Monday, May 13, 2013

Odds Against Tomorrow: A Review

Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow (Amazon, Amazon.UK) is a disaster novel (localized apocalypse-in-progress) set primarily in New York City with the destructive agent being a weather-whiplash (see below) of drought and flooding along the Northeastern U.S. seaboard.

Nathaniel Rich was born and raised in New York City, and studied literature and the Italian language at Yale.  He a few years ago, he transplanted himself to New Orleans.  He writes magazine articles, and book reviews.  Originally the novel was viewed as a New York City meets Hurricane Katrina affair, but the reality of Hurricane Sandy overtook reality so that a few rewrites were needed (interview).  The author's close proximity to the effects of Katrina, even many years after the fact, also created some changes:
I rewrote the final third of the novel after moving to New Orleans. I had read extensively about Katrina but reading can only get you so far. Living here, observing the lasting trauma of the storm, even seven years after the fact, I understood its power in a more visceral way. I wanted the final pages of the novel to reflect that.
He notes his influences as being (second interview) , Italo Svevo , a pioneer of the Italian psychological novel, and within the disaster genre, J.G. Ballard.  He notes Ballard's Drowned World, with has London flooded by rising seas, but particularly notes his disaster through social collapse:  High Rise.
It is a short, terrifying novel about a large apartment tower—a “vertical city”—whose occupants, cut off from the world, deteriorate into savages. It’s about class warfare, the aporia [contradiction, doubt] of modern life, and free-floating anxiety—a beautiful, psychotic nightmare.
The agent of disaster, a disaster which covers much of the Northeastern coastal zones, is a severe drought, followed up by a huge hurricane:  Hurricane Tammy, or as the book calls it, the hurricane named after a fat girl.

There is actually a rather natural linkage between the extremes of drought and drenching:

Extreme Drought to Flood in Georgia: Weather Whiplash Strikes Again
Dr. Jeff Master's Wonderblog, 6 May 2013
The remarkable storm that brought record-breaking May snows and cold to the Midwest last week continues to spin over the Southeast U.S. The storm is unleashing flooding rains, bringing a case of "Weather Whiplash" to Georgia: flooding where extreme drought had existed just a few months ago.
Weather Whiplash--a term originally coined by science writer Andrew Freedman of to describe extreme shifts between cold and hot weather--is also a excellent phrase we can use to describe some of the rapid transitions between extreme drought and floods seen in recent years. I brought up a remarkable example in mid-April, when a 200-mile stretch of the Mississippi River north of St. Louis reached damaging major flood levels less than four months after near-record low water levels restricted barge traffic, forcing the Army Corp to blast out rocks from the river bottom to enable navigation. As the climate warms, the new normal in coming decades is going to be more and more extreme "Weather Whiplash" drought-flood cycles like we have seen in the Midwest and in Georgia this year. A warmer atmosphere is capable of bringing heavier downpours, since warmer air can hold more water vapor. But you still need a low pressure system to come along and wring that moisture out of the air to get rain. When natural fluctuations in jet stream patterns take storms away from a region, creating a drought, the extra water vapor in the air won't do you any good. There will be no mechanism to lift the moisture, condense it, and generate drought-busting rains. The drought that ensues will be more intense, since temperatures will be hotter and the soil will dry out more.
All right, I admit it, I have been stalling.  It is an interesting enough story, but not the easiest to explain.  So I guess I will just have to dive in.

Our hero, Mitchell is perpetually frightened of potential and or impending doom.  If there is a disaster scenario out there, he is aware of it, and worried about it.  He deals with this near paralyzing fear by distracting himself with the mathematical number crunching in working out the scope and odds of his imagined doom.   His first counter point in our story is a young lady, Elsa, who suffers from Brugada Syndrome, a heart disorder that will likely lead to her early death.  However, unlike Mitchell, she does not cower in fear, but does her best to push her naturalist agenda, even at the risk of a speedy demise.  Early in the novel, some fast thinking by Mitchell  saves her life, and a strong, platonic bond is formed between the two.

Elsa heads to the deep woods of Main, where using her boyfriends money she sets up a commune.  Mitchell heads to New York City with hopes of a high paying consulting gig.  Very quickly he comes across a new "Risk Mitigation" firm.  For someone who has spent his whole life calculating the odds of impending doom, Mitchell is perfect.  He not only can spin the scenarios at the tip of a hat, he delivers them with conviction.

While all this is going on, we have are having the big drought noted above.  As is rather obvious from the front cover, the drought doesn't last long.  Not too surprisingly Mitchell sees it coming and is able to warn his clients of the coming doom, and oddly enough, they believe him and take necessary actions.  But Mitchell, and Jane,  a young lady coworker, are not allowed by their evil boss, Mr. Charnoble, to get out of New York and are caught up with all the flooding.

