Archive for the ‘Rachman, Tom (2)’ Category

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman

July 30, 2014

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Author Tom Rachman gives the reader three starting points in the life of Tooly Zylberberg in this novel:

  • 2011 — Thirtysomething Tooly owns and operates a used bookstore in a converted pub in Wales, aided (sort of) by Fogg. Trade is slim by any measure, but it has its moments — and Fogg’s wandering philosophical meanderings are in themselves a source of some amusement. The shop is the kind of place a tightly-united community welcomes. A powerful symbol is the Honesty Barrel, “a cask of overstock”, left outside the store where passersby can take a volume (suggested contribution £1) and move on — the Barrel has to be taken in when rain threatens, which is a major decision in the quiet life of running the bookshop:

    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 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.

    That business plan failed, but Tooly has resurrected it, alas with no positive results to date. As the previous owners said, maybe “some youthful energy” could turn it into a break-even business “but you won’t get rich”.

  • 1999 — The 20-year-old Tooly, resident of Brooklyn, but self-directed student of Manhattan who is keeping a marked map of her excursions:

    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.

    This Tooly has discovered a tactic that helps fuel her curiosity: if she knocks on a door and says she used to live in this very apartment and wants a look round to remind her, people tend to let her in. This thread of the story acquires momentum when she does just that at a suite occupied by three students near Columbia University and moves into their convoluted lives.

  • 1988 — Tooly is not quite 10 and she and her father Paul are about to land in Thailand. Paul is an IT expert whose job consists of upgrading computer access in minor U.S. diplomatic posts so they can dip into massive data bases to check on possible terrorists. He has just finished a contract in Australia and now the two are moving to Bangkok — even though most of his work is in outposts, he likes to operate from a base in a larger city.

    “Landing cards,” Paul said, thinking aloud, and grabbed two as they waited in line at the border control. “When were you born?”

    “You know that.”

    “I know that,” he acknowledged, filling it in. He looked around, startled at the slightest noise — he was rigidly tense in public with Tooly. A Velcro strap on his shoe had come unstuck, so she knelt to attach it. “What are you doing?” he asked irritably. “It’s nearly our turn.”

    The immigration officer summoned them. Paul was a man who followed rules — indeed, their absence unnerved him. Yet whenever he addressed authorities his mouth became audibly dry. “Good morning. Evening,” he said, sweat budding on his upper lip.

    We know from the other two threads (where Paul is absent) that Tooly got away from Thailand. We don’t know how, and that will become the dramatic dilemma of the novel.

  • For this reader, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the latest example of a new fiction phenomenon (I’m reluctant to call it a genre): authors who have been “raised globally” bringing that experience to their writing.

    Now authors have always travelled: Byron and Shelley headed to Italy; Fitzgerald, Baldwin, Hemmingway and a host of others Paris. But that used to happen after they started writing — now we see young (or at least youngish) authors, most of them currently based around New York it seems, producing “globally wandering” novels that capture their growing-up life. From just the last year, I’d give you Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. That’s a Pulitzer winner, a Booker winner and a New York Times 10 best, so you can hardly say the trend isn’t attracting attention.

    Rachman fits the profile: born in London (the English one), raised in Vancouver, attended the University of Toronto and Columbia in New York, headed off to Europe where he worked for the Associated Press in Rome and Paris. Indeed, his first work — the delightful The Imperfectionists — is a novel-in-stories that I absolutely loved centred on an English-language newspaper published in Rome.

    I only wish that I could say the same about this novel. Given that the 10-year-old Tooly stream is mainly a set up, I didn’t expect much from it.

    But 20-year-old Tooly in New York as the millennium comes to an end seemed to be fertile ground and 31-year-old Tooly running a used bookshop in Wales sure had promise — promise that kept looming on the horizon but never arrived.

    Part of the problem for me was the supporting cast. To keep his story together, Rachman needs to have “Tooly manipulators” and he never succeeded in making them three-dimensional — instead, they became plot advancers. And while I was quite willing to engage with Tooly herself (and often did), bouncing between the decades often left me more frustrated than satisfied. I should confess I had the same problem with Tartt and Kushner’s novels — maybe I am just a reader who wants more “stay at home” depth and less “wandering the world” panorama.

