New York, NY: Melville House Press, 2014. 256 pages. $16.95.
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In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the classic 1949 text on comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell argues there is one common structure that unites all hero myths, no matter the culture or time period. Known as “the monomyth,” this structure requires all heroes to pass through several stages on their quests—including leaving their ordinary world to answer a call to adventure; seeking the aid of several allies and talismans; and, upon successful completion, returning home to gain their reward.
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are then encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Think The Odyssey. Think Star Wars. Hell, think Back to the Future. To this list it’s possible to add Rachel Cantor’s debut novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario: Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World.
I say “possible” because while Cantor follows heroic structure down to the letter, the actual quest itself is never entirely clear. The novel opens in the not-too-distant future, in a world very similar to our own. Our hapless hero is Leonard, a customer services representative for Neetsa Pizza, a firm dedicated to making pizza shaped “according to Pythagorean principles.” Leonard hasn’t left his sister’s home in three years and lives a small, quiet life answering a white customer service phone in an all-white room. His call to adventure, as Campbell would say, is literal: one evening, instead of an irate customer on the other end of the phone, Leonard receives a call from an imprisoned Marco Polo in the thirteenth century.
Soon more mysterious calls come in, including from eleventh-century Jewish mystic Isaac the Blind, who sounds remarkably like Leonard’s deceased grandfather. These conversations push Leonard outside his sister’s house and put him on a course complete with time travel, an unreadable ancient text, Jewish Mysticism, and an attractive reference librarian. And here’s where the trouble starts. We are told Leonard needs to save the world—it’s right there in the title—but why? From whom? What’s at stake? Instead of providing a straightforward goal, Cantor focuses on the small details of this amazing world, such as the Hello! lamps on Everything’s Okay poles and warring factions like the Jacobin Jack-o-Bite franchise and the Whiggery Piggery. While charming, these details can grow unnecessarily confusing, as it’s difficult to determine what’s important and what’s simply background.
But this is part of Cantor’s spin on Campbell’s traditional monomyth structure: by leaving readers purposefully unmoored in unfamiliar terrain, we are challenged to embark on a quest of our own. Our frustrations and confusions mirror Leonard’s, making us hapless companions in a strange, new world. As a result, readers connect easily with Leonard and with Sally, the reference librarian who also serves as a love interest for Leonard. Her confusion mirrors our own: “This is your world . . . not mine. I like things to be clear, I don’t like signs and wonders. I don’t like being in a world where I don’t know the rules, where you have visions I can’t see, and some invisible guy named Isaac tells us what to do.” While it helps to have a character sympathetic to our plight, her questions don’t clarify the mission. But her faith in Leonard and his mysterious quest do reveal something larger: in order to make it through Leonard’s world, “you have only to pay attention, to give yourself over to wonder.” In doing this, it’s possible to delight in the journey, especially when you realize that some of the most bizarre elements in the novel (such as the Voynich manuscript, filled with coded text and drawings of “astrological-astronomical, biological, and pharmaceutical subjects”) are actually real.
While Leonard does successfully complete his quest according to Campbell’s structure and in the end possesses “the power to bestow boons on his fellow man,” the actual “boon” itself isn’t completely clear, resulting in a novel that feels both unfulfilling and pleasurable, like taking a scenic train ride through a foreign country. We are left with a surface-level understanding at best, but also a heightened sense of wonder and curiosity. That’s why A Highly Unlikely Scenario is a heroic tale unlike any other: a novel that is not about a quest but about learning that the world—our world—is full of extraordinary, mysterious wonders.