The Muddle that is Our Lives | Review of “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers” by Tom Rachman (2014) Doubleday Canada

Rise

We all consider our lives at one time or another. We think about the highlights and the lows. Then we turn to the future and hope for profound and exciting elements to push us through the future years. But is that how life really is? Do we really expect great things to happen to us when events in reality around us guide our lives forward? That is the conundrum I was thinking about after reading Tom Rachman’s The Rise & Fall of Great Powers.

Page 33-34 2011: The Beginning

The sunlight shifted and mottled the land. She paused under its rays, closed her eyes, absorbing the warmth. when the sun shone – and days passed without a glimpse of it – she hurried beneath. but it was rain that exhilarated her, watching through the bookshop window, the world hushing, sidewalks vacant. It wasn’t feeble drips that thrilled her but torrents – when raindrops exploded off leaves, choked drainpipes, drummed the attic roof at World’s End. Once, a thunderclap sounded in the afternoon and Fogg gasped, though he masked it noisily turning the page of a book on Mongol hordes.

“Storm are beautiful,” she’d said.

“Storms are wet.”

“Come on, you softie. When nature does something strong, dramatic like that, it’s exciting. Don’t you think?”

“Would you consider an earthquake excitng?”

“Well, if you could just watch it – imagine – if no one got hurt and nothing of value was destroyed, then yes, it’d be incredible. Like when you see pictures of molten lava.”

“Nothing nice about molten lava when it’s shooting at you.”

“It never has shot at me.”

“Not me, to be brutally honest.”

From behind her closed eyelids, she perceived a darkening. The sunlight had migrated along the moorland. A speck of rain hit her cheek. The drizzle fell noiselessly, the wind shouldering thin raindrops into diagonals that darted one way then another, like shoals of fish in a nervous mass. She watched wet dots multiply on her blouse, the cotton clung to her small breasts and belly. Back in her twenties, she had considered her body parts irrelevant to the whole of herself, as if she lived in a container unrelated to the contained. When she caught sight of herself today, thinner than once, she thought less of shape than of time, which had arrived, its incursions marked by the coarsening of her. She gazed at her rubber boots on wet stalks of grass, vision blurred by beads of rain that hung from her eyebrows,shivering at each step.

Rachman shows the muddle that has been the protagonist Tooly Zylberberg’s life. He starts the story off in Wales in 2011, then jumps back to Manhattan in 1999, then je jumps over to a long-distance flight from Australia to Bangkok in 1988 and so on. Through that journey we see Tooly in different stages of her life. Each snippet gives us glimpse of people who were important to her: Paul, Humphrey, Duncan, Venn, Fogg and so forth. But there something unsettling in Tooly’s life that a reader can’t quite put their finger on therefore must read forward to find out what exactly the problem is. And in doing so, the reader will perhaps consider their own lives a bit deeper.

Page 75-76 – 1999

As Tooly grew older, she witnessed other shortcuts: how one might vacation for nothing by befriending a shy local of the opposite sex, earning free room and board, even a tour guide for a few days. Another game involved posting reward signs for a lost key inside a tourist-jammed train station. She put on a hiker’s backpack (stuffed with Humphrey’s laundry) and sought out the smokers – always easiest to  start a conversation with. Any mean-faced jerk was her preference, the more unpleasant the better. She borrowed his lighter, sparked a cigarette, and complained that she had to fly home early because her grandma had fallen ill in Florida. While stepping away to the vending machines, she entrusted her backpack to the guy, then returned with a look of astonishment and something in her palm: Hey, is this that key on the reward posters? At a phone booth, they called the posted number. Frantic with excitement, the key’s owner promised to drive over immediately with the generous cash reward: he’d arrive in an hour. Alas, Tooly couldn’t wait – she had her flight to catch. However, the man on the phone (Venn) demanded that she wait. Appearing befuddled, she trust the phone at her new acquaintance. Venn told him that this girl had just agreed on five hundred dollars for the key – giver her the money now and I’ll refund you as soon as I arrive. Hell, I’ll quadruple it, if you stay put: two thousand in cash, plus, the five hundred you gave the girl. Her unpleasant new companion sprinted to the closest ATM (Tooly helpfully pointing it out), and withdrew as close to five hundred dollars as possible. She gave him the key and hastened to the cab stand – no time for the airport train now! When after an hour or two, the guy was still waiting, he irritably tried the number on the reward posters. It rang and rang.

This isn’t an easy book to read. The plot jumps and skips at times. But once the reader completes the task of getting to the end of the book, the whole story makes sense. It is enlightening to make one’s way through the narrative that is Tooly’s life and Rachman’s descriptions at times are vivid and emotional.

Page 313 – 1988

Tooly knelt on a chair at the sink and turned on the taps., organizing dirty plates and cutlery. Steam rose and sweat trickled down her brow as she gazed into the swirling dishwater. Briefly, the name of this city was lost to her. What was outside this house? She dropped a knife into the water, its surface sliced with a plop, tossing up a grape of liquid that peaked, flopped back within itself, the suds sliding closed. How strange, she thought, that there were people doing other things right at this moment in different places. Everyone she’d ever known was alive somewhere, thinking different things.

“Can I have coffee again today?” she asked Humphrey when he entered. In her early days here, Coca-Cola had been her morning refreshment, but she had copied him lately, drinking instant coffee with cream and lots of sugar, establishing a way of taking it that was uniquely hers. Nothing felt quite so grown-up as having way particular to oneself.

Tom Rachman’s The Rise & Fall of Great Powers.may be a disjointed read at times but it is a worthwhile one. It’s ambiguities and questions helps a reader ponder there one life in ways unimaginable. Truly a  great book.

Link to Tom Rachman’s website

Link to Doubleday Canada’s page for The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

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