Here Goes Nothing
Beautiful world, where are you? The title of a little-known novel from a certain Mayo writer, yes, but also a question that seems central to contemporary fiction at home and abroad. Sara Baume’s Seven Steeples, Aifric Campbell’s The Love Makers, Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, and now the Australian author Steve Toltz’s Here Goes Nothing, which has mostly given up on this world and looks instead to what’s coming next.
Billed as a mash-up of the American TV 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 afterlife.
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. An acclaimed second novel, Quicksand, appeared seven years later. It has taken him the same length of time to publish Here Goes Nothing, which comes in at nearly 400 pages but reads shorter – one mark of a skilled writer. Another is that Toltz wears his existentialist subject matter lightly, with a tone that is heavily ironic, droll and bittersweet, as his protagonist Angus Mooney looks back on his 40-odd years on Earth from an afterlife best described as quite like Earth but much worse .
For example: a landscape that is ugly and overpopulated, terrible accommodation in noisy halfway houses, “a suffocating atmosphere of sleazy panic”, a shopping card with only enough money for bread and raisins, until Angus accepts a job making umbrellas in a production line : “I thought of all those people who had worked themselves into an early grave and were then marched from the cemetery right back to the office.”
The pace of both storylines zips along, 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 go on to something worse.
Toltz throws us a few carrots. Illnesses and injuries are reset, injustices are swiftly dealt with, there’s a bar called The Bitter Soul and a trippy dimension-travelling machine that lets Angus connect with his former life on Earth.
This second backdrop is arguably the most interesting. Back home Angus’s wife, Gracie, is pregnant with his child from her and trying to manage her grief from her while the world is hit by a pandemic with an 89 per cent fatality rate. Also in the picture is Owen, a middle-aged doctor dying of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, who murdered Angus in order to shack up with Gracie. While some of the scene set-ups could do with pruning, the pace of both storylines zips along, in an energetic narrative full of unexpected twists.
Even in the direst of situations, all three characters have agency, another smart choice by Toltz. Gracie is a no-nonsense wedding officiant who delivers her own baby by c-section, watched by millions of online fans around the world. Owen is a villain with great ingenuity and no ethics, which is to say, good value. Angus is a Luddite who likes being uninformed, “the more I know, the less I understand.” He takes his new status from him as ghost – sorry, PC term: spectrenaut – 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 USA’
The book is very funny, with plenty of slick dialogue and one-liners: “’So I am dead?’ ‘You’re definitely on the spectrum.’ … Being alive – an offense punishable by death every time.” Elsewhere, Angus is disappointed to discover that afterlife dating is much the same as ever: “Wearying monogamy, empty casual sex, doomed polyamory, unhygienic sex parties, soul-destroying solitude.” Back on Earth, meanwhile, the exaggerated pandemic is played for laughs: “The hashtag #byeeee was trending in the USA.”
The philosophical musings imparted throughout are equally cavalier, and all the more affecting for it. Angus and his co-workers at the umbrella factory look back wistfully on their lives and deaths: “That was another common theme – how none of our fears had done us in…We gave to charity, but so rarely and so little that we could tell you the dollar amount.” They mourn the living, and the fact that they spent so much time caring about the wrong things: “You worried about a pimple and not the looming stench of your rotting corpse.”
In its epic scope charting this life and beyond, Here Goes Nothing works as a smart social commentary on our fossil fuel-guzzling, warmongering, information-obsessed, pandemic-riddled world. It is a hugely timely book on the dangers of the way we live today, a dose of much-needed medicine sweetened with enough humor and panache to make it digestible: “The world is ugly, and the people are sad… I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by unceasing self-regard and a dopamine-addiction feedback loop.” Here goes nothing indeed.