The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel

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9780804164573: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel

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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.

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
“Rachman’s comedic powers drive the story, with grace and wit.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

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About the Author:

Tom Rachman was born in London in 1974 and raised in Vancouver. He attended the University of Toronto and Columbia Journalism School, then worked as a journalist for the Associated Press in New York and Rome and for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His first novel, The Imperfectionists, was an international bestseller, translated into twenty-five languages. He lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


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, e...

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