Shock and Awe and a Failure of the Imagination

Odds Against TomorrowOdds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

In the coming apocalypse, millions will suffer and there’s not much we can do about it. That’s the message of “Odds Against Tomorrow,” Nathaniel Rich’s exquisitely detailed story of the inundation of New York City by category 4 hurricane Tammy. It’s being hailed as the finest novel of climate change, in the vanguard of a new category of fiction: “cli-fi.”

True, it is a relatively entertaining story – if you like your heroes nerdy, fearful and swept away by circumstance. Yet by the end, I was unchanged, unmoved and uninspired. Maybe I’m a demanding reader, but if I invest time in reading a novel, I want something to happen to me.

Rich’s book doesn’t offer much to answer the inevitable question, “okay, now what?” It may be that “Odds Against Tomorrow” performs the service of painting such a vivid picture of what’s coming that people are moved to make changes in their lives. But what changes? For that, we’ll have to read another book, such as James Howard Kunstler’s “World Made by Hand.”

It has been said that the hero, Mitchell Zukor, undergoes a transformation from an intellectual parasite in the Wall Street financial industry to a “man of action.” Since he chooses to retreat from the world in a self-built fortress, plant a garden, loot a local variety store and never again shower or shave, it leaves the reader wondering – is this humanity’s fate? A kind of de-evolution into solitude and madness?

Not since Ian McEwan’s “Solar” has there been a less likeable protagonist in a climate change novel. This is not necessarily a weakness so much as it asks him to shoulder a burden he simply cannot carry. Once we’ve seen the horrors we hath wrought with our wasteful, carbon-drenched ways, we’re going to need leaders capable of inspiring us to carry forth in new ways. The cynicism of modern-day New York (and, by extension, America) will not provide the necessary vision to rethink our relationships with each other and with the living earth.

In this book, the earth is presented as an Old Testament enemy, hurling devastating earthquakes and hurricanes at the unsuspecting but deserving general public. “Odds Against Tomorrow” is indeed a vivid wake-up call, but once the writer has yanked his audience out of our electronics-fueled stupor of denial, it’s frustrating that there isn’t a more compelling or hopeful alternative. One storm and we either hang by our fingernails to a pathological status quo or devolve into hermitude?

I felt the same way after seeing Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Yeah, we’ve screwed things up and yeah, some devastating consequences are already starting to show themselves. We’ve had the warnings, now where are the novels and films that question our assumptions about who we are and how we might better fit in to this living planet? It seems to me that those would be more helpful as we rethink our assumptions and re-envision the future we want.

View all my reviews

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: