Review: Albert Brooks’ 2030

AKIE BERMISS: Albert Brooks’ new book, 2030, is a more complicated pleasure than one would think.  If you think it’s just a bit of dark comedy about the near future, you’re in for a big surprise.  It would appear that Mr. Brooks decided to write: a novel.  Since I know him primarily as a humorist and actor I thought this would be a light bit of fluff, a quick read, and leave my mind as soon as a closed the book.  Instead, the story and its prognostications stay with me.  If I didn’t know that Brooks was a humorist, I’d be tempted to say this was actually a “sad” story.

The premise is, simply put, that the year is 2030, Cancer has been cured and people are living longer and longer.  At the same time, healthcare costs have gone through the roof and while there are government healthcare packages, they are expensive and complicated by strange deductibles and one-times costs and so forth.  Also, at the same time, America’s debt has ballooned to such absurd levels that it can no longer really be reduced — just maintained. Into that fray step a few interesting characters: America’s first Jewish president, the aging billionaire who invented the Cancer cure, a young and independently wealthy man who is growing to resent the strain put on America by “the olds”, a young woman with very much going for her in said strained-America, and — finally — a somewhat well off senior citizen living in a condo in LA.

Seems a bit random, yes?  And that would be my complaint as the book began.  It takes a few chapters of meeting everyone through vignettes and getting to know how they are (and are not) linked to begin to see that what Brooks is trying to tell is not necessarily the story of these people in particular, but the story of America itself.  Basically, after a huge earthquake levels Los Angeles all of the players are drawn into each others’ spheres of influence.  The President, Matthew Bernstein, represents the impotence of a government so bloated on loaned money that it can do little more that go through the motions of trying to fix the city.  The devastation of the earthquake leaves millions without homes and trying to collect on insurance and through the plight of the aging senior citizen, Brad Miller, we learn that the insurance companies are basically unable to foot the bill.  Leaving all these people homeless and penniless.  At the same time the young wealthy upstart, Max, is transitioning from a sort of pro-youth community organizer into some sort of domestic terrorist.  The young woman with all the debt and the dead-end the job is Max’s girlfriend.  And the object of Max’s ire is the guy who’s company made the cancer cure and continues to make product specifically to increasing the quality of life of senior citizens.

That’s the interleaving story that is set in motion about a third of the way into 2030.  If it seems a bit rushed, and cosmetic, and bit too bleak — it is.  But what stays with you is, despite the absurdity of this intricate premise, you can’t really write it off as “impossible.”  Brooks takes care to present nearly every facet of the story as something that could actually happen the way things are going right now.

The writing is smart, funny, and most of all, emotional.  The stories of these characters strike a chord.  There is not real antagonist in the book.  It’s just several characters trying to do the right thing in a difficult time and with limited options.  Honestly, for my tastes, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick is the end-all and be-all of humorous dystopian future Americas.  I prefer the zaniness and the topsy-turvy.  In Slapstick, things are horrible, but also: gravity has reversed itself, the entire nation of china has shrunk itself down to microscopic size, and religion has become so fractured and esoteric that its hard to keep track of who is what.  Still, it presents a bleak future and no real answers for the future.  But I prefer it to Brooks’ book because it has more funny shoving sadness down your throat.  2030 seems to have started as a possibly very funny book, but then it slowly solidifies into a hard march into the future.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the novel and actually wish it were longer.  There were a couple of things that bothered me while reading it: firstly, when writing a book of speculative future fiction, it is crucial to find a savvy way to teach your reader the history of that speculative future so that they can understand why things are as they are.  As an enthusiast of science-fiction novels, I can’t stress enough how use for simple timeline can be in making things run smoothly.  A few pages at the front or back of the book and describe all the political and technological happenings of decades (or even centuries) leaving the writer free to tell their story without having to stop mid-narrative to give details on a particular places or happening.  The front-end of 2030 suffers from such interruptions quite frequently and they cause the narrative to hiccup in an unpleasant way every couple of chapters.  And secondly, I thought the main questions put forth by the book were never answered.  We never really come to a resolution about what to do with the life-prolonging medication that is causing people to stick around until their early-mid 100s.  The conflict comes to a head with Max attempts a hostage-terrorist attack on a boatload of seniors but after that is dealt with no larger plan is put into place.  The conclusion of the story is basically that all comes to naught for most of the characters, America gets taken over by a Chinese-born healthcare guru, and… well, everyone else just goes back to work.

It would have been nice for Brooks to make the leap completely.  Since he’d left the arena of light comedy and veered into dark emotional story-telling, I was expecting him to eschew the cosmetic story and reach to the abstract conflicts underneath.  Instead the book stops where the story ends and gives a bit of a lie to my description earlier that its not about the characters so much as it is about the country. That, in the end, is the biggest drawback to 2030.  But it does little to disturb the overall delight in reading.  The story is compelling.  And that’s keys.

2030 is a droll read that will make you chuckle from time to time.  And the worst part about enjoying the book is the niggling feeling in the back of your mind that this could indeed be what the subtitle claims: “The Real Story of What Happens to America.”

HOWARD MEGDAL: It would be nearly impossible to find a more devoted Albert Brooks fan than me. I think I’ve seen Julie Hagerty lose her nest egg more than 50 times. I want every omelet to be the one served in Defendingg Your Life. And freezer burn, in my house, is “protective ice”. I once went to the Museum of TV and Radio just to see Albert Brooks’ short films made for Saturday Night Live before they were widely available.

So 2030 is for me. But I do wonder if that’s the case for those who aren’t Albert devotees.

Simply put, this is less a fully-formed novel and more of Albert Brooks telling us how the future will be. The characters, with few exceptions, all talk in Albert Brooks’ voice. And while he usually has actors onscreen to flesh out the emotional complexity of his characters, he relies on telling us how they are feeling and why, in lieu of letting the action take care of filling in our emotional sketches of many within the story.

Now, that said, I loved having Albert Brooks tell me how the future would be. Truth is, I didn’t care much what happened to Max Leonard, or Brad Miller, I just wanted more Brooksian flights of fancy.

He’d clearly thought of everything. His vision of the future is uncomfortable at times, but never feels implausible. And in a future book, it is natural to constantly push against the walls to see if they move. In 2030, they don’t.

I just wonder if Brooks could have found a way to let his characters provide the kind of meaningful looks Charles Grodin or Meryl Streep or Debbie Reynolds did, rather than narrating exactly why they were making those looks, and how those looks would impact what they did next. It would have meant less Brooks, which I’m against, but a more complete novel, which probably would have more inroads into houses that don’t contain multiple copies of Comedy Minus One.

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