I came across this book quite by accident; I was browsing Atticus Books’ new fiction table, glanced at it, and put it back. Then T said, “I’ve heard good things about that book,” and encouraged me to buy it. Turned out later that she was mistaken—she hadn’t heard of the book—but it turned out to very enjoyable indeed.
It’s tempting to recommend music to go with this book. Something like the Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood or Jackson Brown’s Before the Deluge. But don’t listen to music while you read this book. You won’t want to be distracted, and those pieces are merely clever allusions. The book is not about the same thing.
To start: This is a novel in which a disaster occurs but it is not a disaster novel. It is the story of a young University of Chicago graduate who is obsessed with disasters.
In his third year at the University, Mitchell Zukor simultaneously observes the panic caused by the Puget Sound earthquake and the near-death of a classmate who suffers from an illness called Brugada. Already obsessed with statistics and probability, these two events—particularly the second—change his life forever. He moves to New York to work as a financial analyst, but his genuinely-felt fear of the future soon finds him moving to a new firm in a new line of business: predicting disasters so that business can take steps to prepare, so as to avoid lawsuits.
All of this takes place against the background of a deep summer drought in New York. As reservoirs drain and dust fills the skies, Future World, Mitchell’s firm, grows rapidly, fed by the gut-level fear of its clients. And Mitchell is its best salesperson.
Then the drought breaks, as a hurricane moves up the East Coast—straight for New York. And Mitchell’s worst predictions begin to be realized.
But this is not a book about that disaster, however clearly Rich draws it (indeed, the book is referred to by some as cli-fi, for “climate fiction”). It is a book about Mitchell Zukor, his fear, and his journey from analyst to hero to prophet and beyond.
As I read this book, I was reminded, by Rich’s portrayal of diluvial New York, of Bellona, the city at the center of Dhalgren, Samual R. Delany’s near-future dystopia. Like Kidd, the nameless protagonist of Dhalgren, Zukor is seeking something in himself. What he finds there, and its significance for the rest of us, is something Jean Jacques Rousseau would understand.
The moral, voiced in the words of his associate, Jane, is succinct.
If you enjoy dystopias, if you are concerned about climate change, if you love deeply descriptive writing, this is a book for you. If you fear the future, perhaps even more so. And if you’ve ever attended the University of Chicago or spend time pondering statistics, you’ll be hooked.