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
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, enjoying this typically Foggian swerve of subject.
“Though I reckon,” he continued, “that the French only started eating their mares and their colts and their other horse varieties during the Napoleonic Wars, when the Russian campaign fell to pieces, when they were retreating, and it was awful cold, and they had no proper food left. All they had was horses, so they made supper of them. Which is where the French habit of nibbling horses got its start.”
“It was also at that moment that the French began eating frogs, which some of the smaller troops had ridden into battle,” she said. “How much better life would’ve been if they’d arrived at the Russian front on marbled beef!”
“You can’t actually ride cows,” Fogg said earnestly. “Can’t be done. This boy at my school, Aled, tried it once and it can’t be done. As for a battle situation, a cow would be out of the question. What’s important to realize about the French is that . . .”
The background Fogg calmed her. She had no desire to read more about the unfortunate Anne Boleyn. She knew how that story ended. 1999
Tooly took the map from her duﬄe coat and let it expand like an accordion, then compressed it back to sense, folding the island of Manhattan into a manageable square at which she squinted, then glanced up, ﬁnding no relation between the printed grid before her and the concrete city around. Maps were so ﬂat and places so round—how to reconcile them? Especially here, where manholes billowed, crosswalks pulsated stop-red, and the sidewalk shuddered from subway trains clattering underground.
Up Fifth Avenue she tramped, through tides of foot traﬃc, glimpsing strangers as they brushed past, their faces near for an instant, then gone forever. At the fringe of Rockefeller Center, she stood apart from the crowd and bit oﬀ the lid of her blue felt-tip pen, wind icing her teeth. She removed her mittens, let them dangle from the string through her sleeves, and drew another wobbly line up the map.
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.
She turned down Fifty-ﬁrst Street—the buildings pronged with sleepy American ﬂags, neon glaring from the Radio City Music Hall marquee—and stopped there, balling her ﬁsts till they’d warmed. Suddenly she burst into a sprint, dodging oﬃce workers, leaping around a blind corner, nearly colliding with a tourist couple. After two blocks, she halted, breathless and grinning because of her secret: that she had nowhere to run, no place to hasten toward, not in this city or in the world. All these people strode past with intent. Citizens had locations and they had motives, families, meetings. Tooly had none.
She resumed her urban hike up Broadway on its northwesterly diagonal past Central Park and through the Upper West Side, gravitating to the tables of used books for sale—fusty old volumes of the sort Humphrey loved. She checked the prices, but could aﬀord nothing. She explored side streets, adding each to her map, admiring the fancy residences. Zabar’s deli exuded the scent of cheese and the tinkle of classical music. “Yeah, I’ll take a quarter pound of . . .” someone said. Tooly’s meal was already decided—in her coat pocket, a squashed peanut-butter sandwich, wrapped in a newspaper page whose ink had imprinted the white bread, thereby oﬀering the possibility of reading one’s lunch.
A few students wandered past: the runoﬀ from Columbia University dribbling south to these parts. They were around her age—twenty—talking loud and teasing each other. She looked at one, then a second, hoping they’d say something to her. Instead, they passed, banter growing faint behind her. So, uptown she went, investigating where they’d come from. Above 100th Street, the pizza parlors began in earnest, selling cut-rate slices to the college crowd. Beggars sat on the pavement, watching urgent sophomores, their cheeks still chubby and their foreheads spotty, rushing to exams, chattering about starting salaries.
Tooly meandered through the iron gates of the Columbia campus and ambled down the red-brick path of College Walk, as kids arrowed oﬀ in all directions. Might they take her for one of them? A doctoral student in zoology, perhaps, or a master’s candidate in criminology, or a postgrad in organic chemistry—though she had no idea what such occupations entailed. She drifted out of the main campus, wandering toward a desolate sidewalk that overlooked Morningside Park, the public space down there abandoned to crack addicts and the heedless. Birds tweeted from tree canopies. Beyond the foliage, a strip of Harlem rooftops was visible; occasional distant honking.
A pig waddled up the stone stairs from the park, walked toward her, and barged into her ankle—it was an intentional jostle, not a misjudgment. She laughed, astonished at its eﬀrontery, and stepped aside. The creature was black and potbellied, its gut dragging against the pavement, wiry hairs and a snub nose, not unlike the middle-aged human trailing afterward, holding a leash that led to a studded collar around the pig’s neck. The two crossed Morningside Drive and turned onto 115th. Tooly followed.
Whenever she encountered creatures, Tooly yearned to stoop and pat. She’d never owned an animal herself, the disorder of her life having prevented it. The owner of the pig stopped before a six-story residential building, took a ﬁnal puﬀ of his cigarette, ﬂicked it into the gutter, and turned for the entrance, which was framed with converted gaslights and wrought-iron curlicues. The snorty pig strutted in ﬁrst, then the man. Tooly hurried after, sidestepping inside the building before the door swung shut.
The elegant façade belied an interior of dirty marble walls, dreary metal mailboxes, and a convex mirror by the elevator, ensuring that no one hid around the corner with a pistol. A sign demanded no moving on sunday. She pictured residents going rigid—no moving!— every Sunday. The pig glanced at her, tracking her with suspicion. Its owner reached his apartment door, then turned aggressively. “You live here?”
“Hi,” she answered. “I used to. A bunch of years ago. I was just taking a look around. Hope it’s okay. Won’t bother anyone, I promise.”
“Where’d you live?”
“The fourth ﬂoor. Can’t remember our number, but right near the end. I was here as a kid.”
Tooly took the stairs, each landing tiled in checkerboard, each apartment numbered with a brass badge above a peephole. On the fourth ﬂoor, she chose a door and stood before it, envisaging what lay on the other side. This was her favorite part, like shaking a wrapped present and guessing its contents. She knocked, pressed the bell. No answer.
All right, then—this was not to be her long-lost childhood home. She’d pick another. She scanned the hallway, and noticed keys hanging from a scratched Yale lock. The door was ajar. She called out softly, in case the occupant had merely stepped away. No response.
With the rubber nose of her Converse sneaker, Tooly prodded the base of the door, which opened tremblingly upon a long parquet corridor. A young man lay there on his back, surrounded by shopping bags. He stared upward, eyelashes batting as he studied the corridor ceiling, utterly unaware of her in his doorway.
Excerpted from The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman. Copyright © 2014 by Tom Rachman. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.