The Real Story of What Happens to America
St. Martin's Press: 375 pp., $25.99
Though written by filmmaker-comedian Albert Brooks, the events of his near-futuristic novel "Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happens to America" are pretty dire: Los Angeles gets hit by a cataclysmic earthquake, and the country's credit is so bad that the president of the United States is forced to cut a deal whereby the Chinese rebuild L.A. in exchange for half-ownership of the city.
Meanwhile, on the good news-bad news front, cancer has been cured. Except that now seniors are the target of animosity from splinter groups of the young who are increasingly resentful that "the olds" are living longer, healthier lives and hogging the future.
Brooks himself is approaching full Social Security eligibility, which may explain why his imagination runs to an image of a lonely retiree living in 2030 with his remarkably lifelike robot Lola (she is 6 feet tall and Latino; for the record, Brooks is married and the father of two).
The 80-year-old widower, Brad Miller, loses his condo in the big L.A. quake, and there isn't much of a safety net, for him or Lola. He ends up in a refugee camp at the Rose Bowl, and ultimately on a cruise ship that doubles as a retirement home, leaving port only occasionally and becoming the target of a terrorist plot by a cell of fed-up young folk.
That story alone is satirical and sad, and could fill a novel about the implications of a ballooning national debt and America's slippage as a nation able to take care of its own. But Brooks is trying to write a page-turner here, with a disaster-movie-sized cast of characters.
Some are more convincing and well-drawn than others. One of the more convincing ones is the president. In Brooks' hands, he is President Bernstein, the nation's first Jewish president (half-Jewish — his mother is Catholic). President Bernstein has issues, and sometimes he sounds like Albert Brooks. He's having an emotional affair with his Treasury secretary, and his mother is in a very expensive, taxpayer-funded coma at a time when people are defaulting on their government healthcare premiums. During a dark night of the soul, President Bernstein compares the situation to Watergate.
"Maybe a similar tactic would be the easiest way to end his mother's suffering and thereby his own. Someone could break in and pull the plugs. Then he laughed. Right, and look what happened to Nixon. I'll be known as the president who killed his mother. Great. Next idea."
In "Twenty Thirty," chapters are short, big things happen, and history's march is conveyed in neat summations (the two Koreas mate in the span of a paragraph).
As a filmmaker, paradoxically, Brooks made more inward-gazing movies that explored his comic personality, a pre-Larry David neurotic at loose in L.A. His first three are now comedy-nerd classics ("Real Life," "Modern Romance" and "Lost in America"). All the way up to his last movie, 2005's "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," the Albert Brooks protagonist retained the same comic monomania that, in another context, fuels literary fiction.
That was partly why, along the way, Brooks had trouble getting financing. It's tempting to read "Twenty Thirty" as a novelization of a screenplay Brooks might get produced, although Hollywood doesn't seem much interested in this kind of social commentary on the near future. The last such film that comes to mind is Mike Judge's "Idiocracy," in which two people of average intelligence are cryogenically frozen and thawed out 500 years later, geniuses now in a country that has regressed to consumerist Neanderthals.
In his novel, Brooks is not that cynical or condemning, though a fair bit of humor does simmer beneath the world he invents. Brooks' first movie, "Real Life," anticipated the reality TV craze by two decades; in 2030 he sees a population conjuring itself on omnipresent video screens, to the extent that "behavior that could get you thrown off planes decades earlier now got you thrown out of every public building in America. People just didn't take outbursts. They would call security at the slightest hint of anger. There was so little human-to-human contact any longer that people were just not used to a display of actual emotions; it all came across as hostile."
At its most fun, "Twenty Thirty" envisions the amenities developed for the luxury class. Pilotless private jets! A credit card (called the Card) that gets you the best table in a five-star restaurant! A boutique hotel where the wall can become all virtual Picassos!
But infrastructure is another story. The second-largest health insurer in America is a company called the United Arab Health Group. After the quake, Brad observes the container ships arriving from Asia with "the new Los Angeles" and thinks: "…the same reason Jews bought Volkswagens was the same reason the Chinese were now partners in the greatest construction project the world had ever seen. People wanted it done quickly, and at a low price, and that was the way it was always going to be. It started with cars, went to food and clothing, and now it was the very places they were going to live and work. Resistance was not just futile, it was gone."
That's not a lament, as the plot of "Twenty Thirty" plays out. After all, the Chinese bring not only great urban planning but good food. "It was the main reason why the Russians and Germans never had much success in America," Brooks writes. "Their food was lousy."
Brownfield is a New York-based reviewer and critic.