nothing is right here
Beautiful people, where are you? The title of an unknown novel by a certain Mayo writer, yes, but also a question that seems central to contemporary fiction from here and elsewhere. Seven Steeples by Sara Baume, The Love Makers by Aifric Campbell, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel, and now Here Goes Nothing by Australian Steve Toltz, who has largely given up on this world and instead looks what will follow.
Billed as a mash-up of the American television series The Good Place and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, the novel is a moving meditation on all that is wrong with our world today and an innovative take on the future. -of the.
Toltz is known for his mammoth 700-page debut A Fraction of the Whole (2008), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award. A second acclaimed novel, Quicksand, appeared seven years later. It took him the same time to publish Here Goes Nothing, which is nearly 400 pages but reads shorter – a mark of a skilled writer. Another is that Toltz takes his existentialist subject matter lightly, with a heavily ironic, funny and bittersweet tone, as his protagonist Angus Mooney looks back on his some 40 years on Earth from a better-described afterlife. like quite like Earth but much worse.
For example: a lousy, overcrowded landscape, appalling accommodation in noisy halfway houses, “a suffocating atmosphere of shady panic”, a shopping pass with just enough money for bread and raisins, until that Angus accepts a job making umbrellas on a production line: “I thought of all those people who ended up in an early grave and then were brought back from the cemetery to the office.”
The pace of both storylines picks up, in an energetic tale full of unexpected twists
Lines like this appear on nearly every page, clever reminders that we may be losing our days in this world, only to move on to something worse.
Toltz throws us some carrots. Illnesses and injuries are reset, injustices are quickly dealt with, there is a bar called The Bitter Soul, and a dimensional travel machine that allows Angus to connect with his old life on Earth.
This second backdrop is undoubtedly the most interesting. Back home, Angus’ wife, Gracie, is pregnant with his child and trying to deal with her grief as the world is hit by a pandemic with an 89% death rate. Also pictured is Owen, a middle-aged doctor dying of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, who murdered Angus in order to sleep with Gracie. While some of the scene setups could do with pruning, the pacing of both storylines picks up, in an energetic narrative full of unexpected twists.
Even in the most extreme situations, all three characters have agency, another smart choice from Toltz. Gracie is a no-nonsense wedding officiant delivering her own baby via C-section, watched by millions of fans online across the world. Owen is a villain with great ingenuity and no ethics, i.e. good value. Angus is a luddite who likes to be misinformed, “the more I know, the less I understand”. He takes on his new ghost status – sorry, PC term: Specternaut – nobly and is an easy character to root for.
Back on Earth, meanwhile, the exaggerated pandemic is played for laughs: “The hashtag #byeeee was trending in the United States”
The book is very funny, with lots of dialogue and simple sentences: “’So I’m dead?’ “You are definitely on the spectrum.” … Being alive – an offense punishable by death every time. Elsewhere, Angus is disappointed to find that after-death encounters are much the same as ever: “Terrifying monogamy, empty casual sex, doomed polyamory, unsanitary sex parties, soul-destroying loneliness.” Back on Earth, meanwhile, the over-the-top pandemic is played for laughs: “The hashtag #byeeee was trending in the US.”
The philosophical reflections that are conveyed there are also cavalier and all the more touching. Angus and his colleagues at the umbrella factory look wistfully at their lives and deaths: “That was another common theme – how none of our fears had made us… We gave to charity, but so rarely and so bit that we could tell you the dollar amount. They mourn the living and the fact that they’ve spent so much time dealing with the wrong things: “You’re worried about a pimple and not the impending stench of your rotting corpse.”
In its epic scope describing this life and beyond, Here Goes Nothing functions as a clever social commentary on our fossil-fuel-hungry, warmongering, information-obsessed, pandemic-riddled world. It’s an extremely timely book about the dangers of the way we live today, a much-needed dose of medicine sweetened with enough humor and panache to make it digestible: “The world is ugly, and the people are sad… I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by relentless self-esteem and a feedback loop of dopamine addiction. Nothing really goes here.