Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Future Is Soon: A Review of 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America by Albert Brooks

Title: 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America
Author: Albert Brooks
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (2011)
Pages: 375
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: The cover caught my eye in the library but I resisted picking it up because I didn't think I could fit it in this month. When one of the books I was reading ended up being difficult to get into, I replaced it with this.

About the Author: Albert Brooks is a writer, actor, and director. He has written and directed several classic American comedies that are considered prescient and incisive commentaries on contemporary life, including Lost in America, Modern Romance, and Defending Your Life. Brooks has also acted in more than twenty motion pictures for other directors, including Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, Pixar's Finding Nemo, and James L. Brooks's Broadcast News, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.

Synopsis: Is this what's in store?

June 12, 2030, started out like any other day in memory--and by then, memories were long. Since cancer had been cured fifteen years before, America's population was aging rapidly. That sounds like good news, but consider this: Millions of baby boomers, with a big natural predator picked off, were sucking dry benefits and resources that were never meant to hold them into their eighties and beyond. Young people around the country simmered with resentment toward "the olds" and anger at the treadmill they could never get off of just to maintain their parents' entitlement programs.

But on that June 12, everything changed: A massive earthquake devastated Los Angeles, and the government, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, was unable to respond.

The fallout from the earthquake sets in motion a sweeping novel of ideas that pits national hope for the future against assurances from the past and is peopled by a memorable cast of refugees and billionaires, presidents and revolutionaries, all struggling to find their way. In 2030, the author's all-too-believable imagining of where today's challenges could lead us tomorrow makes gripping and thought-provoking reading.

Review: The above synopsis uses the word "sweeping" and I have to agree that this novel is just that. Primarily covering a period of about a year, 2030 delves into some particularly sticky territory via interesting characters and intelligent social commentary. Yet, as much as I wanted to thoroughly enjoy this book, I found it to be a poorly-constructed novel that focused too much on the commentary and not enough on the characters.

Earlier this year I read Piers Anthony's On a Pale Horse and, although I really liked it, I commented that it was heavily weighed down by the recurring issue of a patient's right to die. That issue returns with a vengeance in this novel and it's joined by a dozen others, such as the advance of medicine, the budget deficit, global warming, youth dissatisfaction, the political process, technological developments, etc., etc., etc. I felt at times like I was reading a treatise rather than a novel, which is not what I had signed up for when I picked up this book.

Brooks' novel is inconsistently funny with poor character development and a penchant for telling rather than showing. The basic premise is interesting and I was invested enough in the narrative to want to find out what happened in the end, but, when I finished the novel, I was left feeling dissatisfied and confused as to what Brooks' overall point was. Was he trying to incite a debate over assisted suicide? Was he attempting to raise the issue of changing the requirements dictating who can and cannot be president? Was he suggesting that we should be more open to a global environment in which we work with other countries rather than against them? Or was it something else entirely? There's no shortage of possible answers, which can be attributed to Brooks' bringing far too many issues to the forefront of his book.

For much of the novel, the emphasis is not on the characters or on dialogue. Instead, the book reads too often like a textbook, recounting a lot of unnecessary background information that would have been more effective had it been weaved into the story itself rather than written as separate digressions. For example, instead of the one mention of global warming (a statement about the fact that it was now evident and no longer disputed), Brooks could have used changed weather patterns to illustrate to the reader that global warming had been proven. Hell, even having a weatherman or a scientist talking about the topic would have been better than simply stating it outright.

And that is the true fault in Brooks' writing. His characters take a backseat to the issues he presents in 2030 and they are forced to develop because he tells the reader that they have. There were a lot of interesting characters, especially Brad Miller, President Bernstein, and Paul Prescott, but because there were so many people involved in this book and because Brooks spent more time on explaining how the world had changed by 2030 than on anything else, these characters felt disingenuous and fake. Their dialogue was occasionally funny and interesting but it was often poor and dull. Their lives ultimately end up intertwining in irrevocable ways, but by that point the reader has lost interest and is just trying to get to the part where everything that has happened makes sense. That part sort of comes at the end but, like had been previously mentioned, the final goal of Brooks' novel is so unapparent that it distracts the reader from taking any meaning from what they've read.

On the whole, 2030 is a novel that drowns in a lake of issues. Some of what Brooks suggests is interesting and his world of tomorrow is pretty believable. Some of what he describes is just possible enough as to be unsettling. He doesn't rely on some gimmicky sci-fi future, preferring instead to explore the results of things happening right now. This could have been a really good novel if there had been more showing and less telling, more true character development and less fitting characters into a mold to make his plot fit nicely, and more real narrative and less needless exposition.

I'm giving 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America 3 out of 5 Gabriels.

-Gabe (who will turn 44 in 2030)

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