Albert Brooks Wrote a Novel About The Future. He's A Comedian. It's Kind Of Funny. But Also: Good.

05/10/2011 09:33 am ET | Updated Jul 10, 2011

When last we left Albert Brooks, we thought we had a pretty good idea of his range.

He wrote and directed and starred in his own movies.

He had plum roles in the films of other directors.

He was an occasional voice on The Simpsons.

And, for the little ones, he was the overprotective father in a classic Pixar feature, Finding Nemo.

Throughout, we knew him as the Jewish wit who was ever so much more appealing than Woody Allen. That is, he wasn't, like Woody, generically neurotic, he was neurotic to a point. He had some ideas about life in America that expressed what Woody religiously avoids: a smart political and moral point-of-view. Unlike Woody, he seemed to have genuine affection for other people -- in a Brooks movie, his biggest problem is himself. And so, although he has often seemed too bright and too sensitive for his own good, he has never seemed too arrogant; in almost any situation, you want him to win.

Don't know Albert Brooks? Haven't seen Taxi Driver, Private Benjamin or Broadcast News? His Vanity Fair "Proust Questionnaire" says it all, in short form. Sample:

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Not sure what happiness means. Need to look that up.

What is your most treasured possession?
I own the No-Hope Diamond.

I like to think Albert Brooks is happy today. I'm not sure I am --- and I'm probably not the only writer who's suddenly ambivalent about this guy. Here's the problem: Albert Brooks has written a novel. And it got published. By a real publisher. Suddenly he's like the James Franco of comedy.

If his book sucked, no problem. But it's hard not to like Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happened to America. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] Brooks writes well, with wit and imagination. And for those of us who graduated from science fiction soon after puberty, his "futuristic" novel is -- refreshingly --- anything but. Let Brooks explain:

I've always enjoyed stories that take place in the future, but my one disappointment was that the future books described never came. We're not on other planets, there are no flying cars, and the only robots we have in our homes just sweep the floor. So I wanted to write about a future that I thought could really happen.

At first, this future even looks good. There's a pill that makes you thin. Cancer's been cured. (In 2014. Mark your calendar.) At 80, you can be more photogenic than your parents were at 40 --- how you look is simply a function of what you can afford. Car accidents? These cars drive themselves. Just as jets don't really need pilots.

But the world is a closed system. More old people who have all their vitality don't willingly step aside to let the young have their turn --- the young are the first generation to have it worse than their parents. (Sound familiar?) Social services cost a fortune; the national debt is so huge that there's really no other political issue. (Brooks: "Money makes the world go 'round and death stops it in its tracks.") And did I say, in this amazing future, that President Matthew Bernstein is Jewish? Okay: half. (Take your vitamins. It could happen. )

What is real? What is virtual? Who cares about the difference? That's the sort of question Albert Brooks can really get into. That, and who's committing acts of terrorism --- like boarding a bus on its way to an Indian casino, sparing 18 young people but shooting a dozen passengers over 40.

But then comes a problem big enough to drive a novel: a 9.1 earthquake that levels Los Angeles. Fifty thousand dead on the first day. No hospitals capable of helping the injured survivors. Insurance companies declare bankruptcy. The government should step in, but government is broke.

Now the novel moves into high gear. Will America quietly adopt...mercy killing? Can the new Secretary of the Treasury figure out a way to borrow another $20 trillion from the Chinese? And, on the ground, what happens to people who are homeless --- and, seemingly, condemned to be so for years?

The answers are smart, surprising, pointed. Here's more Brooks, commenting on the pre-fab homes for Los Angeles, arriving from --- where else? --- Asia:

The same reason Jews bought Volkswagens was the same reason the Chinese were now partners in the greatest construction project the world had ever seen. People wanted it done quickly, and at a low price, and that was the way it was always going to be. It started with cars, went to food and clothing, and now it was the very places they were going to live and work. Resistance was not just futile, it was gone.

This isn't an Orwellian future; Orwell had no sense of humor. (His biggest joke in "1984" is that it's a flip on 1948, the year the novel was published.) "Twenty Thirty," as futuristic fiction goes, is first cousin to a Kurt Vonnegut novel --- terrible things happen, but we can still make jokes.

Do you dare to dream of a happy ending? Brooks thinks he has written a hopeful one. But then, consider the source.

Cross-posted from