Rachel Cantor’s blast of a debut novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario (Melville House), is one of the more efficient Literary Pleasure Delivery Systems available so far in 2014, and also one of the more manic. It is highbrow science fiction at top speed, full of sharp turns, even sharper turns-of-phrase, and herring jokes. Cantor does not pause for quotation marks, let alone exposition; the unrelenting pace makes for an occasionally overwhelming reading experience, but one that remains enjoyable all the way through, assuming you can keep up.
It might help if, like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, you have practice believing as many as ten impossible things before breakfast. Cantor commits fully to her premise, a satirical future where fast food joints run the show. Against that backdrop, a handful of lightly sketched but entertaining characters careen from one outlandish set piece to another and somehow manage to keep the world from ending—more than once.
Our hero is Leonard, a shy, stunted twenty-something whose limited universe consists of his sister Carol, Carol’s talented son Felix, and his job as a Listener for the powerful chain Neetsa Pizza. (Competing hegemonies include the Heraclitan Grill and Jack-o-Bites.) The ideal call center employee, Leonard receives complaints from wounded customers and offers solace in the form of coupons. What he lacks in imagination he makes up for in devotion to Felix, who needs him, especially when Carol’s revolutionary “book club” activities heat up.
Leonard’s loyalty is tested when the complaints stop in favor of calls from Milione, a traveler imprisoned far away who is looking for a mystic named Isaac the Blind. Night after night, Leonard listens to Milione’s adventures; thinks about his own dearly departed grandfather, also a mystic; and at last offers what turns out to be crucial advice.
When a call comes not from Milione but from Isaac the Blind himself, a braver Leonard is ready: he must quit his job and, with Felix, locate the woman who will be the grandmother of his grandchildren. That woman will accompany Leonard to Ancient Rome, where, using Kabbalah and Leonard’s talents as a Listener, our protagonists will save the past as well as the future.
Cantor’s wackadoo worlds are as packed with detail and color as Times Square, so it can be frustrating to be rushed through them. And when the hurrying is over, you may find yourself hard-pressed to explain how the world was saved, or from what; you may also find, as I did, that it doesn’t really matter. The main takeaway of A Highly Unlikely Scenario is not the journey or the destination—it’s the impressive creative imagination of the person who made both a delight.
Rachel Cantor‘s short stories have appeared in the Paris Review, One Story, Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, New England Review, Fence, and elsewhere. They have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times, and have been short-listed by both Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Awards. Rachel has received fellowships from the Yaddo Corporation, the MacDowell Colony, the Millay Colony, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and elsewhere, and has been a scholar at the Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and Wesleyan Writing Conferences.
Brooklyn-based writer Ester Bloom’s features, essays, and stories have appeared in Slate, Salon, Bite: An Anthology of Flash Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, the Hairpin, the Awl, the Toast, the Morning News, Nerve, PANK, and numerous other venues. She blogs on culture for the Huffington Post and is a columnist at the Billfold and Lilith — for which she also writes the advice column Aunt Acid. Follow her @shorterstory.