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book review

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

Tom Rachman is in love with entropy, but he narrates with an artful sense of order. His first novel, “The Imperfectionists,” conjured a dying newspaper in Rome. Each chapter told a staffer’s story from copy editor to editor-in-chief. Rachman then assembled their tales into something as seemingly inevitable as a Sunday paper. It was a marvelous performance.

“The Rise and Fall of Great Powers,” his latest novel, creates another ensemble cast standing before the maw of decline. It is a curious book: roomy where its predecessor was more rigorously compressed; philosophical in ways Rachman’s debut shunned.

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Most ambitiously, the book isn’t observing a single institution’s dissolution. It’s checking in on the unwinding of everything, on the seeming end of the world.

At the center is Mathilda Tooly Zylberberg, a clever expat stolen from her home at a young age and brought to Thailand in the 1980s. “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” follows Tooly on her zigzag through life in reverse chronological order. We meet her in the near present day, when she owns a rambling bookshop in Wales.

Then we skip back to 1999, when she lives below the Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn and cohabits with Humphrey, an aging autodidact who speaks in a Russian accent and plays chess with himself all day. For work, Tooly pulls mild cons with a friend named Venn, a man equal parts menace and charm.

Finally we skip back to 1988, the year a man named Paul brings Tooly to Bangkok. Paul may or may not be Tooly’s father. Either way, he is utterly incompetent as a parent. On their first day in the city he leaves her home alone with no food for 14 hours. She parents him as much as the other way around.

These time markers in place, Rachman spins the wheel of Tooly’s days, creating the spectacle of a life lived in retrospect. Characters are introduced in the present day — a middle-age hippie named Sarah, a boyfriend of Tooly’s named Duncan who is both a mark and a lover — and then we read forward to encounter them in the past and discover how it is they came to be part of Tooly’s life.

The effect of this narrative strategy is like mapping destinations in a city while driving it in reverse. What did Venn do for Tooly that earned such unusual devotion? Why did Tooly pick up Duncan?

Likewise “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” is a book saturated in other books. There are moldy volumes tumbling down upon Tooly’s head in Wales. Humphrey, who claims to be a “Marxist, non-practicising,” is constantly quoting John Stuart Mill and Spinoza to his youthful roommate. The novel’s title comes from another book.

“The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” does more than name check, though. It tries mightily to square the narrative cosmology of books, especially fiction, with the chaos of lived experience. A gap lives between them, though, and Rachman warns of trying to live with the depth and order of fiction.

Tooly, who left school at age 10 but reads constantly, is particularly endangered. A late-night Facebook message about her father — who could be any number of characters in this book — summons her to New York. She leaps to task with the tropes of 19th-century fiction.

“Taken from home, left in the care of a stranger, moved around the world. Those events had seemed to be heading toward some purpose, only for everything to collapse in New York.”

The “father” she must rescue turns out to be Humphrey. Rachman makes us read another 200 pages to learn whether he really is her father. He certainly has functioned like one. In flashbacks we see how Humphrey ironically tried to warn Tooly against her tendency to view her life as if it were fiction.

Tooly, Humphrey, and Venn live through interesting times: the fall of Communism and the rise of stateless combatants in borderless wars; creation of the Internet and reduction in real world pleasures. Rachman skips through these periods with astonishing ease.

It feels like a commentary, though, that Rachman’s cast flits like moths around the flames of these events without touching their kinder essence. The tech bubble makes Brooklyn housing a necessity, and Tooly finds herself there. Venn jumps from international drug trafficking to tech fraudery, the assumption being there is little difference between the two.

Rachman was born in London, grew up in Canada, and has written for newspapers around the globe. His view of the late American empire, filtered through characters both big and small, is alternately grim and melancholic. Here is a nation with a story, the book tells us, but a real life that is something else.

The only character in “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” who can lay claim to the grandeur of its title is Humphrey. He tells people he escaped the Soviet Gulag, hopped a boat to England, and wound up in South Africa at the height of apartheid. Rachman keeps us wondering whether his biography is a story or the snail-trail of an actual life.

Either way, there is a truth to Humphrey’s tale that reveals a gentler side to myth-making. We are like nations; it still matters what we imagine ourselves to be. In this restless, bibliophiliac book, Tom Rachman has given us a character drenched in other people’s tall tales, poised to declare whom she really is.

John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”
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