Mitchell Zukor is a nice young man with math skills and a trenchant fear of impending catastrophe. After graduating from college and working in finance, he gets drafted for a job at a malevolent-seeming consulting firm called FutureWorld, which rakes in tidy sums by advising companies on the likelihood of impending disasters.
Zukor is the protagonist of Odds Against Tomorrow, which is Nathaniel Rich’s second novel and the perfect thing to read while baking under the sun this summer. (Please wear a hat and billion-SPF sunblock).
We asked Nathaniel—also a former editor at The Paris Review and a sharp journalist— a few questions about his new book, infectious diseases, and his personal fears.
Now for the questions:
Mitchell’s qualifications for a job at FutureWorld are, as his boss puts it, “The right mix of technical knowledge and personal despair”. While you were writing this book, you probably spent a lot of time researching terrible monstrosities. Did this make you more alert to the possibility of horrible things happening in your life?
Those were also my qualifications for writing the novel. But yes, in order to write it, I did force myself to learn as much as possible about things like the Yellowstone Supervolcano, antibiotic-resistant pandemics, the high probability of nuclear war, the effects of environmental collapse, a megathrust earthquake destroying Seattle, and many other horrible things that will one day come for us. But the effect wasn’t to make me more neurotic. Exposure to so much horror has a cauterizing effect. It made me develop a greater appreciation for life’s blessings: love, sleep, not contracting a flesh-eating disease.
Please grade these disasters on a scale of 1 (least horrifying to you personally) to 10 (most horrifying to you personally).
Solar flare: 10
Molasses flood: 10
What the fuck is a molasses flood? That sounds terrifying. But delicious.
Have you experienced any of these disasters?
Only hurricanes. Hurricanes seem to follow me wherever I go.
Odds Against Tomorrow is also very funny. Darkly funny. Especially the passages involving Tibor Zukor, Mitchell’s Hungarian father. Do you have an affection for comedy? Who are your favorite comics?
I like comedy, whether performed or written, that explores dark subjects. Some favorites: Roald Dahl, Flann O’Brien, Chris Rock, Simon Rich.
We are admiring readers of your journalism, in which you approach topics like jellyfish, post-Katrina New Orleans and statistical anomalies with intelligence, style, and dogged reporting. Who are your favorite journalists writing today?
Gay Talese, Philip Gourevitch, John McPhee, Larissa MacFarquhar, David Amsden, Amanda Fortini.
Can you recommend a great piece of nonfiction for us to read?
One of the best things I’ve read in recent years is Alec Wilkinson’s essay about competitive free divers, “The Deepest Dive.” It is astonishing. I love to read anything about obsession.
If you could guest-edit a magazine for one month, which would you choose?
The Journal of Infectious Diseases. You can never have too much information.
Thanks, Nathaniel! We loved the novel and can’t wait to read more of your work.
After reading Odds Against Tomorrow, be sure to follow up with Nathaniel’s first novel, The Mayor’s Tongue. It’s incredible.