    Please don’t let that grumpy response put you off the novel. Rachman is a very talented wordsmith and some of the set pieces in this one are delightful — given my more positive response to The Perfectionists, it is easy to say that at this stage in his career the short story model remains his strength. While I don’t think The Rise and Fall of Great Powers succeeds, it is a step in the right direction — I am pretty sure that sometime in the future Rachman will produce a truly outstanding novel.


    The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

    May 19, 2010

    Purchased at

    Let’s pause for a brief glance over the shoulder. KfC has already confessed to an attraction to “school” novels, first in a review of two recent U.S. ones (reviewed here) that attracted prize attention, later with Tobias Wolff’s excellent Old School. And I have also admitted a fondness for “foodie” novels; see Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody.

    But there is an even bigger KfC reading talisman — novels about journalism. My first real job in 1969 was as a summer reporter at The Calgary Herald; 26 years later I walked out of the Herald as its departing publisher. The last 30 years of the 20th century were, in North America at least, an amazing time for journalists and I was proud to be part of it. And I will also admit I am very glad that I am not a part of the struggles that newspapers are facing now.

    So when I read two falling-off-the-wall, upbeat, complimentary reviews of Tom Rachman’s first novel, The Imperfectionists, in the NY Times (see them here and here), I will admit that the book was ordered immediately and moved to the top of the reading pile. Journalists are protective of their turf and often resent fictional descriptions of it — but when they are well done, that grumpiness means we love them even more. And while Breslin or a couple of others might have been around long enough to allow description, a “kid’s” view (that would be anyone under 50) would not be appropriate, unless it was truly exceptional. The Imperfectionists has now been read and — ta da — it is every bit as good as those NY Times reviews said it would be. While I won’t be revealing any of my “newspaper” favorite novels until the comment discussion opens (okay, Scoop is one), this novel will be on the list, I assure you.

    In the early 1950s, Cyrus Ott is a rich American wandering around Rome without a purpose. He decides to found an international, English-language newspaper based there. While that may sound like a strange economic decision, he is also buying, almost like ju-jubes or some other candy, art work by Leger, Modigliani and Turner, so this “newspaper” is just another trifle where his considerable fortune can be put to use.

    A trifle for Ott, but not for the people who work there. The current time of The Imperfectionists is more than a half century later — 2007 to be precise. The paper (it is never given a title in the novel) continues to publish, although not thrive. Its early circulation, stuck at about 15,000 a couple of decades ago, “soared” to 25,000 and now is back to about 10,000 — the paper is draining money every day, kept alive by Ott’s hapless survivors (who are blowing most of his fortune anyway — beware the third generation) in his memory. It is home to a beehive of interesting characters.

    The Imperfectionists is being marketed as a novel and I have no objection with that. What it really is, at least for me, is 11 character sketches of individuals whose shared experience happens to be their relationship to “the paper”, headquartered in a building on the Corso Vittorie Emanualle II in Rome. If you have been to Rome, you know about that address — if you haven’t, rest assured you will see it on your first visit. And if you stay there long enough and are a perceptive observer, you will see some of these characters. The ex-pat who finds a way to survive in Rome is one of the sub-themes that Rachman is most effective at developing. He lives there and did work for The International Herald Tribune so he knows whereof he speaks.

    I am not going to try to give you a portrait of all 11 but would like to provide a few quotes to illustrate a couple, if only to interest you in the other nine. Rachman introduces each of his chapters with a headline from the paper. Under the heading of “Global Warming Good For Ice Creams”, here are some observations about Herman Cohen, Corrections Editor of the paper:

    * GWOT: No one knows what this means, above all those who use the term. Nominally, it stands for Global War on Terror. But since conflict against an abstraction is, to be polite, tough to execute, the term should be understood as marketing gibberish. Our reporters adore this sort of humbug; it is the copy editor’s job to exclude it. See also: OBL; Acronyms; and Nitwits.

