A Highly Unlikely Scenario
By Rachel Cantor
Reviewed by Dan Lopez
Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario calls to mind the kind of madcap comedies of 80s cinema (think Spaceballs) or the screwball-with-a-message novels of Christopher Moore. Comparisons have also been made to the space-comedy classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. These are all apt comparisons, but while they adequately capture the tone of this deceptively breezy novel, they miss the larger mark. This novel is more than a romp. It has an agenda. It's a frustratingly ambivalent one, but we'll get to that in a moment. First, we need to know the basics.
Meet Leonard, a well meaning, but naive "Listener" (read: customer service representative) for Neetsa Pizza, a fast food chain fetishizing Pythagorean principles of order and geometry. Neetsa Pizza is one of the many corporations that dominate the political landscape of the dystopian society Leonard is part of—one that isn't terribly dissimilar from the hyper-brand awareness of contemporary society. When Leonard is not in his white room (everything is perfectly white as mandated by his employer), he lives with his older sister, Carol, a resistance fighter, and her son, Felix, a precocious child with a penchant for "awesome karate kicks."
Following three days of no activity on the Listener line, Leonard begins receiving calls from a mysterious stranger calling himself Milione and claiming to be imprisoned in Genova. Readers up on their history will recognize the caller as Marco Polo. Whether you recognize the famed explorer or not, receiving phone calls from the past is a sure sign that something big has gone wrong in Leonard's world, something much bigger than your garden-variety, oppressive-society shenanigans. Phone calls from the past aren't the most bizarre thing Leonard will face, however. With the help of Sally, a librarian trying to decipher Roger Bacon's enigmatic private language, Isaac the Blind, the 13th century Jewish mystic, and other historical figures, Leonard and his crew have to travel through time to save the world.
The pleasures of reading this zany novel are legion. The characters are artfully drawn with quirky details, and the plot is a refreshing tangle of iterations on a familiar storyline, where historical figures act buffoonish while remaining endearing. But above all the joy springs from what Cantor holds back. Here is a book that from the very first page plunges the reader into a dystopian future built on the fascistic tenets of capitalism run amok. We're never told what caused the world to become this way, or much about how the system works, but it's not hard to imagine how it could have transpired. What's important is that the dominance of fast food conglomerates has spawned warring partisans who effectively keep themselves subjugated by exercising a level of brand loyalty that feels a lot like patriotism. It's not hard to see our own preferences for smart phone or soda brands reflected back to us. Cantor's choice of such an absurd lens to deliver a poignant critique on society's potential future is chillingly effective. We're rooting for the good guys to win, but at the same time, we're wondering just what, exactly, Pythagorean pizza is like, and wouldn't it, maybe, be delicious?
Ideology controls everything in Cantor's highly (un)likely society. Each of the fast food companies has its preferred brand: the aforementioned Pythagoreanism for Neetsa Pizza, Jacobinism for Jack-o-Bites, the Scottish tapas restaurant where Carol works, and a belief in order through constant change for Heraclitan Grillburgers. It's a dizzying conflation of ideology and corporate doublespeak for a service-based economy that desires mollification above all else. The Neetsa Pizza Listener handbook states it best:
Those who experience a rending of their joy are in pain.
Clients must be relieved of their pain. It is a sacred calling to restore clients to optimal satisfaction.
Pain is relieved through compassion. Compassion is best achieved in a White Room, and delivered through concentrated Listening, use of time-tested Listener algorithms, and liberal use of Neetsa Pizza Coupons.
Enter the aforementioned thorny agenda. Cantor's hapless hero is aided in his quest to save the world by the spiritual projection of Isaac the Blind, who speaks in the voice of Leonard's dead grandfather. At the risk of triggering a spoiler alert, Isaac gives Leonard and his coterie a series of tasks that have one thing in common: preventing outsiders from accessing the Kabalistic knowledge secreted in Bacon's manuscript. Saving the world in Cantor's universe means traveling through time and preventing ne'er-do-wells from mucking up the natural order of events. In theory, that's all well and good, but when you consider that the march of history has brought us to Leonard's fast food dystopia, some questions start cropping up. Chiefly, is all this really for the best?
At one point, Sally describes Gnosticism to Leonard and Felix as "a dualistic belief in an unknowable good spiritual world and an evil material world." It's an illuminating moment because the novel is very much concerned with the pathways bridging those two separate worlds and how they are traversed. Perhaps a simplistic division applies to Leonard's world of pizza coupons and White Rooms, but for ours (I submit we haven't yet crossed the threshold into dystopia) it seems anachronistic, if not downright medieval. More than that it feels paternalistic in a literal sense. This knowledge that must be safeguarded is handed down through the generations from grandfather to grandson, and though Sally plays as much a role as anybody in saving the world—certainly a more crucial and immediate one than Leonard—ultimately her destiny is to perpetuate Leonard's family line, thus ensuring future gatekeepers.
Male sinecure is the lesser point here. Cantor's construction brings up a fascinating perspective on the power of knowledge: who has access to it, and, more precisely, who has the right to it. These might seem like clear-cut questions. More knowledge to more people is always better, right? Yes and no. It's a question we're working out in our own time with polarizing figures like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. The symbols are important, and Cantor is nothing if not adept at juggling symbolism. Her villains are people who wrongly possess proprietary knowledge, but they're also people who democratize knowledge, as in the case of Dwayne, the man behind the Brazen Head, a kind of sassy Wikipedia. This is the Gordian knot of Cantor's comic novel, and perhaps it's cruel irony. Leonard's dystopian world may be no great paradise; in fact, it may be a kind of Hell. But isn't Hell better than nothing? If it were all we had, wouldn't we, too, protect it?
In many ways, A Highly Unlikely Scenario feels unfinished, more an opening volume in a trilogy than a stand-alone novel. Cantor is entertaining and knows how to convey a full spectrum of emotion while keeping the overall tone of the work light, but the story wraps up too quickly, suggesting more than it satisfactorily delivers. The brief afterword doesn't begin to do its various registers justice. I don't know if there are plans in the works for a sequel, but there's a long history of successful zany franchises. Maybe Cantor will pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Mel Brooks at the end of one of his screwball creations, The History of the World, Part 1, and deliver a sequel like "Jews in Space."