It’s not often that the author of a new book could complain of getting too much attention from the New York Times. But then, few writers are like Nathaniel Rich, whose novel Odds Against Tomorrow was reviewed glowingly in the daily and the Sunday book reviews and in addition was the subject of a profile, along with his brother Simon. Because the Riches are the sons of Frank Rich—durable Times institution, now a writer for New York magazine—eyebrows were always going to be raised at this kind of treatment. Indeed, the fourth Times piece dedicated to Nathaniel Rich was a column by the public editor, denying that nepotism explained the paper’s warm embrace of Odds Against Tomorrow.
Just why a book or a writer is considered newsworthy is always a partly subjective judgment. On the strength of his fiction and his journalism, the 33-year-old Rich certainly qualifies as one of the skilled and promising storytellers of his literary generation, though to anoint him as more than some kind of standard-bearer would be premature. But in fairness to Rich, it’s likely that any new novel with the premise of Odds Against Tomorrow would get a lot of attention in New York, especially these days. At the heart of the book is a meticulously imagined scene of New York City getting destroyed in an apocalyptic flood; and it appears just months after Hurricane Sandy brought that apocalypse to life to parts of Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Lower Manhattan. Reading this slight but compelling book, with its visions of Grand Central Station clogged with corpses and Third Avenue turned into a running river, it’s hard to avoid feeling that Rich has dreamed the future.
In this, he resembles his own hapless hero, Mitchell Zukor, who in the tradition of Woody Allen is an incurable Jewish worrywart. In Annie Hall, the child Woody goes to a psychologist because of his fixation on the end of the world: “The universe is expanding,” he wails. “Brooklyn is not expanding!” his mother retorts, unable to understand such precocious existential despair. But that was then; people of Rich’s generation, born in the 1980s and afterward, have lived an adulthood defined by incomprehensible yet inevitable disaster. First came Sept. 11, a lesson in the realism of the surreal, whose tableaus of destruction are echoed again and again in Odds Against Tomorrow. Then came Hurricane Katrina, a reminder that America’s grandeur rests on a crumbling infrastructure, physical and social, that could give at the first blow. And now Sandy seems to herald a future of global warming, catastrophic weather, flood and famine, which we have brought on ourselves and that it is too late to avert.
No wonder, then, that the opening pages of Odds Against Tomorrow read like déjà vu. Mitchell, when we first meet him, is a student at the University of Chicago, already notorious for his obsession with disaster: “He envisioned a nuclear exchange with China; a modern black plague; an asteroid tearing apart the crust of the earth, unleashing a new dark age. … Worst-case scenarios, he said, were for him games of logic. How vast a nightmare could he imagine, and to what level of precision? What was possible? What should we be afraid of?”
The first thing to be afraid of, in this fear-stuffed novel, is earthquakes. Sitting in a class on Russian literature one day, Mitchell and his fellow students learn that a massive quake in Puget Sound has wiped Seattle off the face of the earth. The images they see on television are so plausible because we have all seen them before, on Sept. 11, in almost this same form: “A naked child, covered in ash, walking dazed through a mountain of rubble. … A convertible impaled on a stoplight. A dozen bodies running madly in every direction, silhouetted against a swelling wall of flame.”
But this catastrophe, while epic enough for a Hollywood blockbuster of its own, is merely the prelude to Odds Against Tomorrow. Mitchell, his obsessions vindicated, graduates from college and moves to New York, to work as a low-level “quant” at a Wall Street firm. Soon, however, he partners with the sinister entrepreneur Alec Charnoble—whose name is one of Rich’s good jokes—in a new business called FutureWorld. FutureWorld, which consists of two nearly empty offices in the Empire State Building, is almost a scam, but an ingenious one. After Seattle was destroyed, we learn, the families of workers killed in the city’s downtown successfully sued their employers for putting them at risk. FutureWorld will protect companies against such suits by offering them detailed disaster-planning advice; whether or not the clients take it, they can claim to have done their good-faith duty in planning for the worst.
