Apocalypse right now

Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP£17.99/$26, 320 pages

When superstorm Sandy hit New York City in October last year, Nathaniel Rich was editing the final proofs of this book, Odds Against Tomorrow. Sandy wreaked havoc on New York in much the same way as “Tammy” does in Rich’s fictional work, the follow-up to his much-praised 2008 debut, The Mayor’s Tongue.

Rich revised some of the details after the real storm, but not many; he had already captured, he wrote in The New York Times recently, the storm’s “massive destruction, displacement and despair, modern catastrophe’s dismal triad”.

Odds Against Tomorrow describes a version of New York immersed first by greed, then by water. The protagonist is Mitchell Zukor, a geeky maths whizz, compulsive neurotic and spookily accurate disaster forecaster. Worry is what gets him out of bed in the morning, what keeps him awake at night, what fills the hours in between. “The way other people fantasize about surprise inheritances, first-glance love ... Mitchell dreamed of an erupting supervolcano that would bury North America under a foot of hot ash.”

We first meet Mitchell as an undergraduate student. While he attends a lecture, an overhead projector streams live TV news showing Seattle razed by an earthquake, skyscrapers toppling, roads buckling.

After Seattle, corporate America becomes increasingly concerned about disaster-induced losses and Mitchell lands a job at a shadowy company called FutureWorld, which has spotted his skill as a contemporary Cassandra who is able to calculate the odds of worst-case scenarios and sell fear at a frenetic pace. The more severe Mitchell’s prophecies become, the more likely companies are to become FutureWorld clients: its business advises how to avoid victim’s lawsuits after a disaster, from earthquakes to terrorist attacks.

The book’s main event is a megastorm that fulfils one of Mitchell’s dire premonitions. Much of the novel’s emotional power comes from the immediate, urgent descriptions of the aftermath; as Mitchell paddles through the city in a canoe, “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 ... ”

Later, 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.”

At times, Odds Against Tomorrow reads like one of Rich’s reported pieces (he is a contributor to The New York Review of Books and Harper’s as well as The New York Times), rather than a fiction about an engaging character he’s created. We learn, for example, about the “incredulity response”, which real-life people experience in the face of disaster: “Most people, having never experienced a real catastrophe firsthand, don’t actually believe their eyes.” But what about Mitchell? He is “terrified” by the storm, we are told, but nothing more.

Once the flood has passed, Mitchell is hailed by the media as a prophet. Clients are willing to pay more than ever before for his prophecies. Mitchell, however, turns away from his old life, moving into an abandoned bank building on the outskirts of town, a long way from the boardrooms of the past: “The general sensation was of mindlessness. He didn’t know what he was going to do next, though that didn’t bother him.”

As a study of catastrophe, this novel chills and convinces. Contemporary dystopian fiction cannot rely on fantasy but must engage more rigorously, as Rich does, with the natural world: JG Ballard’s The Drowned World via David Attenborough. As Mitchell says of the calm after the storm: “The future is not quite what it used to be.”

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