Disaster Porn Gets a Literary Makeover

Reading between the lines.
May 3 2013 9:40 AM

End Times

A new novel looks at what comes next after natural disaster.

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Illustration by Lisa Hanawalt

With his new novel Odds Against Tomorrow, Nathaniel Rich has turned disaster porn into high art. Set in a near-future New York City, the novel follows the strange career of math-obsessed futurist Mitchell Zukor, who lives through one of the disaster scenarios he's paid to predict for Fortune 500 companies. In the process, he becomes a new kind of culture hero, one suited for the age of Occupy.

Rich's previous work—the literary novel The Mayor's Tongue and his feature articles in places like the New York Times Magazine—have already established him as someone who can tell a rich, ambiguous story in an appealingly plainspoken, journalistic style. Indeed, the central conceit of this novel is that Mitchell's story is being told by a journalist who knew the man briefly, in college, right after the city of Seattle was destroyed by a massive earthquake.

Seattle's destruction is where the novel begins. This event appears to be set at roughly the same time as 9/11, and there are hints that perhaps Odds is an alternate history where a natural disaster defines Mitchell's generation rather than an act of terrorism. “They called us Generation Seattle,” our unnamed narrator writes, as he recalls in lascivious detail what it was like to watch the Space Needle pierce the bulging roof of Seattle's planetarium.

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Though Mitchell is destined to become this generation's reluctant doomsaying prophet, he remembers the quake only as the moment he first made contact with Elsa. She suffers from a rare heart condition, Brugada, which could result in a sudden heart attack at pretty much any second. Mitchell has been infatuated with her—and her risk-saturated future—since he randomly got a glimpse of her medical records at the college hospital. And that's why, when she collapses after the quake, he knows to call an ambulance immediately. His obsession with terrifying futures has saved her life.

Mitchell's post-graduation epistolary relationship with Elsa provides a narrative substrate for the philosophical debate at the heart of the novel. Their young lives become allegories for two ways  we come to understand the future after enormous disasters. Elsa moves to an off-the-grid farm in rural Maine, and Mitchell relocates to the surreal New York offices of FutureWorld, a consulting firm that offers companies advice about preparing for disasters. Elsa, facing death daily by living miles from the nearest hospital, seems fearless. But Mitchell, who has devised every possible way to respond to and prevent disaster, is consumed by fear, nightmares, and self-hatred.

Author Nathaniel Rich
Author Nathaniel Rich

Courtesy of Meredith Angelson

Though there's a deeply earnest thread here about whether we should plan for the future using logical terror or reckless hope as our guides, Odds is also a spot-on satire of the futurist industry. We discover that FutureWorld exploits a legal loophole devised in the wake of Seattle's post-quake lawsuit quagmire. A one-sentence rider in an innocuous bill has relieved New York corporations of legal responsibility for damages in a disaster as long as they have retained the services of a company that advises them about their risks. That company is FutureWorld, and the intensely smart, intensely terrified Mitchell becomes absurdly rich by telling CEOs about Chinese cyber terrorism and nanobots eating the world.

This extremely plausible idea is the moral lynchpin of the novel, taking us from the realm of PTSD to the world of geopolitics. At first, when we are focusing on Mitchell and Elsa's relationship, it seems that Rich is exploring various psychological reactions to disaster: fear, denial, nightmares, escape. But slowly, the life of the mind bleeds over into the life of the economy. We meet Mitchell's father, a Hungarian immigrant who is haunted by the horrors of Hungary under communism. In response, he has become a rabid capitalist and slumlord, proudly presiding over buildings so horribly neglected the residents are protesting. The disasters we carry inside of us still find a way to unleash themselves on the world, wounding new generations.

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