May 2022

Arts & Letters

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

By Richard Cooke

© Nigel Bluck

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Steve Toltz is an isolate of Australian literature. He has no readily traceable ancestors locally, and admirers but no imitators, perhaps because his style is too distinctive to borrow. The international inspirations he has name-checked – Jane Bowles, Clarice Lispector, Roberto Bolaño – are detectable in his work only in trace quantities, and his sensibility comes with a distinctly northern hemisphere pedigree: European modernist pessimism, as told through American comedy. Only his settings remain antipodean. He has lived overseas for many years (various European capitals, the French countryside, Park Slope and then Los Angeles), yet his novels are all set in Australian suburbia, the jurisdiction of his memory.

Here Goes Nothing is his third book (following on from A Fraction of the Whole and Quicksand), and the publicity accompanying the latest attempts something rare. It groups these novels together into a trilogy, retroactively: according to the press release, the whole of Toltz’s output stands as a thematic triptych, a “trilogy of fear”. A Fraction of the Whole is about fear of death. Quicksand is about fear of suffering. And Here Goes Nothing is about “fear of the opinions of others”. That’s not really a four horsemen–grade terror, and reads more like one of the author’s signature meta jokes, operating on a rule-of-three punchline.

There’s also not much demarcation – all three books are really about fear of death and suffering, and each of them holds the same blackly comic gaze. Quicksand began life as a 300-page bolus excised from A Fraction of the Whole, and Here Goes Nothing has a similarly intimate relationship with its siblings. Here, as in the rest, characters are drawn from a segment of the upper-middle underclass: bastards, petty crims and the half-cooked. It has the same morbid fascinations as its predecessors, and its plot passes as a familiar parade of grotesqueries, a kind of tap-danse macabre.

Above all, it brims with antic one-liners. Toltz’s truest literary relative might be Woody Allen (it’s not surprising he moonlights as a screenwriter), and most of the novel’s moving parts function either as a set-up or a punchline. The gags range from aphoristic, occasionally almost koan-like, to “you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps” coffee-mug material. They’re also pervasive. Every Steve Toltz character speaks with the same voice, and it is the voice of Steve Toltz, cracking wise. It’s a ubiquity that somehow mimics the texture of life – one damn thing after another – and at its best it can make Here Goes Nothing profound. But with much of the book set either in the afterlife or the apocalypse the effect is singular, like The Seventh Seal remade as a Naked Gun movie.

From a technical standpoint, these books are authorial dictatorships, one-voice nation states that now stand as a small confederation. They create an artistic order in exchange for characters giving up certain rights. Either you’re a reader who likes the jokes or not, and if not, you should do something else (maybe try the veal). That would be true for critics as well, except that a love-it-or-leave-it reading can’t account for Toltz’s relationship with a wider culture, especially when the novel is billed as “a moving meditation on our 21st century world”. That relationship has changed, and not for the better.

In the first two novels this solo production with sock-puppets was fecund, and in the passages it became gruelling it took the reader into the realm of anti-comedy and made its repetitions Pinteresque. Characters talking at cross-purposes, turning over their phrases. There is a shift in Here Goes Nothing that begins to push the monologue, by proxy, towards monotone. While there is a wider range of characters, minor and major, and a more diverse selection of both direct and paraphrased speech, the Toltz voice is applied more liberally still. Direct, indirect, quoted, posted online, in eulogies, from the mouths of babes and barflies, it begins to feel like an all-purpose sealant that has seeped into the novel’s every crevice.

Roughly half of Here Goes Nothing is narrated by Angus Mooney, a reformed petty criminal who has cultivated his ignorance with care. Angus is a sceptic, courtesy of his laziness and incuriosity, and only his partner, Gracie, who roasts couples as a wedding celebrant, gives him a peek at the eternal. Her witchy New Ageism gets at something truer and deeper than his unstudied atheism. Together, they take in a lodger, a terminally ill man named Owen, who bribes them into letting him die in their house. Owen welshes on the deal and murders Angus instead (this spoiler is on the book jacket).

Angus is surprised, and then a little sheepish to find himself in a real, live afterlife. Death is not only another country but another city, a necropolis called Lagaria. It’s a suitably Swiftian name for a place defined by ironic anti-climax. “There was nothing mind-boggling about it,” Angus realises. “It was petty, bureaucratic.” More purgatorial than hellish, it offers “an embarrassing number of epiphanies per capita”, and little respite. It’s the kind of place where Sisyphus would hold a mildly unpleasant office job with the Department of Boulders.

