Underworldly wise

A man haunts his previous existence from the afterlife in this smart, entertaining rumination on life and death







What if the afterlife is no glamorous inferno, celestial paradise or reincarnation lottery but a bureaucratic nightmare, overfull and under-resourced, where you remember your death but have a second one to look forward to after a fresh round of ageing and disease? Worst of all, what if you had to get a job there – manufacturing umbrellas, say – in order to pay for basic goods and drink away your woes as it dawns on you that nobody in this realm knows what’s going on? Steve Toltz’s fabulously impressive third novel, following the 2008 Booker-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole and 2015’s Quicksand, cannonballs straight into heady existential questions, magicking up a vision of human life at once generous and absurd while wearing its considerable ambition lightly. Very lightly. A few pages in, realising that the story is told in a compulsively jokey, determined-to-impress voice with even the dialogue consisting entirely of well-timed one-liners and off-the-cuff aphorisms, I groaned: “Oh Christ – 400 pages.” But a headstrong novelist sets the parameters of their own realism, and soon the style clicked. Once it did, I struggled to keep track of how much there was to admire in Toltz’s relentlessly lively sentences, offbeat insights and unfaltering narrative energy. Like Kevin Spacey’s character at the start of American Beauty, our narrator Angus Mooney announces straight off the bat that he is dead. He finds this condition acutely embarrassing, having in life “put all my eggs in the basket of bodily death and personality extinction” only to find himself rudely awakened in an affrontingly mundane hereafter. Angus’s pre-death career was not distinguished: brought up by foster parents, he fell into petty crime and substance abuse but cleaned up his act and found love in his early 40s with Gracie. A wilful and opinionated woman with new age tendencies, you’d call her a force of nature if it weren’t for her addiction to virtual life: “She couldn’t put down her fucking phone. And, worse, my wife had a ‘social media presence’.” Very online Gracie emotes, opines and aphorises (“I believe the only thing worse than being sexually objectified is not being sexually objectified”) while promoting her business as a marriage celebrant, paid to make subversively candid speeches at weddings. Later, she will also give speeches at births and then, as a far worse pandemic than Covid-19 tears across the planet, at ritual suicides, paying tribute to the human race. These caustically comic disquisitions give Toltz a platform for Swiftian state-of-thespecies appraisals. “We declared moral bankruptcy and kept on spending!” “Admit it. We were only at our best when we were on MDMA.” In interviews, Toltz has namechecked such leading miserabilists as the aphorist EM Cioran and the misanthrope’s misanthrope Thomas Bernhard, while one of Here Goes Nothing’s epigraphs is from the more obscure Peter Wessel Zapffe, who took philosophical pessimism to its death-metal extreme. An engagement with the great “No” to life is clearly part of his intellectual apparatus, but Toltz is too much of a humorist to throw his weight fully into naysaying, and raises wisecracking to something like the status of a worldview. After Gracie becomes pregnant, an odious old man named Owen Fogel weasels his way into their home. Owen admits that Hobbes’s description of life as nasty, brutish and short could also describe him as a person. But by the time Angus comes to suspect him of ulterior motives, he’s already being murdered. Getting his bearings in the afterworld, Angus learns that he’s cast up in Lagaria, a “provincial outpost between two medium-sized cities”. In this tawdry parallel dimension, harried volunteers struggle to process the influx of freshly deceased; the hereafter’s strained civic infrastructure calls to mind the refugee crisis to which Toltz’s native Australia has responded with especial callousness. However, though Here Goes Nothing perpetually threatens to commit to allegory, it is better served by the ambiguity it maintains. In alternating chapters, Angus narrates his habituation to Lagaria and keeps pained tabs on Gracie and Owen. The afterlife conceit gives the joker Toltz ample opportunities for ironic reversal and laser-guided quip – “Are you ready?” “I died ready” – while also allowing his first-person narration to transition easefully into third-person omniscience. Drinking at the excellently named bar the Bitter in Soul, the dead struggle to accept their lot: “Dying had brought many of us to the brink of suicide. We were ashamed of our lives and now we were ashamed of our afterlives.” Romantic possibility is a lacklustre mirror to its pre-mortal variant: “Wearying monogamy, empty casual sex, doomed polyamory, unhygienic sex parties, soul-destroying solitude. Even here, there wasn’t a single additional option.” Learning of a backstreet dealer who can arrange interdimensional trips facilitated by DMT injection and immersion in a flotation tank, Angus spends his wages compulsively haunting his former home. These emotionally charged multiverse voyages reminded me of Brit Marling’s sublime Netflix series The OA, though where that show opted for kamikaze earnestness, Toltz’s comic yet gnostic vision echoes Milan Kundera’s ambition for the novel: “To bring together the extreme gravity of the question and the extreme lightness of the form.” Toltz takes his time with each book – new ones have appeared at seven-year intervals – and Here Goes Nothing is a funny, clever, entertaining argument in favour of cultivating the patience to get it right.