The Short Version: Tooly Zylberberg has had a interesting life, to say the least. Brought up first by a father who, as a private contractor, never spent more than a year in a place, she then fell in with a magnetic bunch of misfits who carried her through her second decade. But now, having passed 30, she’s adrift and wondering exactly what her life has meant – and so she begins to put the pieces together of just what happened to her.
The Review: It’s almost hard to describe this book. The back cover copy is accurate, as (I would argue) is my description above – but at the same time, neither blurb can really articulate what this book is. It’s a bildungsroman, sure, following the life of a young girl into middle age and watching as she tries to make sense of her life’s adventures… but unlike, say, the Dickensian story (Nicholas Nickleby, the actual novel, appears many times throughout the book) you might expect – and there are rogues, kindly old men, and confusing women – it’s much more oblique. There’s an occluded beauty to this novel, like a cloudy winter’s afternoon.
The action bounces between three points in time: 1988, 1999/2000, and 2011. In each, things progress linearly but Rachman deftly keeps certain bits back behind the curtain so that the reveals, when they do come, feel like we’ve uncovered a piece of the mystery instead of thinking “oh, well, we knew how that would end up.” Put another way, reading about Tooly in 2011 does not mean we understand what happened in the previous time periods.
The plot of the book is actually rather thin on the ground, when you start to think about it. And there’s something not… not unbelievable, per se, but something a little strange for sure about it. The idea that, even back in the late 80s, a child could – essentially – disappear in the way that Tooly does forces a bit of a suspension of one’s disbelief. But Rachman writes these characters as a sort of reflection (as the title might imply) on a sort of person who doesn’t really exist anymore. Even Tooly, not too much older than Fogg (her employee in 2011 at the bookshop), is from a fundamentally different world. In this way, the book has a note of elegy to it – in the same way that The Imperfectionists did for the newspaper industry. It does not bemoan the loss of analog technology but instead just looks fondly back on the people that made up our analog world.
Look, specifically, at Venn – a barely existent (in a modern sense) conman. He flits from identity to identity, place to place, never seeming to touch down with reality. When Tooly tries to find him on the internet, of course she can’t. But she can’t find Humphrey either, a man who did not seek anonymity & secrecy in the way that Venn did – but who achieved a sort of solitude nonetheless. She thinks about how, when she dies, there’ll be no one else to think of him – an altogether foreign concept for anyone living in the modern era, as we’ll all be survived by our technological footprints.
Duncan is another great example. When he rants at the television, bemoaning a sort of post-Death-of-History grumpiness, we get the sense not that our (meaning American) power has faded or fallen but rather that we’ve stopped paying attention to how the world has moved on. Nation-states and the ideas of such strictly delineated boundaries were obsolete to Tooly’s band of formative adults – now, in the 21st century, those borders are actually increasingly antiquated as commerce, conversation, and connection begin to transcend mortal boundaries. Even the experience of a trans-Atlantic phone call – in 2011, no less – feels vaguely magical in Rachman’s book and it’s that nostalgia (the sort that doesn’t announce itself or wear its opinions on its sleeve) that makes the book so entrancing.
Rachman’s writing, of course, is the prime mover for that particular sort of magic. He writes with a reader’s joy – tossing out descriptions and phrasings that feel delightful in the reader’s mind. He’ll deploy a beautiful, high-flying phrase and follow it up with something utterly simple and the melding of the two is a delicious blend. And, it should be noted with special interest, that his scenes in end-of-the-Millennium New York carried an especially beautiful tone – like PJ Harvey’s “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea” album. I found myself listening to “A Place Called Home” as Tooly told Duncan to “be sweet to the pig” on a streetcorner at 115th St and I had to stop the book to let my mind find its way out of that bitterly beautiful winter’s moment on a spring afternoon. Gorgeous.
And his characters! The way they speak! For example: Humphrey, a Soviet ex-pat, speaks like man in old cartoon – cartoon with moose and sqvirrel, maybe. Da? And although it could come off as lazy or a stereotype, Rachman manages to make it a warm and endearing quirk. I always enjoyed hearing Humphrey speak. But then, I really enjoyed hearing all of these characters speak. It was established from the first page, when he describes Fogg thusly: “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.” They are each going to speak with quirks and ticks that make them perhaps heightened as compared to ordinary speakers… but that’s the point, isn’t it? They are characters not just in that they are created out of words and ideas but in that way that we sometimes describe our eccentric friends: “Boy, isn’t he a character?”
Rating: 5 out of 5. I saw a review in an English paper that asked, in the lede, “how can you follow up imperfection?” or something like that. And while it’s a good joke, Rachman’s first book title could serve as a title for this one too. This book has some flaws and some mismatched edges, but that’s what makes it such a wonderful read. It’s like a handmade antique desk, or a pub converted into a bookstore. You come despite – and perhaps even sometimes for – the imperfections. It’s what makes the book so gloriously human.