Limping through a worldwide pandemic spiked with fresh threats of nuclear war, you may be craving a book to cheer you up.
An Australian author who lives in Los Angeles, Toltz attracted an international audience with his chaotic debut, “A Fraction of the Whole,” which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008. His second novel, “Quicksand,” also careened through an absurd catalogue of misfortunes. And now with “Here Goes Nothing,” he’s taken his misanthropic shtick into the Great Beyond.
We meet the narrator, Angus, when he’s already dead. The grave has clarified one important theological point — if only by failing to bring everything to a close. In life, Angus admits, he was sure that “the very notion of an immortal soul was only a way to avoid facing our imminent trip to Nowhere. It’s humiliating how wrong you can be.”
This is a comedy that takes the tragedy of immortality seriously. It flips the fear of oblivion on its head to meditate on the terrifying suspicion that “the abyss of eternal nothingness was just a pipedream.”
Angus is — was? — a petty criminal who’d finally settled down, more or less, with a quirky woman named Gracie. Theirs was a marriage of opposites. Angus harbored bitter skepticism. “People are always trying to count your blessings for you,” he says, “but their arithmetic is way off.” Gracie, meanwhile, cultivates a deep faith in the whole pantheon of spirituality — from Ganesh and the Virgin to ghosts and angels. For a living, she performs ironic marriage ceremonies: half roast, half blessing; somewhere between throwing rice and knives.
In the opening pages of the novel, a new virus has leaped from dogs to human beings and is dragging 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 pass away here in these familiar rooms. Being an old softy, Gracie agrees, but Angus can see through this scheme. So the stranger kills him.
Trouble is, that’s not the end of this novel — or of Angus. While his widow carries on bravely, wondering how her husband died, Angus finds himself in an afterlife that looks like a depressed town in the 1970s. “Who would conceive of a place so banal?” Angus wonders. “There were powerlines and storm drains and stop signs and garbage trucks and pot holes and men catcalling women.” No philosopher, no religion, no Renaissance painter had come close to predicting this drab netherworld. Confronted by a seamless continuation of the same political, social and personal absurdity they endured in life, these souls grow jealous of “zombies with their outdoor living and their simple diets.”
There is no ambrosia here, just bad coffee. Instead of getting wings and a harp, Angus is assigned to a job in an umbrella factory. “We had wasted our lives,” he thinks. “Must we waste our deaths too?” And, worst of all, he’s still depressed and constipated. “The ordinariness of it was faintly distressing,” Angus says. “I sat there, straining, thinking, Really? This again?”
The worldwide pandemic and our bungling efforts to control it aren’t the story’s only contemporary allusions. There’s also a veiled swipe at the MAGA crowd when the dead folks 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 near the end of his life, Toltz is writing with a pen warmed up in hell. Beneath its wry surface, “Here Goes Nothing” is a relentless deconstruction of religious certainty and spiritual affirmation. “If there was a God,” Angus says, “it was clear he had an avoidant personality.” The insight and clarity that so many faith traditions promise on the other side is burned away in the endless cycles of Toltz’s plot. “No one had an answer,” Angus laments. “At this point, could there be anything viler than purporting to know the meaning of eternity? Could we ever again trust anyone in a position of religious authority?”
Clever lines drop down on these pages like flowers thrown on a casket. But a plot about the eternally static nature of reality risks being infected by its own lack of progress. Having underlined so many of Toltz’s clever quips, I kept running up against the question of what this mound of philosophical pessimism amounts to? It’s hard to shake the impression that Toltz and Angus are spinning on the same ground.
Behind this zany, increasingly dark comedy, though, lies a wry rejection of the persistent hope that death will either snuff us out or make us better by serving up justice, solace, salvation, revelation, something. In Toltz’s pages, imperishability doesn’t convey any transformation at all. The bad news is that improving ourselves is still and forever up to us alone.
Ron Charles writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
Melville House. 375 pp. $27.99
A note to our readers
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.