When the first glutinous life form took its faltering steps out of the primordial soup and onto dry land, it popped on a metaphorical timer that counted down to humanity evolving enough to worry about the meaning of it all, who’s responsible and what happens to us after we’re gone.
Booker Prize-shortlisted Australian author Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole) answers some, if not all, of these questions in his third novel, Here Goes Nothing. It’s mainly narrated by everyman Angus Mooney, following the unfortunate event of his own murder. He had hit a sweet spot in life, after moving in with woo-woo marriage celebrant Gracie, and there’s a baby on the way.
The arrival of creepy retired doctor Owen Fogel disrupts their short-lived bliss. He convinces them to let him move in and live out the final days of his terminal illness in the house where he grew up, on the promise of them inheriting his wealth. All of which leads, circuitously, towards Angus waking up in the afterlife.
It turns out that life is just as quotidian in the slightly grimmer, oppressively bureaucratic next plane that awaits roughly two-thirds of the dead – no one knows what happens to the rest. War rumbles on and the newly arrived are still expected to work for a living.
Given that many denizens of this drab world met unfortunate ends, there’s a great deal of mental anguish. The half-answers offered here only exacerbate the great questions of life. McDonald’s persists, but God is not in the building.
Back on Earth, a global pandemic is unleashed when an ancient wolf is dug up from the Siberian tundra. Dubbed the “good boy disease”, it imperils Gracie and her newborn even as she falls into a relationship with Fogel, despite suspecting him of foul play. The mass death that follows the pandemic leads to overcrowding in the afterlife and also the novel’s sharpest commentary, as talk of internment camps and worse solutions are exhumed. One guard grumbles of the newly dead, “They won’t assimilate.”
Jumping between the preamble to Angus’s murder and the aftermath from both his and Gracie’s perspectives, Toltz relishes toying with the sneaking suspicion that we, as a species, are on the road to nowhere. Fusing sci-fi tropes with crime fiction and a wickedly Douglas Adams-like glee in the absurd, the result is ferociously witty and increasingly bleak.
Hamish Hamilton, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Here Goes Nothing, Steve Toltz".
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