Nathaniel Rich’s Apocalypse
The New York of the young novelist’s vividly imagined Odds Against Tomorrow looks an awful lot like us
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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