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A Genius for Disaster

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Studio Lindfors
‘Times Square Flooded’; from the ‘Aqualta’ series by the architectural firm Studio Lindfors, whose renderings imagine how New York and Tokyo might adapt to allow rising sea levels to enter the cities

Let’s just, right away, recognize how prescient this charming, terrifying, comic novel of apocalyptic manners is. Nathaniel Rich wrote Odds Against Tomorrow well before Hurricane Sandy and its surge crashed onto the isle of Manhattan, well before the streets were flooded and the subways drowned, only the Goldman Sachs building sparkling above the darkened avenues. Years before the cold weeks without heat or electricity or transportation, Rich described a city engulfed first by greed, then by water. In one of the best and spookiest parts of the book, Mitchell Zukor, the young protagonist, paddles a painted canoe he bought in an art gallery through a Manhattan whose fate is only a slight exaggeration of the city’s fate in the real storm:

The larger shapes emerged first: the curved seat of a wicker chair; a strip of rubber insulation curled like an octopus’s tentacle; an inflated red yoga ball, like a candy apple; and the smooth black hull of a plasma television, bubbles coalescing and darting on its screen as it rocked in the current. Then the pigeon corpses. They were bobbing everywhere….

Much of the emotional power in this novel comes from Rich’s descriptions of the city Zukor passes through in his absurd canoe. The tunnel between the twin marble staircases at Grand Central Station is

like a large, greedy mouth drinking the water. But clogging that mouth, and against the bottom of the stairs, were bodies…. He began to make out bare arms and legs and gray, puffy faces. It was as if they had been stacked there on purpose. And then came the smell—a sour, mildewed ghastliness.

Rich’s prose is so immediate, so urgent in these sections, that the loss, the chaos, is devastating, not the less so because it seems impossible—and yet we have seen something so similar so recently. Rich lives in New Orleans, a city whose own hurricane debacle clearly informs this book, but he grew up in Manhattan, and this is a New York book, intimate with its streets, its topography, its culture, its necessity, its place in our imaginations. “It’s not just New York,” one character says. “It’s like I’m being destroyed too. I know this sounds silly, but really, I never fantasized about being successful in Boston for crissakes, or Washington.”

Mitchell Zukor is, unlike Rich, not a native New Yorker. He is, however, a great and gifted worrier. Worry is what motivates him to wake up in the morning, what keeps him awake at night, what shapes the hours in between. We first meet him in college watching a huge screen in a lecture hall as a disastrous earthquake destroys Seattle. A girl sitting near him passes out, and so two of the novel’s, and Mitchell’s, preoccupations begin their twisted journey together: large-scale disaster, which can strike anyone dead at any moment; and Elsa Bruner, a girl with a heart disorder, which could strike her dead at any moment. Elsa is “a walking worst-case scenario,” Mitchell notes with awe. But she is also strangely optimistic and free of worry. Mitchell, on the other hand, is perfectly healthy and sees impending disaster wherever he looks.

When he finishes college, Mitchell begins work as a consultant at a financial firm called Fitzsimmons Sherman, located in the Empire State Building, “the most disaster-prone building in America. It had to be evacuated nearly once a year—for no-fly-zone infractions, bomb threats, tropical storms, and blackouts.” When the Supreme Court upholds the legality of the huge settlements that were made for the victims of the Seattle earthquake, settlements to be paid by corporations situated there, Fitzsimmon Sherman’s chairman, “the ursine, mouth-frothing Sanford ‘Sandy’ Sherman,” calls an emergency meeting. Mitchell is given the task of evaluating each Fitzsimmons employee’s life, in dollars, and he is back in his element: risk. Not taking risks, but calculating them. “Event trees, optimism bias, binomial distribution, base rate fallacy—these were his long-lost friends; he missed them like old stuffed animals.”

Mitchell’s research leads him to take a job at a consulting firm called FutureWorld, which specializes in prediction, where he encounters its sole consultant, Alec Charnoble. Unlike Mitchell, Charnoble’s interest in risk is not personal:

People like Charnoble…were interested in risk for purely financial reasons. They saw the wedges that risk offered, the way you could use risk to get between clients and their money. Mitchell’s fear, on the other hand, was real, hot, viral. Just the previous night he couldn’t sleep because he’d been trying figure out why a global pandemic as severe as the influenza of 1918 hadn’t recurred, and whether one was imminent.

FutureWorld does not protect its clients against disaster; what it offers is advice so that companies can avoid after-the-fact indemnity from victims’ lawsuits. It’s as if the firm posted a huge “Watch Your Step” for all the world to see:

We predict catastrophes, calculate their costs, and help our clients avoid unnecessary risk…. In court, the corporation can testify that they hired FutureWorld, a risk management specialist…. The client can say, “If our business was not sufficiently prepared, it is the fault of FutureWorld, whom we hired to advise us….”

Clients pay for the right to blame FutureWorld.

While Mitchell luxuriates in the doom of prediction, Elsa begins to write him letters. She is in Maine starting a communal farm, a pursuit Mitchell finds both naive and eccentric. “She was like an alien who beamed into his office once or twice a week with bulletins from a planet in some distant solar system where the laws of gravity didn’t exist.” Elsa writes: “I wonder if there’s a correlation between fear and curiosity…. More fear=less curiosity about the actual world?”

