You can stop at the title, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, and know Rachel Cantor’s new book will be unlike anything you’ve ever read. Cantor’s debut novel, a whimsical, satirical narrative full of vibrant humor, combines fast food chains inspired by philosophers and mathematicians, unconventional romance, time travel, adventure and even Marco Polo for good measure. Cantor sat down with Paste to discuss A Highly Unlikely Scenario, her writing style and what to expect from her next novel.
Paste: The novel possesses a very original premise. Did any other writers or novels influence its inception?
Cantor: Thank you! I don’t think there’s another book out there like A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World! I’m not aware of any books that directly influenced this book. I did read a lot of Italo Calvino when I was young, and, in particular, books where he tells fantastic stories in historical settings. Also, in the final section, my characters see their future in a quivering aleph. This is an homage to the Borges story “The Aleph.”
Paste: The historical and tangential playfulness of the novel reminded us of Thomas Pynchon’s writing—minus his convoluted style. Was accessibility something you consciously aimed for? Do you think imaginative literature loses something when it’s difficult to understand?
Cantor: I wouldn’t be willing to say that literature should or should not be difficult: it depends on the book, doesn’t it? Lots of great books (obviously) demand a lot of their readers, and rightfully so. What I wanted with this book, though, was to have fun. I wanted to invent a crazy world we’ve never seen before (where Whigs, Dadaists, Heraclitans and others vie for converts through proprietary fast-food chains, and where everyone’s under threat from radical book groups), and to populate it with characters we care about (Leonard, complaints guy for a national Pythagorean pizza chain; Sally, his warrior-librarian girlfriend; Felix, his seven-year-old comic-book writing nephew; and Carol, his neo-Maoist sister). I wanted to give them trials and put them in peril, and so on. For me, this was enormously fun, and I hope it is for the reader, too. There is actually a rather complex cosmology underpinning the book, but the story can absolutely be read at face value. If the book entertains and delights the reader, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s a success.
Paste: The novel’s contents appear postmodern, but its structure is classic. What do you like about classical storytelling in the postmodern age?
Cantor: The book is a mash-up of at least five genres: it’s a literary novel about a couple that has an adventure, and romance, in a fantastic world, traveling in time to a different historical period. But you’re right: despite that mix of genres, there’s a clear storyline. In the three acts, Leonard (and, eventually, Sally) saves the world three times. Each act has, I hope, a classical movement of rising action followed by a denouement, and in each act, more is required of our heroes with the result that, by the end, they are finally worthy of their destiny. I don’t always use this kind of structure, but it seemed a good choice for this type of tale.
Paste: You’re getting compared to satirical writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams quite a lot. Was this story a “funny” idea to begin?
Cantor: Even when I write about serious things, I tend to write with a sense of humor. In this case, my first conception of Leonard was humorous: I imagined him a pizza-complaints guy, alone in his White Room, healing clients-in-pain with Neetsa Pizza coupons. Once you have a premise like that, even if you treat serious themes, the story is going to be funny!
A Highly Unlikely Scenario is very intelligent but not very cynical. Would you say you’re a pretty optimistic person?
Cantor: Thank you! I take that as a compliment. A Highly Unlikely Scenario is a book about an innocent; it would hardly do to treat him cynically! Though I think I am critical of the world in which Leonard lives—a world in which wisdom is reduced to sound bytes to be marketed like fast food. A world where no one’s allowed to drive, and neighborhoods are monitored by webcams and prowling security forces. Leonard’s innocence is in part native, but it’s also the result of his seclusion: he left school at fifteen, and since then he’s basically refused to leave the house. Can Leonard retain something of that native innocence when he finally ventures into the real world? This is one of the questions my story asks.
Paste: You tend to treat religious/mystical topics with more grace than many other satirically-minded authors (Terry Pratchett spends an entire Discworld book lambasting religion and Vonnegut gets his digs in books like Cat’s Cradle). Would you say you have a more diplomatic and appreciative view of religion and spirituality than those authors’?
Cantor: I try not to compare myself with other authors: we all have different styles, obsessions, values and so on. I wouldn’t even say that those who disparage religion necessarily disparage spirituality, which is often understood to be a different thing altogether. Certainly on the subject of religion, and especially organized religion, many people, including many authors, have strong views, both for and against. My book respects religion, I’d say, and in particular its ancient contemplative or mystical traditions, but it also takes to task those who misuse belief systems in order to achieve social control, profit or power.
Paste: What can we expect from your next novel?
Cantor: My next novel, out next year from Melville House, is quite different. It concerns an underachieving translator who gets a call out of the blue from a Nobel Prize-winning poet who wants her to translate his latest work. A bit surprised, she nonetheless agrees, but she soon comes to realize that the poet has another agenda, one that involves her personally. Unlike A Highly Unlikely Scenario, this novel takes place in a world more or less like our own, but it does concern itself with ideas and it’s both funny and moving, so I think the two books have that in common.