[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
When I distill down my responses to Rachel Cantor’s debut novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or; a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, I find that what moved me the most profoundly was the main character, Leonard’s, relationship with his nephew, Felix. Leonard’s connection to his now-dead grandfather is important, and Sally the neo-Baconian librarian (not that kind of Bacon! Roger Bacon) is a great character, but Leonard’s support of vulnerable Felix stayed with me through all the book’s twists and turns.
Leonard works for Neetsa Pizza, a fast food conglomerate that bases its pizzas on the principles of Pythagoras. He does not work in a restaurant — rather, in a garage apartment that he has converted, per Neetsa specs, to a “white room.” Leonard addresses customer complaints through Good Listening, Compassion and the judicious application of free Neetsa Pizza gift coupons.
Leonard’s sister, Carol, works for Jack-o-Bites, a Scottish fast-food conglomerate and steals food from work, like bite-sized haggis, for the family. She also belongs to an anarchist book club. I loved the anarchist book club! How do they schedule their meetings? Aside from walking Felix home from the school “caravan” stop each day, Leonard does not venture outside. He answers his calls and spends free time secretly asking questions of a website called The Brazen Head. His life in this world, which is not quite ours, seems planned out ahead of him in a straight line — until one night when he gets a call from his dead grandfather. Later, a man named Milione calls him, from his prison cell in Genoa. We know Milione better as Marco Polo.
Cantor’s book is a charming literary whirlwind about a surrealist alternate-present, where the nation is ruled by a Leader, and fast food employees battle each other in the streets; where the Brazen Head is the font of knowledge; and where fashion is, well, interesting — and about time travel to the thirteenth century; Kabbalahistic mysteries; about amazing karate kicks and being bullied; about how we get knowledge and how we get wisdom, and most of all, about family.
Is it science fiction? Probably not. Cantor’s stylistic choices — no quotation marks, for instance; short chapters with folktale-like titles — put it more in the literary camp. There is an alternate world, though, and time travel. There is also magic. Felix can see certain things in a different way, and so can Sally, while Leonard’s talent, as we already know, is listening. Listening and seeing, two ways we receive knowledge.
I love this book. I delight in Cantor’s imaginative details and the humor, especially the fast food kingdoms, like Neetsa Pizza:
His phone logs continued to fill, he seemed even to be increasing his conversion rate, for which accomplishment NP sent him a semiprecious, metal-plated, equilateral calzone.
Characters like Leonard’s grandfather, who calls him “boychik,” (of course) and the thirteenth century mystical rabbi Blind Isaac sound like Jewish stand-up comedians from the Adirondacks in the 1950s, and that works, too.
You understand nothing, boychik, but you have the potential to understand much. This is why I choose you. This, and I have no choice.
I don’t think A Highly Unlikely Scenario is perfect. Sally is an interesting character, very different from Leonard, but the love story is never given time to blossom. The suspense of the love story is further undermined by Isaac, who tells Leonard Sally is the one for him before he even meets her. Still, Cantor’s strange present world, and the scenes of crowded, chaotic, dirty, aromatic thirteenth-century Rome are vivid and authentic and as I said at the opening, Leonard’s loyalty to Felix, his commitment not just to protect him, but to nurture him, makes this book very sweet and a little out of the ordinary.
Not everyone is going to like it. The no-quotation-mark choice may put some people off. Science fiction purists may be a little disappointed in the present-world because there is no explanation of how we got there. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or; a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World is for someone who wants a literary read, or a speculative fiction read, that’s different. If you have friends who like Karen Russell and Kate Atkinson but “hate” science fiction, this is just the book to suggest. You might make a convert. Who knows?