Friday, April 26, 2013

Odds Against Tomorrow

It's not often that I just go read a book after reading the review, but the NY Times Book Review's article on Nathaniel Rich's new novel struck the right chord. The book is witty, laugh-out-loud funny and satirical but the humor does not completely mask the hard edge.

Mitchell Zukor is obsessed with catastrophe and channels his affinity for it into a lucrative career as a futurist, forecasting scenarios for corporate clients. While many of these people seem to view his advice as simple catharsis -- by imagining the worst, they somehow avoid it -- Mitchell never forgets that he is talking about a possible reality and never really relaxes.

The hook used by the Times reviewer is that the catastrophe that plays out is one all too realistic after Hurricane Sandy led to widespread flooding in Manhattan. Once the tidal surge covers most of Manhattan in water, it is like Sandy meets Katrina, and Mitchell's trip in a canoe is reminiscent of Zeitoun's real-life meanderings through a flooded New Orleans.

I'm a big fan of catastrophe films. It's embarrassing how many times I've watched Dante's Peak, Volcano, Contagion, Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon, 2012 and so on. And yet, Mitchell's encounter with this all-too-imaginable catastrophe is not science fiction or fantasy but a drama about how we cope with existential fear in our fragile environment.

Rich is screamingly funny in articulating these fears -- from the consequences of climate change, to nuclear and terrorist threats, up to asteroids hitting the earth. The week after the Boston Marathon bombing and the day the Times reports that a Midwest scarred by drought is now covered with floodwaters makes them seem anything but remote.

Rich is a post-modernist writer in the vein of Don DeLillo and Jess Walter -- sardonic, cynical, but deep down idealistic about human nature. Mitchell remains sympathetic even in the disturbing end of the book when, having survived this catastrophe, he accepts the consequences of what this means for how he lives his life.

There are two women in Mitchell's life -- the mystical Elsa and the pragmatic Jane. He is subservient first to one and then to the other, breaking free only after he has had to make his choices about dealing with catastrophe and mastering his fear. At least, we presume he has mastered it, because his life is changed and he is for once truly independent.

Mitchell's parents and his FutureWorld employer offer humorous sidelights, but it is Jane -- ambitious, bright, sexy, vulnerable -- who brings what passes for normalcy in our society into conflict with Mitchell's own quest. He deals with Jane's various temptations even as he seeks answers to Elsa's mysterious exile in a survivalist farm and her own way of dealing with a mortally dangerous heart condition.

This is an imaginative, ultra-timely, idiosyncratic portrayal of the dark side of our modern world -- the fears we try to keep at bay but which are never far away.

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