The idea of death as rest from work is very ancient (its appearance in the Book of Revelation, where the blessed dead “may rest from their labours”, reflects a much older Jewish tradition), and Toltz has fun undermining this hope. Lagaria is undignified, full of drudgery, errands, feuds, cancer and death (again). “Our major export is wheat and iron ore, crime rates are low, unemployment is high, euthanasia is encouraged, there’s no rainy season and the leading cause of death is murder-suicide,” a guide announces. Fresh arrivals in the underworld establish seamy, trans-dimensional rip-offs of Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Here Goes Nothing has a ghost narrate the story from limbo, only instead of passing on wisdom, Angus refuses to learn anything, even posthumously. He half-arses his orientation in Lagaria, finds work at an umbrella factory and eases into a relationship of convenience with one of his fellow deceased, a wannabe actor. Meanwhile, Owen sleazes onto Gracie, who doesn’t know he’s the man who killed her husband. She is also pregnant, and Angus can’t resist visiting her, which means haunting her. With the help of a special technological apparatus, he visits her as a ghost. (“Actually, the PC term is spectrenaut.”)

This is a scenario of classical comedic irony – two couples made up of the wrong sets of lovers – and Toltz makes a brilliant advance by bridging it over both sides of the grave. The plot takes on the same kind of inverted symmetry as his jokes (“We had wasted our lives – must we waste our deaths too?”) and climbs to a further absurdity when Lagaria suffers a refugee crisis. Earth is already in a kind of preliminary dystopia, the type where arsonists in Canada are setting fire to solar-powered fields of artificial sunflowers, and when there’s a pandemic it descends into full apocalypse. The dead arrive in the afterlife in numbers that cannot be readily absorbed into Lagaria’s already run-down sepulchral society, resulting in protests and violence.

Toltz was writing about a pandemic before COVID-19 struck, and what at first seems like prescience might have been bad luck instead. It has become a half-truism that pandemics are no good for literature, and that the Spanish Flu in particular left no lasting trace on the prose of its era. Virginia Woolf said so at the time: in “On Being Ill” she called for a new language of literature in which “love must be deposed in favour of a temperature of 104”. Two characters in Here Goes Nothing lay out the counterargument:

“One of the world’s most famous literary works was written during a plague. That’s my answer. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

“For art, you mean.”

“Yes.”

They’re talking about Boccaccio’s Decameron, which did create a new language of literature, one predicated on more realistic dialogue and a wider range of register. In our own plague period, Toltz’s house style feels less fit for purpose. It approaches the reality of COVID through a few different gambits: analogy, direct reference, some lampooning and another, more virulent, pandemic of the author’s invention. The malady, known as Good Boy Disease, has its zoonotic origin in dogs and a fatality rate of 100 per cent. Despite this array, Here Goes Nothing can’t shake a sense of impatience with COVID, as though its arrival part-way in the process was an inconvenience.

That inconvenience is real. It foists topicality onto a form of humour that doesn’t bear it well. It’s never clear if “the last pandemic” before Good Boy Disease is COVID or not: it shares some of its features (“all that gruelling isolation and silly panic buying and overeating – the Fattening, they’d called it”) and diverges on others (“the only good thing about the last pandemic had been the post-vaccine orgies and when those activists set fire to all the cruise ships”). But it’s close enough that there’s substantial overlap, and it’s here that the insistent authorial leg-pulling starts to feel more like sleeve-tugging.

It’s an odd juxtaposition. The stakes are high – not only life and death but a historical juncture of mass-suffering – and yet a pan-demographic selection of the dead (“men and women, white, black, Middle Eastern, Asian … the youngest was in their twenties, the oldest mid-seventies”) all talk the same way. Both the dramatis personae and their speech can feel interchangeable, as though the one-liners came into existence prior to the book, or even independently of it, and were then distributed at random. This breeds problems for dialogue too: a character must inevitably take their turn as the straight man in a double act, and when they do, they rely on phatic speech. “That’s a good question,” “Ugh,” “I’m with you,” et cetera. The result is a slew of interchanges that stall in that gap between responses and reactions.

