There’s nothing here
Beautiful world, where are you? The title of a little-known novel by a certain Mayo writer, yes, but also a question that seems central to contemporary fiction at home and abroad. 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 author Steve Toltz, who has mostly given up on this world and looks instead at what will come later.
Billed as a mash-up of George Saunders’ American TV series The Good Place and Lincoln in the Bardo, the novel is a heartwarming meditation on all that is wrong with our world today and an innovative vision of the afterlife.
Toltz is best 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. An acclaimed second novel, Quicksand, appeared seven years later. It took him the same amount of time to publish Here Goes Nothing, which reaches nearly 400 pages but reads shorter: a sign from an experienced writer. Another is that Toltz wears his existentialist arguments lightly, with a strongly ironic, funny and bittersweet tone, while his protagonist Angus Mooney retraces his 40 years on Earth from an afterlife best described as quite similar to Earth but much worse.
For example: a hideous and overpopulated landscape, terrible accommodations in noisy little houses, “a suffocating atmosphere of squalid panic”, a grocery card with only enough money for bread and raisins, until Angus takes a job as an umbrella maker in a production line: “I thought about all those people who had turned into an early grave and were then carried from the cemetery to the office.”
The pace of both storylines runs fast, in an energetic narrative full of unexpected twists
Lines like this appear on nearly every page, clever reminders that we may all be wasting our days in this world, only to move on to something worse.
Toltz throws us some carrots. Illnesses and injuries are restored, injustices are quickly resolved, there is a bar called The Bitter Soul and a dimensional travel machine that allows Angus to connect with his previous life on Earth.
This second background is probably the most interesting. At home, Angus’ wife Gracie is pregnant with her child and tries to manage her grief as the world is hit by a pandemic with an 89% death rate. Also pictured is Owen, a middle-aged doctor who dies of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, who killed Angus in order to live with Gracie. While some of the scene settings might have to do with pruning, the pace of both storylines runs fast, in an energetic narrative full of unexpected twists.
Even in the most difficult situations, all three characters have free will, another smart choice from Toltz. Gracie is a no-nonsense wedding officiant who delivers her baby in a Caesarean section, followed by millions of online fans around the world. Owen is a villain with great wit and no ethics, that is, good value for money. Angus is a Luddite who likes to be uninformed, “the more I know, the less I understand”. He takes his new ghost status – sorry, PC term: spectrenaut – nobly and is an easy character to cheer on.
Back on Earth, meanwhile, the exaggerated pandemic makes you laugh: ‘The hashtag #byeeee was fashionable in the USA’
The book is a lot of fun, with lots of clear dialogue and jokes: “‘So I’m dead?’ “You’re definitely on the spectrum.” … Being alive – a crime punishable by death every time. Elsewhere, Angus is disappointed to discover that afterlife dating is much the same as ever: “Tired monogamy, casual sex emptiness, condemned polyamory, unhygienic sexual parties, loneliness that destroys the soul. “Back on Earth, meanwhile, the exaggerated pandemic makes you laugh:” The hashtag #byeeee was trending in the US. “
The philosophical reflections imparted everywhere are equally contemptuous, and therefore all the more moving. Angus and his colleagues at the umbrella factory sadly retrace their lives and deaths: “This was another common theme: how none of our fears had made us suffer … We donated to charity, but so rarely and so little that we could tell you the dollar amount. The living cry and the fact that they’ve spent so long worrying about the wrong things: “You worried about a pimple and not the looming stench of your decaying corpse.”
In its epic scope that traces this life and beyond, Here Goes Nothing functions as an intelligent social commentary on our fossil fuel-filled, warmongering, information-obsessed, and pandemic riddled world. It’s a very topical 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 people are sad … I’ve seen the best minds of the world. my generation destroyed by relentless self-esteem and a dopamine addiction feedback loop. Nothing really goes here.