nor pretended to. But gradually she settled among all these books, aided by the amiable presence of Fogg, who’d assisted at the shop since his school days. The Mintons had encouraged him to leave the village and study European literature at university. Instead, he kept coming back with cappuccinos.
On this occasion, he had one for Tooly as well, since he’d forgotten her answer. Settling on his barstool behind the servery, he mouse-clicked the computer to life, streaming a BBC Radio 4 broadcast whose host strove to panic his audience about the modern world, citing Moore’s law and cloud computing and the Turing test and the decline of the brain. “On any smartphone today,” the broadcaster declared, “one has access to the entirety of human knowledge.”
“They need a gadget,” Fogg commented, muting the show, “that records everything that ever happens to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“My point is that . . .what is my point? Yes, here: if these computers are getting so much the better, then soon—it’s not beyond thinking of it, to be brutally honest—someone will invent a gadget to store everything that happens in your life. When you’re little, you’d get implanted with it, a chip or something. Never have to worry about remembering passwords or arguing over what took place. In a legal dispute, you just pop out your memory chip and show it to the court.”
“And when you get old,” Tooly added, “you could watch the best bits again.”
“They’ll do it in our lifetime. It’s a matter of time, to be brutally honest.” Whenever Fogg stated something obvious, such as “it’s a matter of time” (and what wasn’t?), he spruced it up with “to be brutally honest.”
“What happens to the memory chip after you die?” Tooly asked.
“They save it,” he said. “Future generations could go back and see their great-great-grandparents doing things, and ﬁnd out what they were like.”
“Except for anyone who’d existed before the invention—people like us. We’d seem the equivalent of prehistoric humans. Don’t you think? We’d be wiped away, ‘swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers,’” Tooly said, quoting a line whose author escaped her.
Fogg scratched his blondish stubble and looked up at the pressed-tin ceiling, as if generations of ants and beavers were gazing down, awaiting his rejoinder. “But our future ancestors could retrieve our memories somehow,” he said. “People in the future could, sort of, come back and save bits that already happened.”
“You’re getting silly now. I need to ﬁle you under Sci-Fi. Anyway, if every second of your life was stored, there’d be too much to deal with. Nobody would have time to go over a memory chip containing everything that happened—you’d waste your life checking the past. You’d have to give up and trust your brain to keep the bits worth saving. And we’d be where we are now.”
She disappeared down an aisle, wending past boxes of stock. Tooly had such a particular gait, toes touching down ﬁrst, balls of her feet slowly cushioning the heel to ground. When she stopped, her feet splayed, back straightened, chin down, a surveying gaze that warmed when she smiled at him, eyes igniting ﬁrst, lips not quite parting. She descended the creaking stairs to the snug, sat in her rocking chair, resumed the Anne Boleyn paperback.
“The thing I wonder,” Fogg said, having trailed after, ledger pencil ﬂicking in his hand, “is whether horse is an acquired taste or if there’s something genetic in liking it.”
She laughed, enjoying this typically Foggian swerve of subject.
“Though I reckon,” he continued, “that the French only started eating their mares and their colts and their other horse varieties during the Napoleonic Wars, when the Russian campaign fell to pieces, when they were retreating, and it was awful cold, and they had no proper food left. All they had was horses, so they made supper of them. Which is where the French habit of nibbling horses got its start.”
“It was also at that moment that the French began eating frogs, which some of the smaller troops had ridden into battle,” she said. “How much better life would’ve been if they’d arrived at the Russian front on marbled beef!”
“You can’t actually ride cows,” Fogg said earnestly. “Can’t be done. This boy at my school, Aled, tried it once and it can’t be done. As for a battle situation, a cow would be out of the question. What’s important to realize about the French is that . . .”
The background Fogg calmed her. She had no desire to read more about the unfortunate Anne Boleyn. She knew how that story ended.