    He hits save. It is entry No. 18,238. “The Bible” — his name for the paper’s style guide — was once printed and bound, with a copy planted on every desk across the newsroom. Now it exists solely within the paper’s computer network, not least because the text has grown to approximately the size of metropolitan Liechtenstein. The purpose of the Bible is to set down laws: to impart whether a “ceasefire” is, properly speaking, a “cease-fire” or indeed a “cease fire”; to adjudge when editors must use “that” and when “which”; to resolve quarrels over prepositions, false possessives, dangling modifiers — on the copydesk, fisticuffs have broken out over less.

    If you ever worked at a daily newspaper prior to, say, 1990, you would know a version of Herman Cohen (the version at the one that I ran — “Gus” — was rigorously insistent that no one could talk to him when he arrived at work until he removed his street shoes and put on the rabbit-fur-lined slippers that were his work attire). These guys had been there forever, been through most jobs (Herman has been “acting” editor-in-chief three times in his career) and they knew more about corporate history than any of the legitimate files could ever reveal. They did not just have a copy of Strunk and White or Fowler on their desk, they had all of the last five editions and could tell you just where changes had been made in each, usually to their dismay. A young reporter going over to their lair to consult on an apostrophe would be risking an hour of direction.

    (ASIDE: My personal favorite: “To the manner (manor) born.” I knew enough that “manner” was correct but headed over anyway. After more than 30 minutes discussion with two of these creatures — and reference to numerous works — it was agreed that both versions are correct, but a reporter has to know when to use each. E.g. Prince Charles is “to the manner” born because of the way he leans on his birth to justify his shortcomings. Diana, Princess of Wales, is “to the manor born” because of the way that she exploits her birth in her upward surge, moving on to bigger castles.)

    Consider the editor’s relationship with Herman:

    She often stops by for advice. Her deputy may be Craig Menzies, but Herman is her true counselor. He has worked at the paper for more than thirty years, has held most editorial jobs here (though never reporter), and served as the acting editor-in-chief during interregnums in 1994, 2000 and 2004. Staffers still shiver to recall his stewardship, Yet for all his bluster Herman is not disliked. His news judgment is envied, his memory is an unfailing resource, and his kindness emerges for all those who hang around long enough.

    Then there is Ruby Zaga, a copy editor “who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct.” Here’s the opening of Ruby’s chapter — since she is a copy editor who writes headlines, it is titled with one of her better ones, “Kooks With Nukes” (for those visitors who don’t know about headline writing that is a one column, three deck — i.e. you need to have three words, none of which are longer than about eight letters).

    The jerks tooks her chair again, the chair she fought for six months to get. It’s amazing. Just amazing, these people. She hunts around the newsroom, curses bubbling inside her, bursting out now and then. “Pricks”, she mutters. She should just quit. Hand in her resignation. Never set foot in this place again. Leave these idiots in the dirt.

    Here are a few more of the characters and the headlines for their respective chapter: Paris Correspondent Lloyd Burko (“Bush Slumps To New Low In Polls”); obituary writer Arthur Gopal (“World’s Oldest Liar Dies At 126”); business reporter Hardy Benjamin (“Europeans Are Lazy, Study Says”); chief financial officer Abbey Pinnola, universally known as Accounts Payable to the staff (“Markets Crash Over Fears Of China Slowdown”) and reader Ornella de Monterecchi (“Cold War Over, Hot War Begins”).

    My fascination with Rachman’s exceptional portrayal of detail is getting in the way of my description of the volume itself (although it is the detail that truly makes the book). The novel may be a collection of character sketches but at the end of each one the author goes to the back story for a page or two and gives us some history of “the paper”. It is a highly effective device for knitting together the present and the past — and very unusual for a first novelist to be able to carry off.

    I loved this book and I am pretty sure anyone who has ever worked in the “news” business — or is a spouse of those of us who have — will have the same response. Does that make it a great novel? I’m not sure. But it is certainly good enough to join a canon (which we will talk about in the comments) of books about journalism. And finally, if you have never worked in the news writing business but wonder about it, this is as good (well, funny) a fictional portrayal of what was happening there in the last few decades as any I have read. And, not to be overlooked, it is set in Rome and Rachman obviously knows that exceptional city very well.

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