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

Melville House  2013


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.

Read Rachel Cantor's Posts for the Visiting Scribe

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Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Melville House

1. Rachel Cantor’s A 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 A Highly Unlikely Scenario, 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 a 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.

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