NEW YORK TIMES book review: A Wry Eye on Problems of the Future

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By Janet Maslin

In his most recent film, “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” Albert Brooks can be seen as a stand-up comic trying to entertain an audience in India. He tells a few jokes. Nobody laughs. He wonders why. Then he has the bright idea that maybe the crowd simply can’t follow him. How many people in the auditorium understand English, he asks? Every person in the audience raises a hand.

There you have it: an only slightly exaggerated vision of Mr. Brooks’s thankless career on screen. For decades he has been creating, playing and directing characters whose gloom is justified by their failures, despite the great deadpan dialogue they deliver and the groundless optimism to which they cling.

A small but loyal audience deems Mr. Brooks brave, brilliant, obsessive, fanatical and pricelessly funny even when he falls flat. A much larger crowd, the “Finding Nemo” audience, knows him as the cute, fretful voice of an animated fish. He now finds himself courting a new demographic: people who like alarming books.

With “2030” Mr. Brooks has made the nervy move of transposing his worrywart sensibility from film to book. Two things are immediately apparent about his debut novel: that it’s as purposeful as it is funny, and that Mr. Brooks has immersed himself deeply in its creation. “2030” is an extrapolation of present-day America into the not-so-distant future, and it is informed by the author’s surprisingly serious attention to reality. Unlike the fantasy writer who foresees a gee-whiz future full of alluring gimmicks, Mr. Brooks has dreamed up escapism about problems we cannot escape.

“2030” has a large cast of characters, like the Nobel laureate who cured cancer and the American president who will change his country in profound, irreversible ways. It also has frightening prescience. A 9.1 earthquake hits the Pacific Rim, with devastating consequences. The dollar’s run as the world’s reserve currency is long over. Debt is the era’s overriding issue on both the personal and the political levels, because the cancer-free elderly have stopped dying on schedule. The young bitterly resent the old, and the old have good reason to be fearful.

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