More pressingly, this “always on” approach also breaks the texture of the plot. Whether the occasion is a birth, death or marriage, the novel sends a comedy telegram, and that’s mostly fine (there’s no use complaining when it’s tasteless, for example – that’s the point). And perhaps a doctor might say “the fucking nocebo effect has got me … It’s the medical explanation for the worst self-fulfilling prophecy ever” as they approached the departure lounge. But would they say it while suffering from dementia? And then have a partner leave a newborn in their care? Toltz’s tumult, which previously matched the quickstep tempo of modernity, can’t seem to modulate.

Quicksand had a gallows humour that could align more closely with the hangman than the condemned, and that strain of misanthropy is here as well. It generates both scabrous wit and misfires, and in Here Goes Nothing some of those misfires ricochet. When Gracie goes into labour, she posts online that “It is not incorrect to say that mothers who die in childbirth have been fucked to death.” The Wildean litotes can’t hide that it is incorrect, and here we catch Toltz flirting, perhaps for the first time, with the jaded tedium of the chronic provocateur.

It would be pedantic to dwell on these clangers, but some of their essence is shared by the novel’s sensibility. Toltz uses the old Tom Sharpe trick of palming off reactionary views to female characters – Gracie has a yen to “weaponise people’s inability to hear a dissenting view”, and indulges it by getting cancelled on social media:

Something about this reminded Gracie how penguins will push their fellow travellers in the sea to make their own path clear of predators. Aimee posted: “Check your privilege.” Grace responded: “I checked it about three days ago and again this morning. It’s simply not practical to check my privilege AND confirm to you that I checked it as a preface to each and every sentence I write.”

Before we can remember that penguins don’t have fellow travellers unless they’re communists, there’s more:

Gracie posted: “Why do we give credence to ‘lived experience’? … How can anyone know enough about every individual’s psychological state to confirm how much of their inner subjective experience corresponds with objective reality? Maybe it’s seventy percent. Maybe it’s eighty percent. Maybe it’s thirty percent. Let it be said once and for all: lived experience as an evidentiary standard is mostly garbage.”

It’s odd, as a major novelist, to survey the world undergoing biblical afflictions, and then preach the gospel of the Reply Guy. The critique of the static and self-satisfied tone on social media gets more traction. “[W]orldwide chaos wasn’t tempering the resentful tone or altering any of her friends’ and followers’ trenchant positions,” Gracie realises. “It was more or less the same unbearable people, with their unbearable opinions and the unbearable manner in which they expressed them – the morally bankrupt on the right, the morally confused on the left, and one least charitable interpretation after another.”

And that’s just the trouble with Here Goes Nothing: the circumstances of this moment haven’t changed Toltz’s voice. Instead they have multi-tracked it, doubled or tripled it, until it becomes a wall of sound that drowns out everything else. There’s an adage that you should review the book that’s been written, not the one you wish had been written and it’s good advice. But this time there are traces of the book I wish had been written still visible inside this one, buried beneath the feet of the author-as-colossus.

Whenever Here Goes Nothing stops to breathe, it’s invigorated. Toltz is resistant to metaphor, and the rash of things-being-like-other-things that afflicts so much contemporary prose (he even takes a long-range pot shot at it: in Lagaria, “everyone had a metaphor or a simile – they were endless”). By contrast, his own observations glimmer with purpose. There is a nervy, solicitous chaplain who delivers a sermon “mostly about the business of being a chaplain, with a special emphasis on drumming up future business”; a drab apartment that smells of “conflicting air fresheners”; a bartender who turns up music that is “obviously his personal sex playlist”; the villain who opens a door in a “parody of gallantry”.

This exceptional narratorial gift is seldom used, a perplexing absence that might be explained by another current in the culture. The critic Merve Emre has spoken about the rise of “autoeverything” in present-day writing, the bleed of autofiction and autotheory into a pervasive first-person industrial complex, and Here Goes Nothing might be understood as an autosatire in this mode. In earlier works the solipsism was benign, and added to the comedy. It has matured into something more durational; ballast in the pockets tends to the leaden rather than the weighty. I’m not sure Steve Toltz could write a bad novel, but he can write a lesser one, especially in “our 21st century world”, which continues to endure not a Fattening, but a grievous thinning.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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