I will freely admit that I read James Othmer’s The Futurist entirely because of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, whose fictional “black mathematician” John Kane is the quintessential futurist. When I saw a short review of this book (in Wired, perhaps?), I decided to give it a shot—at under 300 pages, what could it hurt?
The Futurist is the story of J.P. Yates, a high-powered public speaker rakings in scads of money by telling people that the future is looking perpetually bright. After a crisis of conscience in Johannesburg, he becomes a renegade truth-teller, drawn into a web of international political intrigue that involves him jetting to Greenland, Milan, Fiji, Pennsylvania, and finally the war-torn Ba’sar *coughIraqcough*. Meanwhile, Yates watches while the “space hotel” that he had endorsed kills it passengers and burns up in the atmosphere; he recovers from a devastating breakup while falling in a strange sort of love with a South African prostitute; he battles what appears to be an addiction to bourbon; he tries to figure out who the hell keeps sending him mysterious Nostradamus quatrains.
The book is a wacky sort of romp, equal parts of Christopher Buckley and Chuck Palahniuk—I say this because The Futurist is unabashedly political (especially in its questioning of current American foreign policy1), but also a personal narrative in the sort of odd, postmodern way that Palahniuk seems to revel in, the sort of which we are treated to all the intimate details of the main character but never feel like we know him. Its plot is preposterous, certainly, but once again, it’s not preposterous in a way we haven’t already seen in something like Lullaby, wherein the characters drift from one place to another in an existential haze, just as confused as the reader.
This was James Othmer’s first novel, and I can tell: parts of it seem unpolished to me. The ending chapter wraps up all of the book’s issues (Yates’ embattled relationship with his father, his feelings toward Marjorie the prostitute, his political and social conscience, &c.) in a few perfunctory pages, leaving the reader with little, if any, narrative satisfaction. It was very annoying, because despite the oddness of the book, I found myself enjoying it, wondering what the hell was going to happen next.
I have a feeling that the book drowns in its own modernity: whether or purpose or by accident, the book is filled to the brim with specific references: the corrupt executives at Tyco, real-world futurists like Faith Popcorn, brand names, recent events, and other such things that will soon fade from the public consciousness and lose their impact in the book (Othmer’s attempt at irony, perhaps?).
The long and short of it? There are better books about personal crisis. There are more poignant political satires. But for being a debut novel, The Futurist is pretty damn good.
- Othmer is especially vicious when it comes to the newly democratized Ba’sar, which is basically still a warzone[↩]