Have you ever read a review of a book from a trusted source that gushed about a book, how utterly fantastic, original, funny, quirky it is (fill in the blanks with the descriptive words that make you say omg I have to read this book)? Of course you have. And have you then gone out and either bought it or borrowed it from the library, brought it home in a great excitement of anticipation, opened the cover, dove in and about halfway through realized the book was not even close to the heights of delight you thought it would be and in fact got lost somewhere in the foothills? Of course you have. And did you keep reading it anyway because you thought that maybe the big payoff came at the end, oh please let there be a big payoff at the end to have made it all worthwhile? Of course you have. And then when you got to the end and closed the cover did you sigh, not with satisfaction but with sadness because the payoff never came? Of course you have.
I seem to be having some difficulty with books lately. First the Prose book I have set aside and probably will never finish, and now A Highly Unlikely Scenario Or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, which I did finish. The book held such promise.
The story takes place in an unspecified future where the world is run by fast food companies that faction themselves into different philosophical traditions. For instance Neetsa Pizza, the company our hero Leonard works for, governs itself and its food by Pythagorean precepts. Leonard’s sister, Carol, works for a Scottish fast food company called the Jack-o-Bites. There are also Heraclitans, Cathars, (Roger) Baconians, neo-Maoists, and a host of other competing fast food ideologies.
But the book is not about fast food, that’s just the setting. The book is about Leonard whose gift is his receptivity and ability to listen. He sits in an all white room and takes calls from unhappy Neetsa Pizza customers, helps them feel better and gives them coupons. He has a training book on hand to help with likely scenarios. But one day he gets a call that turns out to be an unlikely scenario that sets him on a journey in which he saves the world, finds love, and travels through time. It is completely bonkers, but given that his love turns out to be Sally who is a librarian and Baconian whose job is to guard the Voynich manuscript and, who has managed to decipher some of it, the book was looking to be promising.
Does the Voynich manuscript sound familiar to you? It has been in the news lately. Cantor’s book was published in 2013 before the latest news about the manuscript. The Voynich, was supposedly composed by Roger Bacon in the 13th century and discovered in 1912 by Wilfred Voynich. The book is written in a code no one, not even top cryptologists, has been able to crack. This has many believing the book is a hoax. Though a University of Bedfordshire applied linguistics professor has recently claimed to have cracked the code.
The news added to the promise of the book, but the book did not deliver. Dancing letters, talks in the present with historical personages from the past, Jewish mysticism, time travel, Isaac the Blind, and Abulafia never melded into a story that made much sense. Sure, the world was supposed to be in danger because Abulafia got Felix, Leonard’s nephew who could stop time, to go back in time where he, Abulafia, planned on using Felix to bring on the end of days. But given that Felix comes from the future there isn’t much sense of peril because we know the outcome even though there are hints that the future might be changed.
The book could have been a fun story about finding and using your gifts to make the world a better place but all that gets lost amidst the quirkiness and fighting between the fast food companies and the mysticism. As far as I can tell, this is Cantor’s first novel. She has previously published a number of short stories in literary journals. There appear to be enough to make a short story collection and if she goes that direction I would definitely read it. The writing itself is good and her style is fun. She creates interesting characters and knows how to keep the pace moving. And she is original and obviously creative. However, all these pluses end up fighting against each other. I hope she writes another novel because she does have potential if she can manage to get all of her skills working together instead of competing for top billing.