Tooly took the map from her duﬄe coat and let it expand like an accordion, then compressed it back to sense, folding the island of Manhattan into a manageable square at which she squinted, then glanced up, ﬁnding no relation between the printed grid before her and the concrete city around. Maps were so ﬂat and places so round—how to reconcile them? Especially here, where manholes billowed, crosswalks pulsated stop-red, and the sidewalk shuddered from subway trains clattering underground.
Up Fifth Avenue she tramped, through tides of foot traﬃc, glimpsing strangers as they brushed past, their faces near for an instant, then gone forever. At the fringe of Rockefeller Center, she stood apart from the crowd and bit oﬀ the lid of her blue felt-tip pen, wind icing her teeth. She removed her mittens, let them dangle from the string through her sleeves, and drew another wobbly line up the map.
Tooly intended to walk the entirety of New York, every passable street in the ﬁve boroughs. After several weeks, she had pen lines radiating like blue veins from her home in the separatist republic of Brooklyn into the breakaway nations of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, although their surly neighbor, Staten Island, remained unmarked. Initially, she had chosen neighborhoods to explore by their alluring names: Vinegar Hill and Plum Beach, Breezy Point and Utopia, Throggs Neck and Spuyten Duyvil, Alphabet City and Turtle Bay. But the more enticing a place sounded the more ordinary it proved—not as a rule, but as a distinct tendency. A few rambles had frightened her, past bombed-out buildings and dead-eyed boys. In Mott Haven, a pit bull darted into the road in front of an oncoming truck, was struck, and died on the sidewalk before her.
She turned down Fifty-ﬁrst Street—the buildings pronged with sleepy American ﬂags, neon glaring from the Radio City Music Hall marquee—and stopped there, balling her ﬁsts till they’d warmed. Suddenly she burst into a sprint, dodging oﬃce workers, leaping around a blind corner, nearly colliding with a tourist couple. After two blocks, she halted, breathless and grinning because of her secret: that she had nowhere to run, no place to hasten toward, not in this city or in the world. All these people strode past with intent. Citizens had locations and they had motives, families, meetings. Tooly had none.
She resumed her urban hike up Broadway on its northwesterly diagonal past Central Park and through the Upper West Side, gravitating to the tables of used books for sale—fusty old volumes of the sort Humphrey loved. She checked the prices, but could aﬀord nothing. She explored side streets, adding each to her map, admiring the fancy residences. Zabar’s deli exuded the scent of cheese and the tinkle of classical music. “Yeah, I’ll take a quarter pound of . . .” someone said. Tooly’s meal was already decided—in her coat pocket, a squashed peanut-butter sandwich, wrapped in a newspaper page whose ink had imprinted the white bread, thereby oﬀering the possibility of reading one’s lunch.
A few students wandered past: the runoﬀ from Columbia University dribbling south to these parts. They were around her age—twenty—talking loud and teasing each other. She looked at one, then a second, hoping they’d say something to her. Instead, they passed, banter growing faint behind her. So, uptown she went, investigating where they’d come from. Above 100th Street, the pizza parlors began in earnest, selling cut-rate slices to the college crowd. Beggars sat on the pavement, watching urgent sophomores, their cheeks still chubby and their foreheads spotty, rushing to exams, chattering about starting salaries.
Tooly meandered through the iron gates of the Columbia campus and ambled down the red-brick path of College Walk, as kids arrowed oﬀ in all directions. Might they take her for one of them? A doctoral student in zoology, perhaps, or a master’s candidate in criminology, or a postgrad in organic chemistry—though she had no idea what such occupations entailed. She drifted out of the main campus, wandering toward a desolate sidewalk that overlooked Morningside Park, the public space down there abandoned to crack addicts and the heedless. Birds tweeted from tree canopies. Beyond the foliage, a strip of Harlem rooftops was visible; occasional distant honking.
A pig waddled up the stone stairs from the park, walked toward her, and barged into her ankle—it was an intentional jostle, not a misjudgment. She laughed, astonished at its eﬀrontery, and stepped aside. The creature was black and potbellied, its gut dragging against the pavement, wiry hairs and a snub nose, not unlike the middle-aged human trailing afterward, holding a leash that led to a studded collar around the pig’s neck. The two crossed Morningside Drive and turned onto 115th. Tooly followed.
