APRIL 11, 2013
A COLLEGE CLASSROOM STRUGGLES to focus on a lecture while, behind the tweed shoulders of the professor, an overhead projector streams live TV news, with images unspooling of Seattle disappearing: roads buckling, the Space Needle toppling. Amidst this chaos and destruction we meet Mitchell Zukor, math whiz. “The reporter’s voice was loud and hoarse in the speakers. We saw incoherent flashes of flame, glass, metal, sea. No one spoke. We were trying to understand what we were watching.”
Zukor knows what he’s seeing, or at least he has an inkling, because it is his worry and intelligence that guide Odds Against Tomorrow — the new novel by Nathaniel Rich — and it is his potential transformation from worrier to man who is right that serves as our driving force. He’d merely been the geeky child of Bulgarian immigrants, a Midwestern rube in a math T-shirt. Then he charts a path from leafy quad to Manhattan, where after a year at a big financial firm, he stifles a scream when he lands a job 20 floors below, at Future World, where he fulfills his apparent destiny — to show us how our world ends.
Things do not look good for Manhattan, alas, and Zukor and company are more than happy to frighten potential clients, using doomsday prophecy and eschatology: Nostradamus, Malthus, Alvin Toffler, the prophets, and Revelation. The writing here rises to the occasion: “Seven-headed dragons, locusts with man-faces wearing crowns of gold, a sea of glass mingled with fire […] Misery loved a party festooned with rotting flowers, gaudy balloons inflated with cyanide gas, human piñatas.” During the Dust Bowl, Zukor tells a client, the dry soil rose like steam from the earth, and winds carried Oklahoma’s red soil east, “so that in the winter of 1934 the snow that fell in New England was bright pink.”
What actual services does Future World offer? Advice on how to save your business, for sure. But there’s something subtler at work. The better question is: Is what you’re afraid of maybe what you want, and does this darkness perhaps, in the end, offer something better than what we had prior?
To this end, among the funniest and most interesting scenes concerns a dickish executive, who pops grape after grape into his mouth, listening to Zukor’s dark spiel. Sensing the man’s disinterest — by this point, he’s compulsively slurping and tossing mini-bottles of water onto thick carpet — Zukor changes tack, vividly describing what might happen to the company’s chairman, the man’s father. “Zukor, you have my attention,” he says. “Please, continue. By all means — continue. What happens to my father in the dungeon? Begin with the part about the apple.”
That our biggest city is doomed is plain enough from the cover of the US edition, which shows the Empire State Building half underwater. So what does a book about New York’s demise intend to do? It could offer a sense of justice. It could show practical alternatives, some key way to make it out. But a book like this might also simply revel in and embrace the opportunity — answering Michael Chabon’s 2003 call, in the foreword of McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, to write gripping, plot-driven stories — to show us an entirely thrilling version of a normal thing we call life.
Whether we like it or not, Rich seems to have bigger intentions. In a letter to Zukor, an old flame scrawls this: “I wonder if there’s a correlation between fear and curiosity […] More fear = less curiosity about the actual world.” And I suppose that’s a kind of thesis.
Eschewing fear, where ought we let curiosity take us? Rich doesn’t seem to be so sure. “I know more about the actual world than most people,” Zukor says, and he’s simultaneously correct and also as wrong as he could possibly be. Because, in the end, when the world is reborn — in whatever shape it is — for all the knowledge the math analyst had about what could have happened, we find him back at the books, re-sharpening his mind, delaying still the less-predictable stuff that comes from actually living a life with other people. Instead, in a kind of lonely exile, he’s still working out the formula.
Rich is an attractive enough target. (Alex Nazarayan even apologized recently in Salon.) A former editor at The Paris Review, his father is Frank (New York Times, New York), his brother is Simon (“Saturday Night Live,” The New Yorker) and when he sold that first novel, I wasn’t the only one who saw red. But when I finally read The Mayor’s Tongue years ago, I was totally enamored by a debut that was not insanely compared favorably to someone as great as Calvino.
In the interim, Rich has had an enviable amount of success in writing nonfiction, both for Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine, and two of the long pieces I’ve enjoyed most this winter were his. One concerned an immortal jellyfish, and Rich’s week-long visit to Japan to visit the one disheveled and lonely scientist in the world who could keep this little creature, so sensitive it must be fed a precise diet every day, alive for 20 years. (The scientist has written songs about science, and when Rich karaokes with him, a national database at the bar reveals the tracks are among the nation’s least requested.) Rich’s second piece was just as keenly observed, about a train trip from his base in New Orleans to the western terminus in Los Angeles.
Odds Against Tomorrow is certainly ambitious and often delightful but in the end lacks the heft and cohesiveness and sparkling paragraph-building that might have come from a few more revisions. Not to say the material isn’t fast and fascinating — the destruction of New York, why we worry, what we should worry about — and timely, too, but what in Rich’s hands often ranks as merely entertaining or sometimes compellingly vexing could have, in, say, the hands of Don Delillo or George Saunders, been among the most stirring ands challenging novels of the year, or even decade.