After a career in which he has consistently been a critical favorite, Albert Brooks is experiencing something new: a popular hit.
His first novel, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, has popped on to the New York Times' best-seller list amid stellar reviews. That kind of commercial success is an unaccustomed feeling for Brooks, who has had to live with making brilliantly funny films on a minuscule budget that win critical encomiums and earn a cult following.
"I found out it's on the best-seller list and it's like a dream," Brooks, 63, says in a telephone interview just before a Memorial Day weekend that took him to a bat mitzvah in Salt Lake City ("Don't ask," he says).
It's beyond anything I hoped for. If you look at the best-seller list for American fiction, they're all sequels to detective stories or stories about hunting serial killers. That's what's called American fiction these days. So to have a book that is none of those make it to the best-seller list is a thrill.
In 2030, Brooks imagines the America of two decades hence: broke and deeply in debt to China, among other nations. Cancer has been cured and other medical innovations mean that the elderly are living even longer ("90 was the new 50," the book explains). Which leads to a societal fissure between the old and well-off -- on whose health the government still spends money -- and the young, who are saddled with massive debt if their parent doesn't have the right medical insurance.
When a massive earthquake decimates Los Angeles, the United States turns to China for help rebuilding. But Pres. Matthew Bernstein (the first Jewish president) finds that China's assistance comes with strings attached: specifically, China wants part ownership of Los Angeles.
Brooks did extensive research before he wrote the book: "I read that kind of thing anyway, but I also interviewed a lot of people," he says. "I wanted to make sure I was right about the way amendments to the Constitution work, things like that -- anything that was a major plot point."
As he imagined how cancer might be cured (a new blend of amino acids that would kill cancer cells in the blood without shutting down the rest of the body's immune systems), he says, "Nobody said, 'Oh no, that could never happen.' In fact, one guy said, 'Jesus -- that could work.'"
The changes in society and technology are mostly subtle, rather than outlandish: Cars don't fly, but jets can be operated by remote control. Remote robotic surgery means that you can be anywhere in the world and still be operated on by the world's best surgeons.
So which of his many flights of fancy does Brooks think is the most unlikely? "The idea that we would have a Jewish president," Brooks says with a laugh. "Everything else seemed exactly normal."
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