Whenever she encountered creatures, Tooly yearned to stoop and pat. She’d never owned an animal herself, the disorder of her life having prevented it. The owner of the pig stopped before a six-story residential building, took a ﬁnal puﬀ of his cigarette, ﬂicked it into the gutter, and turned for the entrance, which was framed with converted gaslights and wrought-iron curlicues. The snorty pig strutted in ﬁrst, then the man. Tooly hurried after, sidestepping inside the building before the door swung shut.
The elegant façade belied an interior of dirty marble walls, dreary metal mailboxes, and a convex mirror by the elevator, ensuring that no one hid around the corner with a pistol. A sign demanded no moving on sunday. She pictured residents going rigid—no moving!— every Sunday. The pig glanced at her, tracking her with suspicion. Its owner reached his apartment door, then turned aggressively. “You live here?”
“Hi,” she answered. “I used to. A bunch of years ago. I was just taking a look around. Hope it’s okay. Won’t bother anyone, I promise.”
“Where’d you live?”
“The fourth ﬂoor. Can’t remember our number, but right near the end. I was here as a kid.”
Tooly took the stairs, each landing tiled in checkerboard, each apartment numbered with a brass badge above a peephole. On the fourth ﬂoor, she chose a door and stood before it, envisaging what lay on the other side. This was her favorite part, like shaking a wrapped present and guessing its contents. She knocked, pressed the bell. No answer.
All right, then—this was not to be her long-lost childhood home. She’d pick another. She scanned the hallway, and noticed keys hanging from a scratched Yale lock. The door was ajar. She called out softly, in case the occupant had merely stepped away. No response.
With the rubber nose of her Converse sneaker, Tooly prodded the base of the door, which opened tremblingly upon a long parquet corridor. A young man lay there on his back, surrounded by shopping bags. He stared upward, eyelashes batting as he studied the corridor ceiling, utterly unaware of her in his doorway.
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation Between J. R. Moehringer and Tom Rachman
J. R. Moehringer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Moehringer is the author of the bestsellers Sutton and The Tender Bar, and coauthor of Open by Andre Agassi.
J. R. Moehringer: Your new novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, is wonderfully Dickensian. There’s a quasiorphan protagonist thrown in among lovable scoundrels, some of whom become parental surrogates, plus a slew of eccentric minor characters with names like Mr. Priddles and Fogg. And of course there are sly mentions of Nicholas Nickleby sprinkled throughout. Having grown up in a bar called Dickens, I have to ask: How much were you reading Dickens, or thinking of him, while plotting and writing? And is Nickleby your favorite of his novels?
Tom Rachman: I do love Dickens. His characters were among the first to imprint themselves into my imagination when I was little. I remember listening on audiobook during family vacations, while my sister (three years older) raced ahead in print, burning through another huge paperback. The main character in my novel, Tooly, is a bookworm like my sister—-the type who spends daylight in the -company of fictional characters, only to glance up hours later, startled to find a mere room. I wanted to show, as Tooly’s life unfolds, how one’s earliest stories condition how one encounters the world: what one -expects of strangers, whether one counts on justice, whether one veers into cynicism or veers back again. I chose to have Tooly reading Nicholas Nickleby because that book so memorably describes a wretched school—-and the joy of fleeing. All of which informs Tooly’s path in life. Or the path she thinks she’s taking.
JM: Clearly you have issues with the concept of linear time. As do many of your characters. (As do I.) I’m thinking of Gerda Erzberger, in your first novel, The Imperfectionists, railing against the “illusion of continuity” in our lives, lamenting that the past “won’t hold still.” It doesn’t hold still in your plots, either. In both your novels, the past is ever lurking, ebbing and flowing—-particularly for Tooly. Are you instinctively drawn to stories with this fluid and fractured sense of time, or is the choice more deliberate?
