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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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William Widmer/The New York Times/Redux
Nathaniel Rich, New Orleans, 2012

The eastern US has been suffering from a prolonged and severe drought, a godsend for the fear prediction business, when a dark cloud, a boom of thunder, and a flash of lightning appear, and Rich’s eerie, unexpected, mischievous descriptions take off. “Beneath the cloud the sky was streaky and fish gray.” Then, “a gray curtain of rain drew across the Great Lawn [in Central Park]…. Angry fist-size droplets detonated on the ground…. The rain pelted like hurled stones.” This is obviously no ordinary shower, but the parched New Yorkers are oblivious to the threat pounding onto the dry, unreceptive ground. “Children extended their arms like prophets, their heads back and mouths open. They caught the rainwater until their cheeks were full and then spouted it out like cherubic fountain statues.” Even Mitchell and Jane dance in the downpour. But Mitchell soon realizes that the parched earth cannot absorb the rain, that a hurricane is on its way, that there is risk, real risk, imminent risk.

In the rainy euphoria, he is the only one to recognize the danger. The Channel 4 weatherman “in his high-pitched ecstasy…swayed back and forth, his legs pressed tightly together, like Tweedledum. He appeared not to have urinated since the storm first glided onto his Doppler.” Mitchell warns his latest, skeptical client, a “slumped batrachian form at the head of the table. It was Lady Madeline D’Espy herself, the company’s founder, whose legendary beauty hadn’t faded so much as expired,” so terrified himself that he terrifies her into action.

Rich is a gifted caricaturist and a gifted apocalyptist. His descriptions of the vagaries of both nature and human nature are stark, fresh, and convincing, full of surprise and recognition as both good comedy and good terror must be. Where he sometimes struggles a bit is, perhaps, in his portrayal of the emotions, both comic and tragic, that are called love. Mitchell’s obsession with Elsa Bruner feels more important to the book’s theme of fear than it does to Mitchell himself. Is it love? Is it protectiveness? Is it fascination with someone so impervious to fear? Or is it there to allow us to ask these questions? His relationship with Jane has more to it, but none of this matters too much, for the emotional power and urgency in this novel come from the outside. The stormy sky above, the quaking earth below, the roiling seas—these provide the passionate heat and icy cold that lovers provide in romantic novels. In Odds Against Tomorrow, these are the elements, literally, that sustain and betray us.

By the time Mitchell and Jane reach Sutton Place in the Psycho Canoe, they have begun to manically sing camp songs

to dispel the sepulchral silence…. The sleepy residential neighborhood had acquired a kind of diseased Venetian charm. The ornate battlements and bay windows of its town houses were reflected in jaundiced tints on the oil-streaked water.

The two refugees eventually leave their canoe for a bus to Maine, trying to find Elsa, finding instead a utopian farm devolving into an adult version of Lord of the Flies. They eventually return to New York, where they live in a FEMA trailer camp set up for evacuees. Mitchell, as the only one to have recognized the danger of the hurricane, the only one to have predicted its devastating effect, has become a celebrity, and Jane translates his fame into a new and immensely valuable company. “‘There are profits to be made,’ said Jane, ‘in being prophets.’”

Indeed, Mitchell is soon hailed as a prophet, is called “the Prophet,” and is swamped by desperate, frightened people wanting to know what comes next. The clients want to know and are willing to pay even more than before. So do the other people in the FEMA camp, where “a fog of high irritation had fallen…. Hysteria, too—it buzzed in the air like a cloud of wasps. Occasionally the buzzing blistered into violence.”

Mitchell, a kind of anti-Pangloss, escapes danger on his travels and adventures through his imperturbable pessimism, his sense, his certainty that all will not be well. And like Candide, he ends up if not contentedly then at least industriously tending his own garden. Leaving FEMA island, he and Jane escape by taking Hell Gate over Bronx Kill (“I don’t like the sound of that,” someone remarks) to Flatlands, a remote neighborhood (no subway service, even without flooding) in the southeast part of Brooklyn. Even in the names of its railroad bridges and waterways, New York has taken on an apocalyptic identity.

Mitchell becomes an urban pioneer farmer. In the wasteland of Flatlands, he retreats from his predictions, from his fears, into an abandoned bank building. He plants a garden in an adjoining lot. Jane goes back to Manhattan, but Mitchell is no longer fit for his old life or anything like it. His beard grows and he looks the part of a prophet, but he is no longer in the prophecy business—Jane runs that for him. He is busy building a wall. At first it is to keep the rats out, then the larger animals who roam the area, then the largest animals:

Yes, it would be important to build the wall high. At least to the height of a tall human being. It was impossible to know what was lurking in this wilderness—or who.

Mitchell is no longer obsessed with the future or with his fears. He is obsessed with order:

Think of it as a geometry problem. The first step was demarcation: draw the x- and the y-axes, name the variables. Most important of all, define the boundaries. Otherwise you were just beckoning chaos.

This lonely walled-in complex is a long way from the boardrooms and high-rises of the past. But it keeps him going. He bathes in a muddy, silty creek, delighted that he does not worry about the mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and sewage that surely drift across his submerged head. He is calm, exhausted by his hard labor in his field, the only sense of time coming from the light. “The general sensation was of mindlessness. He didn’t know what he was going to do next, though that didn’t bother him. All that mattered was that he was now doing something.”

His beard is now in “Elderly Wino” territory, full of bits of dirt and food. He refuses to see anyone but Jane. But his enclave has become the center of a back-to-the-earth movement, settlers hiking in with backpacks and building “hackneyed, unprofessional, ramshackle homes with mismatched walls and askew floors straight out of Dr. Seuss.” Another utopian community bound to fail? Maybe. A contented Candide tilling his patch of soil, home at last? We’re not sure. And if there were times when, like his mother, I too wanted to tell Mitchell to take a nice walk in the park and cut it out with the idle reveries, already, I remind myself that Mitchell is young and has time to sow his wild Flatlands oats. Then I remember something else: that climate change is changing everything and, as Mitchell points out, giving Jane a new slogan: “Future Days: because the future is not quite what it used to be.”

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