Sunday, February 2, 2014

Pythagorean Pizza, Scottish Tapas, and Open Minds

Imagine living in a world where the food you eat is intrinsically linked to your ideological and philosophical affiliation?

Oh, right, we already live in that world. We buy organic and local. We pursue kale recipes with ardor, avoid carbs, or meat, or fat, or gluten, or dairy depending on what we think we should or shouldn't be eating.* That is, if we are economically privileged enough to be in a position to choose.

I don't mean to get sidetracked into a debate on food politics in the 21st century, I'm only trying say that the future that Rachel Cantor paints in her debut novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario or, A Neesta Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World, is not as outrageous as it may sound. She takes our obsessions with food politics to an unlikely, and very funny extreme, by dropping us into a future where fast food is explicitly political. In these pages a Pythagorean Pizza chain competes for minds, and stomachs, with a Heraclitan grill and eateries serving up Scottish Tapas under the name of Jac-O-Bites.

Leonard, our hapless and naive hero, is a reclusive complaint line listener for the titular pizza chain. Each night he retreats to his "White Room" where in his white clothing, he waits to ease the pain of dissatisfied customers. His only foray out of the house each day is to retrieve his nephew from the "caravan" stop after school while his Neo-Maoist sister is at her job at the Scottish tapas chain serving up such tasty morsels as haggis tarts.

As the story begins, Leonard is suddenly facing a suspicious dearth of calls, making him wonder if this is some form of test of his suitability by his employer. His anxiety grows as the only calls that are put through to him are from a man who is under the illusion he is existing in the 13th century and has just returned from a long expedition to Cathay, but is now languishing in a Genoese jail cell. What is Leonard to do?

Leonard listens, it's what he's good at. As he listens, it becomes clear that neither is his caller insane, nor is he undergoing some strange form of corporate assessment. Through some unspecified mystical magic, he is actually conversing with Marco Polo. What also becomes evident is that it is Leonard's coaching, with the help of his dead grandfather and a blind rabbi, that will prevent Marco from revealing secrets of mystical knowledge that, if published, will result in the end of the world.

I won't go any deeper into what happens from there, but trust me, things only get more interesting. And, while much of the marketing of the book has focused on the zany world Cantor has crafted and the use of science fiction devices such as time travel, these are surface attributes. Even the introduction of the basics of Jewish mysticism which are the secrets that must be hoarded lest the world end, are in some ways mere diversions. Entertaining diversions, but they are razzle-dazzle to pretty up the underlying and simple story of a young man who learns more about who he is and how to reach beyond himself to connect with and guide the people he loves.

Leonard, who starts out as someone who listens, but doesn't really hear, by the end of this diverting book, grows into someone who can listen deeply and through listening communicate with others so as to help them better understand themselves. What has stayed with me as I reflect on Cantor's charming and thoughtful book, is that there is objective knowledge that may be worth hiding for the good of the world, but that self-knowledge should always be explored. I'm not sure that I necessarily agree with the first part of that philosophy, but I certainly do find the second insight to be a piece of wisdom worth hearing.

I highly recommend this highly unlikely book to anyone looking for an intelligent and funny novel of ideas with an optimistic heart.

*I am one of these picky folk since I seem to be allergic to citrus and tomatoes, so I do understand that not all food preferences are determined by belief system, but by biological imperative.

I am also well enough off to live in a neighborhood with good access to a variety of fresh foods, organic foods etc. Not too far away are some massive food deserts that make it virtually impossible for people to source nutritious foods at reasonable prices. I am always staggered by the tenacious hold hunger and malnutrition have in this country and do not take for granted that everyone has all the food they need or the food choices that they would like.

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