APOCALYPTO: Q&A With Novelist Nathaniel Rich


BY BRANDON LAFVING If God exists, then he/she/it wants Nathaniel Rich’s first novel, The Odds Against Tomorrow to sell faster than Pat’s cheesesteaks to drunk-up Jersey assholes come last call. How else could you explain that the book’s most dire prognostications have proven eerily prescient? The book was undergoing final edits when Superstorm Sandy rendered parts of New York City submersible. An uncanny stroke of serendipity considering the book cover: Manhattan skyscrapers bobbing on the ocean like ungainly yachts.  And then come April, the month of the book’s release, we had Kim Jong Un’s apocalyptic slapstick to remind us that this world is indeed outside our control. At least we can now refer to The Odds Against Tomorrow, which includes a nifty formula that deduces the probability of a nuclear holocaust. Coincidence? Probably.

One rational explanation might be that in his years of research, Mr. Rich did, much like the protagonist of his novel, research the natural and unnatural disasters that could leave horrific marks on our world. All the data, prognostications and formulae in the book are real, which makes protagonist Mitchell Zukor’s character mind-bendingly real.  Zukor, a math genius who sells his services to the corporate world, lands himself in lush new job. He consults with clients about possible disaster scenarios and takes them through the apocalyptic outcomes. He is, in other words, a modern-era prophet with a huge paycheck. As his forays into apocalyptic catastrophe scenarios force him to embrace his fear of world collapse, he transforms. As readers, we change with him.

The Odds Against Tomorrow is Rich’s second book, and it was released on April 2. But even before his successful 2008 debut novel, The Mayor’s Tongue, Rich was well-connected. His father is famed former New York Times columnist/film critic Frank Rich. Rich Sr. currently writes for New York Magazine. His mother, Gail Winston, is an executive editor at HarperCollins. His younger brother, Simon, has already published two books and was one of the youngest writers ever to be hired by Saturday Night Live (he was 22 at the time).  Being born into an extraordinary family comes with its advantages, but it does not miraculously render one capable of extraordinary deeds or ideas. The Odds against Tomorrow – by stabbing into new territory in the well-weathered dystopian and apocalyptic fiction section – proved that Nathaniel was someone to know.

PHAWKER: Odds Against Tomorrow would easily fall into the category of apocalyptic fiction, except it doesn’t come off as plot-driven at all. I couldn’t figure out which was more important – the protagonist’s character development, psychological inquiry into the nature of fear, or the plot. I thought I’d just ask you: What was the driving force for you?

NATHANIEL RICH: I wanted to write about obsession. We’re obsessed by fear—it’s the modern condition. I don’t think that the world is necessarily a worse place than ever before—I’m glad, for instance, not to live in France in 1349 at the height of the Black Plague. But thanks to the Internet, cable television, social media, we are zapped with more bad news, and more kinds of bad news, than ever before. Nuclear weapons in the hands of crazy dictators, antibiotic-resistant bird flu, asteroids nearly missing the planet—and that’s just this week. Add to that our dawning knowledge of climate change and its attendant horrors, and you have a culture that’s undergoing a nervous breakdown. I wanted to write about what this was doing to us, all of this anxiety. How is it changing us, and where will we go from here?

PHAWKER: Whereas many apocalyptic novels are clear departures from reality, your book takes place in our world, imagining a plausible, even likely, destruction. Why?

NATHANIEL RICH: The dystopian novel seems, increasingly, an antiquated form. In conventional dystopian fiction, the novelist creates a horrific, but somewhat recognizable world, as a kind of warning: If we don’t get our act together, this is the grim future to which we’re doomed. But when it comes to climate change, we’re already living in that future. I wanted instead to write about what is already happening to the world around us—whether or not we’ve been paying attention. So every fact in the novel is drawn from research. It’s all real.

PHAWKER: Your protagonist was profoundly affected by the consideration of catastrophe. You thought about it, researched it—you’ve even moved to New Orleans. How has rumination on the end of the world affected you?

NATHANIEL RICH: Like many people in New Orleans, I’m confronted with the ramifications of Katrina every day. Our pipes don’t work well, our roads are still awful, there are abandoned lots everywhere, and our criminal justice system remains a nightmare—for starters. So many of the city’s problems can be traced back to the storm in some way or another. I don’t know that it’s healthy to spend too much time reflecting on catastrophe, but this line of thought does have a focusing effect. The knowledge that an antibiotic-resistant pandemic can strike at any time, for instance, or that there is much higher annual chance of nuclear war than most people realize, has a way of putting things into perspective. It makes me want to spend more time on things that I can control, for instance, like my relationships with loved ones and doing the work that I care about.

PHAWKER: Your book exemplifies the limitations of rationality. Do you think Americans need to lose a little faith in science?

NATHANIEL RICH: I do agree there that rationality has its limitations—that’s a major theme of the novel. But I also think Americans need to have a lot more faith in science. Thirty percent of us don’t ‘believe’ in climate change, for instance. Not ‘believing’ in climate change is like not believing in gravity, the solar system, photosynthesis. Yet it’s almost as naïve to believe that, at this point, we can reverse the transformational change to the planet that is occurring. The question now is how are we going to live in this crazy new world we’ve created for ourselves. I think novels, particularly imaginative ones, can begin that conversation.

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