TR: I’ve sometimes used a collage effect, placing times sidebyside in a story, to investigate how personalities form, how they change, how they misunderstand one another. In life, we rarely contrast now and then with clarity. I’m thinking, for example, of when you encounter old friends after years apart. You find yourself noting how different they are, or how the facets which defined them are still present yet unexpectedly different in proportion, so that the giggliness has turned into giddiness or the determination has become courage. What you rarely consider is that, if your friends have changed, then surely you have too. Instead, we assume ourselves fixed in nature—-that only the rest of humanity shifts! But maybe we’re all ongoing stories, defined at various stages of life, or whenever people oblige us to declare ourselves. Fiction is marvelous for studying this, allowing the writer and reader to leap decades in a sentence. No other art lets you bend time as much.
JM: It strikes me that nearly every character in Rise & Fall has a powerful longing for home, and each of them has a radically different idea of what home means. Some are never quite sure what it means, though that doesn’t ease their longing. Is this just me projecting some of my own inner drama, or was the deep human desire for home running through your mind while you wrote?
TR: You’re right. In this novel, Tooly travels the world, watching all the stationary citizens, and wondering—-sometimes enviously—-what that life would be like, whether belonging can be attained, whether it’s a fallacy, and if you suffer by having no place. These are all thoughts that have occurred to me. I was born in London, raised in Vancouver, studied in Toronto, worked in New York, Rome, and Paris, and presently live in London again. I have family scattered from Canada to South Africa to China to Switzerland and places beyond. So what is home for me? It depends what one means by “home.” There’s the apartment or house or room that contains one’s bed. Then there’s the neighborhood or city or country that contains one’s identity. The first sense of home I establish easily. The second sense remains elusive to me after thirtynine years. When I was growing up, this bothered me. I yearned to be from somewhere, and confident of it. But I’ve shifted. Now I prefer to adopt admirable features of the cultures I’ve passed through, without restricting myself to just one.
JM: Because of your background in journalism, and your years working overseas, it was easier for readers to imagine, rightly or wrongly, possible inspirations for certain characters and events in The Imper-fectionists. But I can’t imagine what the spark was for the remarkable character of Tooly, or her odyssey. (Unless maybe The Tempest? She and Humph have a strong MirandaProspero vibe about them.) I really want to hear that you met someone like her on a long flight or at a dinner party.
TR: I’m very fond of Tooly, but I’ve never met her. Despite what they say about writing what you know, I’m poor at converting real people into fictional ones—-whenever I’ve tried, they are the least credible parts of the story! My characters start from imagination and gather small traits from actuality as they (and I) go along. If people recognize a reallife feature or anecdote in a character, they might falsely assume that this means the entire character was torn from reality. But mine are hybrids, predominantly fantasy, with a few purloined chromosomes, and a good number of my own in each character. The settings, by contrast, I try to reproduce as authentically as possible. For The Imperfectionists, which is set at an international paper in Rome, I mined my past at various news organizations in various cities. For Rise & Fall, I had to research a lot more—-everything from U.S. embassy security in the 1980s, to international schools in Bangkok, to the look of the Welsh countryside.
JM: I also wish I could go to Tooly’s lovely bookstore, World’s End. Based on your previous answer I’m going to assume it’s not modeled on any real bookstore, alas, but maybe it combines some qualities of your favorite bookstores? And are you the type of person who feels a fierce loyalty to bookstores, who can’t visit this or that city without also visiting its landmark bookstore—-the Strand in New York, Another Country in Berlin, Daunt in London, Tattered Cover in -Denver?
TR: The bookstore in my novel is inspired by many that have given me hours of pleasure over the years—-be they wondrous giants (say, Powell’s in Portland) or cramped establishments that require you to edge sideways past the stock (say, the Community Bookstore in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn). Another influence was HayonWye, in Wales, a town devoted to bookstores: It’s just one after the other. When I first went there, I was agog. It’s an amusement park for bibliophiles.
JM: In your first novel, a dying newspaper is the emotional anchor for your characters; in the second novel, it’s a dying bookstore. Is it reasonable to accuse you of chronic nostalgia? Do you perhaps feel that you were born at the wrong moment in history?
TR: I consider myself a realist—-with a sprinkling of nostalgia. I’m fascinated by our times, all these amazing technological and political and cultural changes. And I’m not one of those woebegone fellows yearning for the good old days—-there was too much brutality and drudgery in the past to imagine it was all doilies and Chopin. The era we’re in contains betterment in many respects, and this leads people to assume that all techdriven change is progress. Not so sure. The value of a smartphone is indisputable—-but who hasn’t felt slightly more harried, slightly more distracted, as a result? I don’t want to -declare contemporary changes either good or bad. I’d rather record a glimpse of them in my fiction, and encourage readers to ponder the torrent of change. Does our epoch define us? Or does one’s unique personality assert itself regardless of the period? In the background, the great powers of the world rise and fall, in politics, tech, everything. But one’s own strengths and influences rise and fall over the course of one’s life. That contrast is at the core of Rise & Fall: a tale of a bookbesotted world traveler trying to figure out where and how and when she fits.
Originally published by Salon in June 2014
What’s in a Book Title?
by Tom Rachman
Naming a novel is painstaking, agonizing, delicate. But does the title matter?
It certainly feels consequential to the author. After several years’ battle with your laptop keyboard, after 100,000 words placed so deliberately, you must distill everything into a phrase brief enough to run down the spine of a book. Should it be descriptive? Perhaps make it catchy. It has to be expressive, too. And honest. And serious. And amusing. And . . .
When writing my latest novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (I’ll explain that title shortly), I filled a pad with notes on my expanding story: character histories, timelines, plotlines—-plus a single sheet of possible titles. The page remained bare throughout my first draft. By the second, I had a dozen possibilities. By the third, the page was crammed with contenders, every line occupied, titles curling up the margins, pushing each other aside, thrusting themselves forth like forefingers poking my breastbone. Some were all right—-yet not quite right. Others were perfect—-but not for this book. Many were stinkers.
Then a flutter went through me. I had it.
I wrote this one down, hung quotation marks on either side, as if to plump it up for scrutiny. The title of my previous novel, The Imperfectionists, had produced a similar effect, redounding within the book itself, accentuating ideas I’d previously only sketched in. That title and this one guided me during subsequent drafts, identifying which lurking details merited more space and which deserved the snip.
Some books start from a title alone, but I’d guess that these are rare. You’d risk drafting a concept rather than a novel. Better to allow the writing to bolt out at first—-to be gathered and groomed and artfully tamed later. A name is best attached, I think, only once you know the story well.
However, choosing the title is also a matter of fashion. A glance at nineteenthcentury classics reveals a propensity for naming books after the protagonist: Madame Bovary or Oliver Twist or Anna Karen-ina. Writers of the twentieth century employed poetry: Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, citing Robbie Burns); A Handful of Dust (Waugh, quoting T. S. Eliot); For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway, lifting from John Donne). Nowadays, one vogue is for the quirkylyrical—-titles such as (and I’m making this up) The Strange Tenderness of Mr. Plimpsol’s Songbook. The clunkers are pretentious and vague; the best are intriguing.
Turning to my novel, it is a book about a bookseller, Tooly Zylberberg, who runs a dusty shop in the Welsh countryside, surrounded by millions of pages but few customers. Her past is odd: She grew up around the world, whisked from one country to another by a peculiar trio of adults. They fed her, taught her—-then disappeared. In the years since, she has never understood her own past. Then someone from the old days messages her, prompting Tooly—-a lifelong lover of stories—to piece together the story of herself.
Now to my title.
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers has three meanings. It refers to the rise and fall of powers over the course of life, as one gains in strength as a kid, reckons with oneself during adulthood, declines in old age—-all of which are stages that key characters confront in this novel. A second meaning is the rise and fall of influences during one’s life, be they relatives whom you once overlooked but later admire or ideas that once enchanted you that now seem preposterous. Finally, “great powers” has the traditional sense too, meaning the empires or forces of political change that sway the world—-and which characters in this book watch, wondering what role if any they hold in their own times.
