A Discussion with Nathaniel Rich on His New Book Odds Against Tomorrow

Nathaniel Rich's second novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, traces the life of Mitchell Zukor, a young mathematician obsessed with predicting apocalyptic natural disasters. After college he finds himself working for a secretive insurance firm in New York City, where his ability to predict these cataclysms becomes his job. After his predictions are realized, Zukor is proclaimed a prophet in this new world, ravaged by natural disasters.

Odds Against Tomorrow itself has a uncanny prescience to it: Many passages evoke specific imagery from Hurricane Sandy, though Nathaniel wrote the book before the hurricane struck the Eastern seaboard. But the most interesting parts of the novel imagine the world after these catastrophes-with thoughtful and often unsettling forecasts about human nature in the face of disaster.

Read an excerpt below and the reader Q&A in the discussion section of this post.

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW
Excerpt

The way other people fantasize about surprise inheritances, first-glance love, and endless white empyreal pastures, Mitchell dreamed of an erupting supervolcano that would bury North America under a foot of hot ash. He envisioned a nuclear exchange with China; a modern black plague; an asteroid tearing apart the crust of the earth, unleashing a new dark age. Such singularities didn't frighten him, he claimed; they offered freedom. They opened wormholes to a sublime realm of fantasy and chaos. Worst-case scenarios, he said, were for him games of logic. How vast a nightmare could he imagine, and to what level of precision? What was possible? What should we be afraid of?

We knew that Mitchell's "logic games" line was a bluff. Worst-case scenarios filled him with very real terror. Late in the evening he raced out of his bedroom in a panic, cheeks flushed, eyes haunted. He flipped on his desk lamp, pounded numbers into his calculator, and scrawled equations and odds ratios. It was a near-nightly ritual. The next morning we'd find him there asleep, facedown on his papers, his cheek ink stained with numbers like a prison tattoo.

None of us, to be clear, lost any sleep over Mitchell's prophecies.

We thought he was a little mad, and a little depressed, even by U. of C. standards. He may have understood numbers, but everyday life was too complex for him. We felt for him, we did-he'd had it tough from the start. His name was its own kind of worst-case scenario, a throwback to an era of midwestern Anglo-Saxon gentility. Mitchell. Who named their child Mitchell? Parents with high aspirations and antiquated ideals. From his mother, a stout, fair Missourian, he inherited a twangy Ozark accent, flat russet hair that lay on his head like straw at the bottom of a pigpen, and a loathing for Overland Park, his native suburb. His father, a Hungarian refugee who owned housing projects in east Kansas City, contributed an eccentric, brooding manner and a depressive sense of humor. At first we wondered how Mitchell had been admitted, but it soon became apparent that he was a mathematical zealot. During orientation he wore a series of gray T-shirts bearing the faces of "Legendary Statisticians" (this written in a pompous cursive): C. R. Rao, Leonardo Fibonacci, Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov. We hadn't heard of any of them. We suspected that Mitchell had silk-screened the shirts himself. If he wasn't a mathematical genius, something else was wrong with him.

Put out of your mind, if you can, all the posters and magazine photographs and T-shirts bearing Mitchell Zukor's own face. Try to imagine the great man as a college student. You would not have recognized him then. Clean-shaven, round faced, eyes dark and hooded. He was flagrantly rust belt. He looked like a swing voter. The old-fashioned crew cut, the neck reddish with razor bumps, and his retiring, timid manner gave the impression of a perversely premature descent into middle age. Had he not been assigned to our dorm, we likely wouldn't have considered him more than a curiosity, like the chairman of the college Republicans who slept in his bow tie, or the sad, skinny girl who walked around campus cradling a ragged teddy bear.

As might be expected, he was always with the computer: in the lab during the day and at his desk in the common room at night. When friends visited, he'd participate amiably enough in the conversation for a few minutes, though before long he'd retreat to his screen, scanning the Web for articles about artificial intelligence or manned space exploration or the lives of great mathematicians. I'd glance at him uneasily from time to time. Why wasn't he trying like the rest of us? His hunched back, expanding the fabric of a Peter L. Bernstein T-shirt, projected absolute indifference. Even when he was eating midnight takeout, or watching cable news, he seemed lost in the higher questions.

I came to know Mitchell casually over the years, but I can't say we had any particularly meaningful interaction until shortly before graduation. I'm referring to the Puget Sound earthquake.

When we graduated in June, the panic raised by the Puget Sound earthquake had become part of us. It was slapped across our faces like a birthmark. We were dubbed Generation Seattle. Both the best and the worst suddenly seemed possible.

Mitchell, like so much of our class after Seattle, moved to New York for a financial consulting job. We fell out of touch. I never saw him again, at least not in the flesh. I wish I could say that we'd been the best of friends, but today I consider myself lucky to have known him at what, I now realize, was a crucial stage in his development.

To tell the truth, I was as shocked as everyone else when I found out what happened to Mitchell Zukor.

Our chat with Nathaniel has concluded. Find Odds Against Tomorrow here. The author is hosting a reading at 7 PM tonight at BookCourt in Brooklyn and one at McNally Jackson on April 17 also at 7 PM.

[Photo by Hannah Welling]