Mitchell, of course, turns out to be the perfect salesman for FutureWorld, because he really believes in the nightmare scenarios he is pitching. Lecturing a room full of suits about the probability of nuclear war—one in 10, if his calculations are to be believed—Mitchell puts everyone under a spell: “He could see the increasing discomfort, even alarm, on their faces. It was evident in the tight set of their jaws, their crimson eyes, their yellowish skin, the fingernail marks in their palms. He realized that the more strongly he believed his prophecies, the more strongly they did.” As Rich observes, we have entered into an age of anxiety, when worst-case scenarios—from plague to the Rapture—have become instinctively credible: “It helped that anxiety was in the air. No longer was it free-floating. It had coalesced, settling into something heavier, tangible—a sludge of anxiety. You had to wade through it on the way to work; it sucked you down from underfoot, like quicksand.”
The problems with Odds Against Tomorrow begin when Rich tries to turn Mitchell from a high-concept punchline—the paranoid whose enemies turn out to be real—into something like a three-dimensional character. Rich can never quite decide whether Mitchell’s anxieties are a blessing or a curse, an insight into reality or a way of preventing himself from living life. Sometimes he asks us to sympathize with Mitchell, sometimes to laugh at him, sometimes to admire him; but he never exists fully enough on the page to earn this kind of complexity, and these changes of mood seem more like indecision than depth.
This flaw comes to the fore in Mitchell’s relationship with Elsa Bruner, a shadowy character that the book never quite figures out what to do with. Elsa, a college classmate of Mitchell’s, suffers from a heart ailment that could kill her at any moment. When she moves to a communal farm, far from doctors or hospitals, Mitchell doesn’t know whether she’s acting out of true bravery or reckless bravado. The two end up corresponding—via U.S. Mail, a sign that this whole episode is more a literary conceit than a plausible storyline—and in some vague way Elsa’s example is meant to crystallize Mitchell’s life problem. Should fear be obeyed or resisted? In a world that is genuinely frightening, is courage admirable or just stupid?
The high point of Odds Against Tomorrow—really, one feels, its whole reason for being—comes when Rich, like a movie director armed with CGI, gets to destroy New York City. In a long, carefully imagined sequence, based on a study of New York’s topography, Rich gives us a super-Sandy, a Category 3 hurricane that slams right into New York harbor. Worse, it comes on the heels of a long drought, which has stripped away the soil and made the land unable to absorb water. This one-two punch turns the whole East Side of Manhattan into a swimming pool, full of toxic waste and dead bodies: “On either side of the avenue, the steel beams of traffic lights were rotted trees bending into the river, their roots the bundles of severed copper cables. Where the floodwater reached its highest point it traces, along the sides of the buildings, an uneven line of filth that continued the length of the avenue as far as they could see.”
The most chilling episode comes when Mitchell—accompanied by Jane, his co-worker/requisite love interest—rows a canoe (don’t bother asking how Rich ensures he has a canoe) into Grand Central, only to find it clogged with corpses. The power of this scene comes from the precision of Rich’s vision. Step by step, he paints the scene of commuters stuck in trains that get submerged by rising water, then scrambling up from the lower level, only to be slammed into the marble walls by rushing streams. It could all happen just this way, the reader thinks, and shudders.
Yet Rich’s carefulness here goes along with a hasty casualness in other aspects of the novel’s construction. Once the flood recedes, nothing Mitchell and Jane do really makes any sense; we follow them as they ping-pong from New York to Maine and back, for no reason except to play out the Elsa Bruner subplot to its end. The idea that Mitchell, having predicted this disaster (along with so many others), would become a national celebrity, part-consultant and part-prophet, is amusing but unconvincing. And the place Mitchell ends up, the way he finally conquers his fears, feels symbolic and tacked-on. In the end, Odds Against Tomorrow, like its main character, must sink or swim on the strength of its imagination of disaster. It says something about our disaster-obsessed age that this seems like just about enough.
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