In The Imperfectionists, I wrote intimate stories with a backdrop of the clash between the digital age and the old ways. In The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, I’m again telling an intimate story at the margins of the world, now with a backdrop of the past quartercentury, from the ’80s, when the Cold War was ending; to the turn of the millennium, during the peak of American dominance; to the radical tech and social changes of today. The story leaps back and forth among these three periods, contrasting where we were and where we’ve ended up.
My editors, very sensibly, asked whether a nonfictionsounding title risked confusing the reader. And, they noted, it recalled the title of a bestselling 1987 history by Paul Kennedy. What if Web searches caused my novel to vanish behind this twentysevenyearold volume on world politics? Was the title—-no matter how resonant for me—-worth the risk?
Even the upstanding George Orwell once changed the name of a novel, The Last Man in Europe, to his publisher’s preference, 1984. Apparently, The Great Gatsby could’ve ended up as Trimalchio in West Egg. And Catch22 started out as Catch11, only for the number to be doubled for marketing reasons.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Wouldn’t To Kill a Mockingbird read as sweet if it were Atticus, as Harper Lee once considered calling it? One grafts names onto objects and people, then experiences the titles as inevitable, just as the name of one’s mother (think of yours now) seems to encapsulate her, though she’d have been the same woman were she Hilda or April or Millie.
But no! Your mother was never Hilda or April or Millie—-she couldn’t have been any name but her own! A book title can feel as indelible.
Nevertheless, upon hearing my editors’ concerns, I turned to my original page of possible titles and reconsidered each in turn. I even mockedup book jackets with alternatives, to see how they looked.
None other felt right. When people read this novel, I hope some might contemplate its name, perhaps discuss it with friends, possibly perceive extra shades of meaning because this is The Rise & Fall of Great Powers and nothing else.
So I stuck with it. It just seemed like the title. And now it is.
Originally published by The Huffington Post in June 2014
1. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers opens and closes with the character of Fogg. Why do you think this is? What does seeing Tooly through Fogg’s eyes do for us as readers? What do you imagine lies in their future?
2. Tooly keeps twentyfirstcentury technology at arm’s length. How do you think her upbringing might influence her relationship to technology?
3. Do you understand Humphrey’s dislike of “madeup stories”? What is the effect of having a character express this opinion within a novel?
4. Tooly wonders what it would have been like to live in “an important era.” Do you agree that the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twentyfirst was an era of “relative calm, after all the proper history had ended”? What do you think makes an era important?
5. Tooly worries that there isn’t a “pure state of Toolyness.” Did you find Tooly an exceptionally malleable character? Do you think all people have the capacity to take on new personalities? Have you started anew at any point in your life?
6. Tom Rachman deliberately withholds plot information from the reader through nonlinear storytelling. When did you first begin to piece the story of Tooly’s life together? When were you truly surprised?
7. What are some of the different con games characters play on each other? Can you think of instances when a con was mistaken for love, or love mistaken for a con? Are there any moments when you felt that Tooly crossed a moral line?
8. This book is full of fathers and father figures: Paul, Venn, Humphrey, Duncan. Who do you think is the best father? The worst? How might each man’s own childhood have influenced his ideas about family and duty? Who do you think shaped (or engineered) Tooly the most?
9. In 2011, Duncan and his friends are leading very different lives than Tooly expected them to in 1999. How did their dreams as college students and their realities as adults diverge? Why does this surprise Tooly? In what ways is she unlike them?
10. Venn is described as “a being wrought of his own will, belonging to nothing.” What do you think is most important to Venn? Why do you think he drives Tooly away at the end?
11. Do you agree with Venn that Tooly was in love with him?
12. Humphrey calls Tooly “the favorite person of my life.” What are the limitations and the strengths of their relationship? How would Tooly describe what Humphrey means to her in 1988? In 1999? In 2011?