Rachel Cantor’s dizzying fabulist debut is more brainy than funny. Bringing to mind both late Pynchon and early Firesign Theater, “A Highly Unlikely Scenario” displays an omnivorous taste for the far past and the distant future. It employs all manner of arcane history to address modern issues, such as religious fanaticism, paranoia, government control of private life and mass consumption. It risks getting swamped in its academic whimsy.
Start with the set-up: a totalitarian America where you literally are where you eat. Fast-food chains have taken over all religious and political denominations. There’s a brand for every taste, philosophical or otherwise: Heraclitan Grillburgers, the Dada Dinner Diner, the Church of Bacon Scientists (who split from the Baconians, followers of 13th-century philosopher Roger Bacon), and the Scottish tapas grill Jack-o-Bites (as in Jacobinism, divine right of kings and all that).
There’s also Neetsa Pizza, where pies are “shaped according to Pythagorean logic.” Even the lowly customer-service representative is a veritable priest, bent on making sure that his scripted responses will not just address complaints but restore callers to perfect harmony.
Such is the life of Leonard, a true believing Neetsa “Listener,” who begins receiving strange calls — and not just from irate customers who got Neoplatonist pizza when they ordered Neapolitan. First, there’s Marco Polo, calling from a 13th-century jail in Genoa, who apparently gets his wires crossed while trying to communicate telepathically with 12th-century Jewish mystic Isaac the Blind. Leonard is soon fielding calls from a society of long-dead Kabbalists. They convince him that he and his precocious 7-year-old nephew Felix — who has the ability to freeze time — are facing a terrible future unless they go back to the past and alter events.
Joining them is Leonard’s potential love interest, the Baconian librarian Sally, who has her own agenda. She believes that Felix may be able to crack the code of the famously inscrutable Voynich Manuscript and prove that it’s a key text of Jewish revelation.
Off they go, swept along by means more mystical than mechanical, landing in Italy between Inquisitions, where they lose Felix, fend off suspicious locals and try to ensure they can all go back to the future.
“A Highly Unlikely Scenario” is a bumpy ride (you can’t say the title doesn’t warn you) that conjures up a good deal more energy than excitement. Cantor tasks herself with creating an intellectual romp, but the characters are shallow, and the story keeps crashing due to informational overload. Even if you weather all the historical back story involving clapping songs, dancing letters, metempsychosis, Catharism, abulafianism and something called the third ether, events and motivations can still be very obscure. The jokes, likewise, are too dumb or too dense. (Why is a demon named Kafkaphony? Is there a punch line I’m missing?)
The last chapter suggests that there are more adventures in store for Leonard and his friends. You guys go on without me.
Welch is the book reviewer for the Columbia, S.C., Free-Times.
A HIGHLY UNLIKELY SCENARIO
Or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
By Rachel Cantor
Melville. 249 pp. Paperback, $16.95