Review of Here Goes Nothing by Steve Toltz

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As you limp through a global pandemic spiked with new threats of nuclear war, you might be craving a book to lift your spirits.

Steve Toltz’s dark comedy novel “Here Goes Nothing” hangs on the gallows humor of an entire doomed race. Each copy of this book should come with an initial dose of Prozac.

An Australian author living in Los Angeles, Toltz attracted international audiences with her rocky debut, ‘A Fraction of the Whole’, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008. Her second novel, ‘Quicksand’, also went through a story absurd. catalog of misfortunes. And now, with “Here Goes Nothing,” he’s taken his misanthropic shtick to the Great Beyond.

We meet the narrator, Angus, when he is already dead. The tomb clarified an important theological point – if only by failing to close everything. In life, Angus admits, he was sure that “the very notion of an immortal soul was just a way to avoid facing our impending journey to Nowhere. deceive.

It’s a comedy that takes the tragedy of immortality seriously. It reverses the fear of oblivion to meditate on the terrifying suspicion that “the abyss of eternal nothingness was only a chimera”.

‘Quicksand’ is a wacky and harrowing story of a man who can’t get a break

Angus is — been? – a petty criminal who had finally settled down, more or less, with an eccentric woman named Gracie. It was a marriage of opposites. Angus harbored bitter skepticism. “People always try to count your blessings for you,” he says, “but their arithmetic is way off.” Gracie, meanwhile, cultivates a deep faith in the entire pantheon of spirituality – from Ganesh and the Virgin to ghosts and angels. To earn a living, she performs ironic wedding ceremonies: half roast, half blessing; somewhere between throwing rice and throwing knives.

In the opening pages of the novel, a new virus has jumped from dogs to humans and is trailing its scythe around the globe. An old man comes to the door and convinces Gracie that he used to live in this house. His dying wish is to be allowed to die here, in these familiar rooms. Being an old softy, Gracie agrees, but Angus can see through this ploy. So the stranger kills him.

Trouble is, that’s not the end of this novel – or of Angus. As his widow bravely continues to wonder how her husband died, Angus finds himself in an afterlife that resembles a depressed 1970s town. “Who would design such a mundane place? Angus wonders. “There were power lines and storm drains and stop signs and garbage trucks and potholes and men calling women.” No philosopher, no religion, no Renaissance painter had come close to predicting this dull hell. Faced with an unbroken continuity of the same political, social, and personal absurdity they endured in life, these souls grow jealous of the “zombies with their outdoor life and simple diet.”

There’s no ambrosia here, just bad coffee. Instead of getting wings and a harp, Angus is assigned a job at an umbrella factory. “We had wasted our lives,” he thinks. “Do we also have to waste our death?” And, worst of all, he’s still depressed and constipated. “The ordinariness of this one was slightly distressing,” Angus says. “I sat there, tense, thinking, Really? This again?”

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The global pandemic and our clumsy efforts to control it are not the only contemporary allusions to the story. There is also a veiled blow to the MAGA crowd when the dead violently object to the arrival of more and more “immigrants” from the other side. And people even get sick here – but at least there’s free medical care in the afterlife, so in that sense, dying is better than living in the United States.

Although there are no eternal flames in this novel, like Mark Twain towards the end of his life, Toltz writes with a pen warmed in hell. Beneath its tongue-in-cheek surface, “Here Goes Nothing” is a relentless deconstruction of religious certainty and spiritual affirmation. “If there is been a God,” says Angus, “it was clear he had an avoidant personality. The insight and clarity that so many religious traditions promise on the other side are burned in the endless cycles of Toltz’s plot. “No one had an answer,” laments Angus. “At this point, could there be anything more vile than pretending to know the meaning of eternity? Can we trust someone in a position of religious authority again?

Artful lines descend on these pages like flowers thrown on a coffin. But a plot about the eternally static nature of reality risks becoming infected with its own lack of progress. After pointing out so many of Toltz’s clever jokes, I kept running into the question, what is this mound of philosophical pessimism? It’s hard to get rid of the feeling that Toltz and Angus are running on the same pitch.

Behind this wacky and increasingly dark comedy, however, lies an ironic rejection of the lingering hope that death will suffocate us or make us better by serving justice, comfort, salvation, revelation, Something. In the pages of Toltz, the imperishability translates no transformation. The bad news is that improving ourselves still and always depends on us alone.

Ron Charles writes the Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.

Melville House. 375 pages. $27.99

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