From there we get an at times humorous, never particularly frightening escape from New York scenario.   The story continues on from there with a number of interesting, but not very direct, comments on reality, disasters, the meaning of life, etc.  Neither Elsa, nor Mitchells differing scenarios make too much difference in the eventual outcome of the novel, and for reasons that are a little unclear, they come to almost switch life styles and view points on what constitutes a coherent life strategy.  Poor Jane, gets drag along for the ride, but with her practical, mercantile disposition, she seems to come closest to getting what she wants in the end.

Did I like it?  It was interesting.  At 306 pages, it read fairly quickly.  Not a page turner through most of the length, but with enough odd little bits of wisdom and anecdotes to keep it interesting.  The various back and forth swings in character actions through the book do make for some confusion, and based on the information on hand, it seems like many of the characters are prime candidates for being swept away by some future hurricane.  In net, I would give it a qualified recommendation.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism isn't really there.  He notes that he did a lot of research on worst case scenarios, but after the 2004 Tsunamis and Katrina, of the world's coast-bound people, only a New Yorker, would be surprised by the worst-case scenarios. Much like J.G. Ballard, who he notes as an influence, direct realism is not the main point: the point is reaching a higher realism through satire.  There is a fair amount of poking fun, and humor, and much of the entire affair has a light breeziness to it that makes it difficult to take seriously in the immediate danger sense.  So when we see that the idyllic back woods of Main have descended into some sort of Hobbesian hell, it is not a Heart of Darkness moment where we are paralyzed by "the horror".  It does bring a number of valid points about what people, and life in general, are actually like in a real-world crises so I will give it a relatively high mark for a satire: a 3.
Readability is a little harder.  It is light and breezy. It moves along well.  But it is difficult figure out what the point of all of this is.  None of the solutions, recommendations, proposed within the novel seem work really well.  If you stay on the coast your swamped. If you go rustic, and live in the back woods, the pampered, terrified hordes fleeing the disaster will find and you swamp you in a different fashion.  Still, if you ignore the confusion towards deeper meanings I think you can get to a literary 5.


Amina Elahi said...

I agree with so many of your comments! Especially about how it's hard to figure out the point of the story. I guess it's that we live ruled by fear but we shouldn't.

Since I find your review so interesting, I wanted to invite you to join in a discussion of Odds Against Tomorrow that I'm hosting at my blog:

russell1200 said...

Answering the questions in order:

◦Why do you think FutureWorld became such a successful company? Risk mitigation is a real industry. Even if not particularly lucrative compared to the typical financial pump-and-dump model, shaving of small slice of a very big pie of money can be lucrative. Maybe Glenn Beck was one of their clients.

Is there a company today that similarly preys on fear to make money? Prey may not be the best word. Any product designed around possible misfortune would fit the category. Given that shipping insurance is at the start of the commercial revolution, these business have always been with us.

◦What does this novel say about our society’s attitude toward disasters? How is this different from how we feel about other threats such as terrorism or economic collapse? Because we in theory, can do very little about disasters, and to our mind they are more random in nature, we tend to hope for the best, and hope it is the other guy who gets it.

◦Who is Elsa Bruner? How is she important to the book beyond the way Mitchell chases her? She is the gal who uses her boyfriends money to set up a retreat. She is in theory the opposite of Michael in that she does not let risk paralyze her from taking action. Her plans do fail in the end.

◦Of the two main female characters in the novel, Jane has much more “screen time” than Elsa. The book’s synopsis teases an “unexpected love story.” Which of these women is Mitchell’s real love interest? Both are. Elsa is the unobtainable love, and Jane is the here and now, practical, reasonably good match that Mitchell eventually rejects.

◦Though Rich wrote Odds Against Tomorrow before Hurricane Sandy, in retrospect it seems like he almost predicted that disaster. How did you react to the similarity between the floods Rich described and the destruction the northeast endured last fall? He predicted very little. At the Katrina, there was a fair amount of discussion in insurance circles about what would happen if the Northeast had a similar event.

◦Some of the most harrowing parts of the novel take place in a canoe. What did those moments evoke in you? What is a city without its citizens? I did not find the canoe trip particularly harrowing. The best portions of it where, "Poseidon Adventure"-like, he goes through the under water Grand Central Station.
◦How did this novel comment on our country’s disaster recovery capabilities? It did a fairly good job of pointing out how dependent people are on the government for even reasonably predictable short term disasters.
◦In the end, Mitchell shocks everyone by refusing to rejoin society and his old life. What does this represent? What would you have done, faced with the same options? Given that he plants his little impromptu homestead in an at-risk area, I am not sure what it represents. Possibly it is an indication that Mitchell has come to believe that the whole modern world is not going to come down eventually, and their is no point in throwing good money after bad.