Odds Against Tomorrow
by Nathaniel Rich
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
New Yorkers are especially accomplished at a dangerous variety of collective forgetting. For instance: approximately five months after tropical storm Sandy dumped chaos onto the Northeast, it is possible to live life without thinking about the storm’s effects. Coastal areas are rebuilding, and every so often a headline pops up about the reopening of a beloved beach pizzeria or Congress finally passing an overdue aid bill. But, unless your business or property were among the many that were directly affected, you can go on without climate issues at the front of your consciousness. Despite valid alarms that calamity could revisit the city at any time, it has ceased to weigh too heavily on many New Yorkers’ minds.
Nathaniel Rich’s novel-as-warning-bell Odds Against Tomorrow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) attempts to summon readers back to the last autumn’s mess by examining the moralities of both corporate disaster preparedness and inevitable human response. The protagonist is Mitchell Zukor, a statistically-inclined über-paranoid son of a Hungarian slumlord, tasked with finding insurance valuations for the lives of each co-worker at his investment firm. He meets the ominously-named Alec Charnoble after clicking a targeted browser ad. Charnoble’s startup, FutureWorld, is trying to make loads of cash from natural disaster by exploiting a loophole inserted into a law after an earthquake sacked Seattle. All Charnoble needs is a salesman. Fortunately, Zukor’s uneasy manner conveys instant panic, and he comes with a valuable hobby: an endless hunger for statistical research into the probability of disaster. Charnoble nicknames Zukor “the terrorist” for the way he generates fear in otherwise haughty CEOs. The company becomes extremely successful. But Zukor’s personal life is empty; the wealthier he gets, the fewer reasons he can find to exist.
The exception is his correspondence with Elsa Bruner. A college acquaintance with a fatal and random heart defect, Bruner communicates with Zukor by mail as she founds a commune on an abandoned summer camp in rural Maine. Anxiety-addled Zukor struggles to understand why Bruner fled the civilized and safe world of advanced medicine. Their conversation frames Zukor’s main interior debate: when it comes to preparing for disaster, should he choose fear or acceptance? Or is acceptance equal to denial? Even with guarded preparation for calamity, it still strikes. Perhaps Zukor’s preparatory instinct paralyzes, and Bruner’s carefree neo-hippie sustainability is more sensible.
Both attitudes have benefits and consequences when a category 3 hurricane named Tammy hits Manhattan and assaults the Eastern Seaboard. FutureWorld’s clients attribute their preparedness to Zukor and he becomes a prophet overnight. According to the press release, the bulk of Odds Against Tomorrow was written before Sandy struck New York, making Rich as much of an unintentional future-teller as his character. Tammy is New York’s Katrina, and its effects include flooded avenues traversable only by boat, civic inaction that leads to unnecessary death, and inhumane refugee camps in moldy trailers on Randall’s Island. Zukor and his traveling companion, fellow FutureWorld shill Jane Eppler, paddle uptown on the east side of Manhattan by canoe. They travel by FEMA bus to Bruner’s commune, which has been overrun with unruly refugees. Returning to the city, they try to determine how their lives should change in the wake of the storm.
Throughout these hefty travails, the main characters, especially Zukor, seem admirably level-headed. They discuss every decision, measuring the pros and cons in a politely expository fashion. Even though Zukor’s claims his nervousness overwhelms him, he views disaster through a calm eye, explicating everything he sees. In one particularly harrowing scene, Zukor finds the lower train bays of a flooded Grand Central full of drowned commuters, people who didn’t run when the waters rose. But this shock, filtered through Zukor’s quantifying research, loses its viscera. “Most people,” Zukor scientifically explains, “having never experienced a real catastrophe firsthand, don’t actually believe their eyes.” Even without questioning the viability of this hypothesis, the psycho-statistical reasoning present throughout as Zukor’s internal monologue dulls the effect of the physical violence left by the storm.
Asking us to consider Zukor as a sympathetic character should bring his internal moral debate alive, but instead his pedantic wrangling draws it down. But that doesn’t eliminate the viability of the philosophical questions Rich raises. Between extreme hardcore survivalism and citified apathy, many Americans are unquestionably frightened of the possibility of disaster. Rich doesn’t bother to give any sort of causation for disaster itself – those matters have already been laid to rest. Zukor’s well-researched analyses only define it as inevitable for everyone, no matter whether they live in an urbane city or socialist farm community. Since climate change guaranteed that extreme acts of meteorological violence were not only possible, but imminent, Odds Against Tomorrow reminds us that no matter which path we choose, we should probably do something to prepare.