Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow uses an interesting twist on several words. 3 examples are future, canoe, and dead.
The word ‘future’ takes on an interesting connotation in the novel that we don’t usually association with it. Future(s) appears 64 times, and futurist another 12. Of course it’s worth noting that the two companies which provide prophetic (using the word loosely) services are named “FutureWorld” and “Future Days”, which would account for many of the uses of the word. In other contexts, the word is used the way we use it, such as the news message about Mitchell: “He came from the future. Why didn’t we listen? The man who knew too much” (244). Most interestingly is the use of the word towards the end of the novel, when Mitchell thinks, “This was a future. It might not be the best possible future or even a particularly comfortable future, but it was a future that he could see” (287). Rich uses this paradox of a visible future to emphasize that Mitchell is now living strictly in the present after years of calculating odds about the future. As for the use of “futurist”, Rich essentially created this title to describe someone who works at a company like “FutureWorld” and predicts the future as a job, but when Elsa sends Mitchell back his postcard bearing the message, “By the time you get this, I’ll be a futurist,” the meaning is a little less clear (303). Elsa could be referring to her becoming more like the original Mitchell and that’s what makes her a futurist.
Another word I entered into Amazon is canoe(s), which appears 41 times in the novel. I didn’t realize it until I typed it into the search bar, but the meaning of the canoe remains consistent. At first, it comes as a representation of Elsa herself, when, “Mitchell received an old Camp Ticonderoga postcard… she had drawn a small pencil sketch of a girl lying on the bottom of a canoe” (38). This symbol of the fainting girl is how Elsa signs all of her following letters, and so the canoe becomes associated with her, and Mitchell’s mission of overcoming his immense fear the way Elsa ignores her life-threatening condition. Later when the flood strikes, the canoe is the means Mitchell uses to escape from the apartment with Jane, demonstrating a huge change within Mitchell as he never would have been brave enough to do this in his old state. Even Jane comments, “You’re not acting like yourself” when Mitchell tells her how he wants to leave in the canoe (165).
The last word I entered into the Amazon search was dead, which returned 26 results. I soon realized a pattern in the novel that I hadn’t noticed before: escaping death. The first instance is his escape from his old work department, the Department of Equity, Assets, and Derivatives, which Mitchell even points out is an acronym for dead. The next escape comes at the FEMA camp, when an explosion occurs and a couple appears to be killed. Jane comments, “They’re dead,” but the couple soon after crawl away (260). The last example is Elsa Bruner, who Mitchell assumes dead after he doesn’t save her from the burning building. However, Jane reveals at the end of the novel that Elsa, prone to death at any moment, has also escaped it. The meaning I gather from the escape of death is a contrast to Mitchell – he escapes the flood in a canoe, runs in a burning building, and survives against the odds. By the end of the novel, though, he has isolated himself and blocked out the world, so perhaps the price he has payed is life itself and he might as well be dead at that point.