The relationship of fear and risk is central to Rich’s novel. There is fairly complicated juggling, back and forth, as Rich examines their relative value in a dangerous world. Mitchell is the embodiment of fear:

He was on the vanguard of a new industry—nightmare analysis—and he was proud of it too. He was a fear professional now, and he was being paid lucratively for the specialized skills he brought to the job…. He would force them to look out the windows of their skyscrapers and see what was going on.

And surely curiosity drives fear as much as it does the absence of fear, Mitchell tells Elsa:

It’s curiosity that’s my problem…. I wish I didn’t want to know the first thing about plate tectonics or nuclear war, but I do. So I learn more. And the more I learn, the more I find there is to fear.

Mitchell realizes that this is the work he was born to do:

The bad news brought him a rush of excitement; it fortified, too. It reached an intimate part of him. It didn’t merely feed his fears, it also fed his fascinations…. It was tremendous fun. He read Nostradamus, Malthus, Alvin Toffler. He read Prophets and he read Revelation. Seven-headed dragons, locusts with man-faces wearing crowns of gold, a sea of glass mingled with fire—Mitchell loved Revelation. The Christians were excellent worst-case scenarists, even better than the Jews. They were terrified in Technicolor: green dragons, swirling orange fires of hell, scarlet demons.

He is a brilliant salesman, too, the authenticity of his own feelings infusing even his most bizarre scenarios with the power of truth. “His eyes would float faraway and water slightly, and a Cassandra prophecy would unfold in full paragraphs.” His tales, created for FutureWorld, become wilder and more gruesome. In one of his consultations, Mitchell foresees the sun turning black “like a rotten lemon.” The East River, the Harlem River, the Hudson—all turn to what looks like blood, blood that spurts from the tap, that clots the pipes, thick and dark. People run out of bottled water and begin to drink the blood. The blood does not taste like human blood, it has an awful taste. “‘This taste,’ said Mitchell, ‘this is the taste of the future.’”

Mitchell’s parents are small-town midwestern slumlords, the proud owners of the Zukorminiums, a collection of ramshackle apartments in Kansas City, which his father, Tibor, wants him to come home to run. Mitchell is a “slumlord-in-waiting.” Tibor Zukor says, “I lived through Budapest in 1956. The revolution can burst out at any moment. That’s one of the great things about this place. There is no chance of revolution in Kansas City.” Mitchell’s mother, Rikki, is happy he has escaped to New York, but she worries about her son basing his professional life on worry. Her advice: “Avoid a roving imagination and idle reveries.” That and “Take a walk in the park.”

When Mitchell, lost in a reverie about rats, wanders past a gallery and sees a canoe painted in the New Psychedelia style, a mixture of Sixties fantasy with Canadian First Nations folk art, he is able to impulsively buy it for $29,000. It reminds him of the drawing of a canoe that adorns every letter from Elsa Bruner. The cost is not a problem: Mitchell keeps cash in his freezer, but unlike the people waiting for the Big One in San Francisco, say, who keep $1,000 in with the Ketel One vodka, Mitchell has $38,140, “at last count, eleven green-gray bars, like dull chips of limestone, each individually sealed in plastic Baggies.” (At $30,000, he’d had to throw out his frozen burritos.) And business is booming. Mitchell, terrifying his clients with apocalyptic tales and algebraic calculations that suggest the chance of nuclear war is one in ten—every year—is making a lot of money. He has no real constructive advice for his clients. “He just wanted them to understand the likelihood that they would be incinerated shortly.”

With Mitchell Zukor selling fear at a ferocious pace, FutureWorld is soon doing so well that Charnoble hires a young woman named Jane Eppler. Recently of Wharton Business School by way of Princeton, Jane is attractive, well turned out, and skilled at the “saleswoman’s flirtatiousness…the hucksterism appealed to her mischievous nature.” She does not discuss Poisson distribution models when she meets with her clients, though she keeps charts of them on her office walls. She saves that for work sessions along with “the jump-diffusion model, the constant elasticity of variance model, and the generalized autoregressive conditional heteroskedasticity model.” Fear, she tells the clients, “is the oldest, most effective security system we have. So don’t fear fear—embrace it.” Mitchell, understandably, is fascinated by her.

Rich prepares us for the disaster that is about to befall Mitchell, his clients, New York City, and the entire eastern seaboard with the jaunty deadpan tone of the best satirical novelists. With all of Mitchell’s obsessive research and calculation and prediction, he is as innocent as William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Wall Street, big business, and the demands and needs of corporate America are forces that rage passionately forward in the novel, their energy and power roaring toward disaster. Mitchell is in his way as blind as his clients. They cannot see the threat ahead until he preaches his apocalypse stories. He cannot see the real world at all, just its imminent destruction. Mitchell drifts dutifully atop the world’s ugly wave of financial distortion, blinded to what that wave threatens to destroy by his fear and certainty of destruction, blinded to the present by his obsession with the future. It is only when disaster strikes, when a real wave hits, that Mitchell loses his fear of the future.

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