Work of Ark: Nathaniel Rich’s Latest Novel Puts New York Underwater

Nathaniel Rich. (Photo by Meredith Angelson)

Nathaniel Rich. (Photo by Meredith Angelson)

Last Wednesday, U.S. Congressman Joe Barton, speaking before a House subcommittee that aims to fast-track construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, swatted down, with his Bible, any hope that climate change is a man-made phenomenon.

“I would point out that if you are a believer in the Bible, one would have to say the Great Flood was an example of climate change,” Mr. Barton explained. “That certainly wasn’t because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy.”

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, the state’s Tourism Board has tax-incentivized the construction of a $155 million Noah’s Ark-based theme park. Evangelical Christians offered assurance that the park will feature a “full-size” Biblical Ark, built to specifications. State Democrats promised that the park will produce 900 permanent jobs. A commissioner in rural Grant County, Ky., where the park is under construction, paraphrased both sides: “With every ark there is a rainbow, and at the end of this rainbow is a pot of gold.”

Chalk it up, if you want, to the prolonged Gore-ification of the media conversation over climate change, or the undeniable rise in flood-inducing hurricanes during recent years, from Katrina to Sandy. Last year at the movies, we watched Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild gloss the diluvian myth. Countless other films from the last decade—from schlock (2012) to avant-garde (Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark)—aired our national anxiety over ecological catastrophe by featuring floods or arks or both. There have been fewer novels, but Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital depicted a flood that drowns the world under seven miles of water, leaving only a floating hospital filled with sick and dying children in its wake, and Noah, by Swiss author Hugo Loetscher, reimagined the building of the ark as a Keynesian economic project, not unlike the theme park in Kentucky. That neither of these books aims at verisimilitude is part of the point; the onslaught of ecological disaster has been experienced by most of us (outside of New Orleans and Florida) as a media phenomenon. Of course, that’s all changing.

Nathaniel Rich’s entry in the flood-and-ark canon, Odds Against Tomorrow, hinges on a hypothetical conceit: what if New Yorkers lived through the diluvian travails of Hurricane Katrina? Though this is a fair reduction of the book, and an adequately shorthand way of getting friends to read a novel that hits on several salient themes, it is still a reduction. Never mind that Mr. Rich recently relocated from New York, his city of birth, to New Orleans, where the aftermath of the hurricane is a persistent fact of daily life; Odds Against Tomorrow eschews the flaws of speculative fiction mainly by being well researched. It also has the virtue of attempting to do more than recapitulate the national anxiety and shame felt after Hurricane Katrina.

The novel, Mr. Rich’s second, revolves around Mitchell Zukor, a quant nerd educated at the University of Chicago and the son of a Hungarian slumlord. Early on, Zukor’s mathematical gifts and weirdly unexplained talent for predicting devastation help him land a job performing risk analysis in the Department of Equities, Assets, and Derivatives at fictitious New York law firm Fitzsimmons Sherman. It isn’t long before the ambitious Zukor leaves the firm for greener pastures. Late one night he emails the ridiculously named Alec Charnoble of the firm FutureWorld, who, without really vetting him, offers Zukor loads of cash to help him scare corporate executives into retaining his company’s services for $850,000 a year. The entire scheme pivots around a limited liability clause that allows corporations to scapegoat FutureWorld in case of catastrophe.

Charnoble’s villainy is cartoonish (he has a “bony arm” and likes to twist his finger in his palm), but he’s not a far cry from the financiers and cronies who profited from government-sanctioned buck-passing over the last decade. His scheme forms the arc of the novel, and it allows Rich to collect a number of contemporary issues—the financial crisis, regulation, risk and compliance, speculation, big data—into a big, neat literary ball, one that rolls inexorably toward disaster.

Mr. Rich’s prose is detailed yet sterile, measured but unpretty, and thoroughly televised: it scans like a novelization of the film version of The Fountainhead. This may be because Mr. Rich is more interested in ideas than characters; even his minor characters come across as unintentionally allegorical. Zukor’s slumlord father represents being a slumlord. Elsa Bruner, a political and ideological Beatrice with a rare heart condition, eventually fades and vanishes from the novel’s list of concerns, though she is revisited perfunctorily in the book’s worst scene. Even Jane, Zukor’s love interest and the most sympathetic character in Odds Against Tomorrow, serves mostly to play out the link between sex and capital.

Still, Odds Against Tomorrow hits its stride in the middle section, where it becomes, by turns, one of the best rewritings of the ark myth. Flush with cash before he predicts a calamitous flood, Zukor, on a whim, buys a “Psycho Canoe,” which is basically what it sounds like, from a Manhattan art gallery. Later, when the levee breaks, so to speak, Jane and Zukor maneuver their tiny ark around the flooded city:

They were bobbing everywhere, lobster buoys in a Maine cove. And stationary objects – the studded plastic corner of a refrigerator door, a radiator’s white corrugated grill – protruded from the water like unnatural icebergs. On either side of the avenue, the steel beams of traffic lights were rotted trees bending into the river, their roots bundles of severed coppered cables. Where the floodwater reached its highest point it traced, along the sides of buildings, an uneven line of filth that continued the length of the avenue as far as they could see.

This is one of many tantalizing friezes wherein Mr. Rich imagines a waterlogged New York City, and it is here that his novel floats above its belabored, researched prose. It must be deliberate. For all their models and schemes and mathematical certainties, Jane and Zukor are ultimately rescued by a work of art.

editorial@observer.com