Here Goes Nothing
Hamish Hamilton, $32.99 pb, 373 pp
What happens when we die? Human curiosity about the afterlife has inspired countless artists and storytellers from the earliest myths through to Dante and Boccaccio. More recently we’ve had Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), as well as sitcoms like Netflix’s philosophical The Good Place and Amazon’s capitalist dystopia Upload, and now Steve Toltz’s alternately bleak and bonkers take in Here Goes Nothing.
Here Goes Nothing is the third volume in Toltz’s thematic ‘trilogy of fear’, a voluble sequence of dark comic novels that Toltz has described as ‘spiritual autobiographies’. The books variously explore the fear of death (the Booker-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole, 2008), the fear of life and suffering (Quicksand, 2015) and now, the fear of the opinions of others (with a variety of other fears thrown in for good measure). The tone is set from the beginning as a character sardonically reflects: ‘Nobody was ever thinking about me. Now that I’m dead, I dwell on this kind of thing a lot’. He goes on to question why he wasn’t more experimental sexually when he was alive: ‘So what if I was heterosexual? Don’t most vegetarians eat fish?’
Toltz has always liked exploring philosophical and metaphysical questions in his fiction. In Here Goes Nothing, he takes this predilection in new and sometimes unexpected directions. The novel is presented in two intertwined narratives. The first follows occasional petty criminal and former foster child Angus Mooney as he wakes up in an unexpectedly bureaucratic version of the afterlife, where his harried ‘welcome clerk’ offers him an ‘Interim Death Certificate’ and an envelope full of discount vouchers. Angus is shocked to realise that he was wrong about life after death, and to discover that he is now existing as his ‘quintessential self’ in an unsettling place where he worries there may be ‘more human centipedes than centipedes’. This version of the afterlife is compelling, although many of the lingering questions the reader may have about its workings are glossed over when Angus conveniently misses his orientation session.
The second storyline is set in a perturbing near-future Sydney. While mostly recounted posthumously by Angus, this narrative begins a little while before his death when the ‘owlish’ Owen Fogel rings the doorbell of the house where Angus and his wife, Gracie, live and asks to be shown around ‘for old time’s sake’. Owen soon inveigles his way into their domestic lives as an unorthodox houseguest. For a while, Gracie, Angus, and Owen make an entertainingly unlikely trio. Gracie is an unconventional marriage celebrant with a mild social media addiction. She and Angus met when she officiated his best friend’s wedding, cheerfully haranguing the bemused couple before offering them a list of ‘survival tools’ including ‘No bathroom lightbulbs over 40 watts!’ Unlike Angus, who is a ‘total and shameless sceptic’, Gracie is naturally curious and open to spiritual and supernatural possibilities. Angus is more circumspect and easily embarrassed than his gloriously blunt wife, but his self-consciousness pales in comparison with Owen’s, which causes the latter to be mortified by almost everything, from New Year resolutions to ice-cream. Meanwhile, there are troubling news reports about an ancient virus that has started to infect domestic dogs in Greenland after the discovery of a Pleistocene wolf.
Sometime-screenwriter Toltz gleefully ignores the old Hollywood maxim about killing dogs with the creation of the ‘K9 virus’ (also known as ‘the Siberian flu, or Man’s Best Virus, or the Good Boy Disease’), a plague that has arrived nipping at the heels of the now vanquished Covid-19 though exponentially more deadly. For the first part of the novel, this new pandemic plays out mostly in the background, but the ramifications become increasingly urgent as Owen’s illness and Gracie’s pregnancy progress.
Fans of Toltz’s previous two novels will find much to appreciate here. In a 2015 interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Toltz observed that ‘one’s style is like one’s smell … it is what it is, and it’s applied to whatever the story is.’ This is certainly the case for this sequence of novels. Although not explicitly connected, these frenetic, questioning, list-filled narratives share an idiosyncratic flavour and could all take place in the same universe (which would raise interesting questions about the fate of one character in Quicksand who came to believe he was immortal). Certain Toltzean archetypes recur, including that of the dangerous mentor, and Toltz again deploys a mixture of different writing styles and formats. Online reviews and social media posts are used to great effect, especially a harrowing livestream. Big questions are explored through a mix of dark humour, unexpected situations, and zingy one-liners. Group therapy sessions and religious services in the afterlife are a highlight.
Toltz covers a lot of ground in Here Goes Nothing, offering filibustering commentary on a miscellany of ideas including the importance of ritual, the cult-like aspects of work, the ethics of haunting, and musings on magnetism. The worlds he creates are vivid and compelling. From Heidegger to Roald Dahl, allusions and references abound, while in the afterlife long-dead artists create new works of varying quality. That death is not necessarily the end does lower the stakes a little, but there are times where this is an undeniable relief.
Here Goes Nothing is dizzying and sometimes dazzling. Though the darkness of the content might discourage some readers (lethal plagues, countless deaths, environmental degradation, war, the bleak inscrutability of bureaucracy, and the abject plight of ‘interdimensional refugees’), Toltz’s humour seldom falters. Instead, he wields invention like a torch as he highlights and moves past a diabolical number of questions and concepts, dropping aphorisms and observations like embers.