A Genius for Disaster

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…

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