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. (pp. 12-13)There are two main types of narrative mysteries: discovering what will happen next and how things happened in the past. In his second novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, Tom Rachman's focus is predominantly on the latter. Spanning three time periods (1988, 1999-2000, 2011) and three continents (Asia, North America, and Europe), the focus is on a early-30s woman, Tooly Zylberberg, and on an urgent message she receives from an ex-boyfriend to come back to New York to see her father before he dies. Her preparation for travel from the Welsh bordertown bookstore where she has ensconced herself for the past two years triggers a series of flashbacks to when she was 10 and 21 years old.
Having over half of a narrative being told in flashback can lead to all sorts of narrative trouble for an unskilled writer. Thankfully, Rachman manages to balance out characters and events along the three time periods that each manages to help the reader construct a composite image of Tooly and those who enter and leave her life. Rachman is very skilled at developing memorably unique characters. From the father figures in her life (Paul, Humphrey, Venn) to bumbling, blustering fools to the enigmatic Sarah, Rachman's characters are quirky yet easily understood. The only character who is loathe to reveal any secrets is Tooly herself and it is this reticence on her part that makes the mystery of her past and how she came to roam about in Bangkok and New York such an enticing one for readers.
Rachman's prose is rich with literary allusions. Scarcely a section passes without some character or another alluding to some history, philosophy, or work of literature. Rachman ties these works, or rather the surface-level blusterings about their importance, to certain characters in order to emphasize their character shortcomings or pretensions to be what they are not. There are also some thematic connections between a few of the works the characters mention, such as Dickens' Nicholas Nickelby, and plot developments.
Humor may not be high on the list of things readers expect to find in a character identity-mystery, but it plays an important role in fleshing out the characters and in balancing out some of the darker elements. Rachman skewers his characters, especially the more self-absorbed ones, brilliantly at times. In addition, the bumbling, lovable lugs show their affection for Tooly through their babbling comments and struggles to speak what they truly felt. This humor is never overplayed, instead flowing like an underground current, yet always seemingly bubbling up whenever it was most necessary.
Yet the heart of The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, Tooly, possesses a darkness about her that she herself does not understand. As she reflects on her past, recalling important moments as she bounced from place to place, with people moving in and out of her life, she has become quietly cynical, not quite ready to struggle to understand how she had become forged into the person she now was. She is not a character who readily yields any secrets and it is this slow unveiling of her youth that makes for an anticipatory reading discovery. The humor, the memorable secondary characters, all these elements serve to occupy the reader while Tooly's character reveal unfolds languidly. Yet by novel's end, what is revealed makes the wait worthwhile. While some readers might not have the patience to read nearly 400 pages to get to the heart of the protagonist, for others, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is an occasionally delightful and continuously absorbing character-based tale that rewards those who pay close attention to what is occurring behind the scenes.