A High­ly Unlike­ly Sce­nario, or a Neet­sa Piz­za Employ­ee’s Guide to Sav­ing the World: A Novel

By – January 10, 2014

Employed as a Lis­ten­er” for the fast-food com­pa­ny Neet­sa Piz­za, Leonard answers client com­plaints for a liv­ing. He nev­er has to leave the garage where he lives and works. One day, Leonard begins to receive mys­te­ri­ous phone calls from the explor­er Mar­co Polo; at the same time all of the client com­plaints cease for sev­er­al days. Leonard becomes ner­vous that Neet­sa Piz­za has achieved high lev­els of client sat­is­fac­tion and he begins to wor­ry about the future of his job, lead­ing him to ven­ture out into the world of unpre­dictabil­i­ty, fall in love with a woman named Sal­ly, and try to save his nephew, Felix, whose spe­cial pow­ers caused Felix to be sent back into the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry. Leonard is required to use his skills as a Lis­ten­er at Neet­sa Piz­za to learn from peo­ple of the past how to find his nephew, which includes meet­ing char­ac­ters who find pow­er in the Hebrew language.

Rachel Can­tor has cre­at­ed a unique time and place, with char­ac­ters who want to make mean­ing in their high-tech, often­times con­fus­ing world. Tech­nol­o­gy and time trav­el inter­fere with and dic­tate the lives of the char­ac­ters in this enter­tain­ing and humor­ous fan­ta­sy nov­el. As in Franz Kafka’s The Tri­al, peo­ple are not always who they seem to be, and as in Kafka’s court­room, the Uni­ver­si­ty Library in A High­ly Unlike­ly Sce­nario has many secret doors, rooms, and stair­ways that lead to sur­pris­ing infor­ma­tion that helps Leonard, Sal­ly, and his fam­i­ly find their des­tiny. Short moments and scenes, like mini-chap­ters, are titled with humor­ous phras­es, lead­ing the read­er to con­tin­ue on, and mak­ing this book a fast read. At times, the many dif­fer­ent set­tings and char­ac­ters can feel a lit­tle dis­ori­ent­ing. Read­ers of sci­ence fic­tion, fan­ta­sy, and dystopi­an nov­els will enjoy the world that Can­tor has cre­at­ed through the expe­ri­ences of Leonard.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth, pub­lished by Main Street Rag Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny (2018) and win­ner of the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award. Her poet­ry has been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ing: Voic­es of Pow­er and Invis­i­bil­i­tyLilith, Raleigh ReviewMin­er­va Ris­ing, Third Wednes­day, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been pub­lished in Green Moun­tains Review, the For­ward, Lit­er­ary Mama, and oth­ers. She holds an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She teach­es high school Eng­lish and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two children.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Melville House

1. Rachel Cantor’s High­ly Unlike­ly Sce­nario has all the hall­marks of a tra­di­tion­al work of sci­ence fic­tion — time trav­el, a futur­is­tic world, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. When you were read­ing did you feel like you were read­ing sci­ence fic­tion? Was there any­thing in the text that you were sur­prised to find in a sci­ence fic­tion novel?

2. Food is every­where in this book. Leonard, the novel’s pro­tag­o­nist, works in the com­plaints depart­ment of Neet­sa Piz­za; his sis­ter, Car­ol, who also works for a fast food com­pa­ny, makes rev­o­lu­tion­ary stew”; their world is pop­u­lat­ed by groups that iden­ti­fy them­selves through food. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of food in Cantor’s nov­el? Is food real­ly at the cen­ter of the nov­el, or does Can­tor use food as a vehi­cle for talk­ing about ideas that are more cen­tral to the text?

3. What does it say about the world in which the nov­el is set that the lega­cies of many of history’s most impor­tant mys­tics, the­olo­gians, and thinkers have been appro­pri­at­ed by cor­po­ra­tions like Neet­sa Piz­za? Do you think a state­ment is being made about the place of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and phi­los­o­phy in our world? What do you think that state­ment might be?

4. In A High­ly Unlike­ly Sce­nario, the author draws on tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish con­cepts like the gilgul and ibbur. Do such con­cepts have any place in Judaism in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry? What is the place of Judaism in the book in gen­er­al? Leonard knows that his fam­i­ly was Jew­ish, but he iden­ti­fies as a Pythagore­an; how do these two iden­ti­ties con­tra­dict each oth­er or coexist?

5. The Brazen Head (which is based on sto­ries of real automa­tons capa­ble of answer­ing any ques­tion) often seems like a more ani­mat­ed, opin­ion­at­ed ver­sion of Wikipedia. And it, like Wikipedia, proves in the end to have real peo­ple behind it, capa­ble of mak­ing mis­takes and hav­ing par­tic­u­lar agen­das. What do you think of sources that appear to be author­i­ta­tive? Have you ever con­tributed to Wikipedia, and did that change your per­cep­tion of it?

6. As the plot pro­gress­es, Leonard dis­cov­ers that Felix, his nephew, has many spe­cial pow­ers, includ­ing the abil­i­ty to freeze time and read the writ­ing in the nev­er-before-deci­phered Voyn­ich man­u­script. How do Felix’s spe­cial pow­ers change the nature of the rela­tion­ship between Leonard and him­self? And between him­self and Sal­ly? How do the dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions relate to each other?

7. Isaac the Blind’s main aim in the book is to pre­vent cer­tain kinds of knowl­edge — such as the dis­cov­er­ies that Mar­co Polo and Roger Bacon make dur­ing their respec­tive jour­neys — from get­ting into the wrong hands. Do you think that the cir­cu­la­tion of knowl­edge can or should be restrict­ed? Is there any knowl­edge that would be dan­ger­ous in the wrong hands?

8. A key moment in the plot hinges on an old joke about her­ring that Leonard’s grand­fa­ther used to tell. It’s non­sen­si­cal and hilar­i­ous, a joke that sub­verts the very way jokes are sup­posed to work — a joke about a joke, in oth­er words. What role does humor play in the book? Is it a way of break­ing down expec­ta­tions about the way the world works?

9. At the end of the nov­el, Abu­lafia tells Sal­ly that togeth­er he and she can be the Mes­si­ah. Does this change the Mes­si­ah from some­thing that can only be wait­ed for into some­thing that can be brought about through coop­er­a­tion or a spe­cial set of cir­cum­stances? What do you think of this idea? How do you feel about the choice Sal­ly makes, pass­ing up the chance to study with Abu­lafia for love, fam­i­ly, and becom­ing a leader in her own time?

10. At the begin­ning of A High­ly Unlike­ly Sce­nario, Leonard is hard­ly one of the Peo­ple of the Book! Books remind him of the depress­ing expe­ri­ence of school, his grand­fa­ther’s books are writ­ten in a lan­guage he can’t read, and read­ing of almost any kind is for­bid­den in his White Room. But books soon become cen­tral to the nar­ra­tive: as Leonard encoun­ters Sal­ly the librar­i­an and her Voyn­ich man­u­script, and, lat­er, Roger Bacon and Abra­ham Abu­lafia, he joins a com­pa­ny of pas­sion­ate, care­ful read­ers and writ­ers. Dis­cuss the theme of books in the nov­el: books as pre­cious objects, as some­times inscrutable recep­ta­cles of past wis­dom, as jump­ing-off points for invent­ing oth­er stories.