Reviewed: Here Goes Nothing, Steve Toltz, Penguin
Angus Mooney is dead. This isn’t a spoiler: this is page one of Steve Toltz’s latest novel, Here Goes Nothing. Angus, a wedding videographer with a checkered history, has been murdered, and is immediately thrust into a strange afterlife that isn’t heaven, hell, or even purgatory, while the man who killed him attempts to seduce his wife. As Angus deals with this despair-inducing series of events, the world he left behind is overrun by a new and deadly pandemic, and the rickety and chaotic place he has been forced to inhabit struggles to absorb the resulting influx of arrivals.
For those who loved Toltz’s previous books, the Booker-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole and the Russell Prize-winning Quicksand, Here Goes Nothing delivers what readers have come to expect from Toltz: fast-paced, darkly funny and sharply observed asides, morally ambiguous characters and an unruly plot. Like these earlier works, Here Goes Nothing offers a main cast (plus supporting characters) who pour out idiosyncratic opinions and rhetorical questions—this time including Angus, his wife, Gracie, and his rival, Owen. While this style doesn’t feel quite as fresh as it did as in A Fraction of the Whole, it still provides ample opportunity for satirical blows and fun digressions. ‘Love is a miracle only if you don’t understand what the word miracle means,’ says Gracie, a marriage celebrant. ‘Not all who wander are lost, but most of us are,’ thinks Angus. ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead, but I was,’ says an unnamed resident of the afterlife.
With this continuity in tone, the most significant departure in Here Goes Nothing is that it represents Toltz’s first leap into the fully speculative or supernatural. This could seem like a strange thing to claim when his previous novels are littered with absurdities like folk heroes murdering crooked athletes and the construction of giant labyrinths, but at least half of Here Goes Nothing takes place in Toltz’s version of the afterlife. What he creates is not entirely different to our own world, with Angus encountering bureaucracy, confusing rules, expectations of employment, romantic entanglements and a cavalcade of oddballs with their own stories about death and meaning. Although there is some danger in making the afterlife a bureaucratic nightmare, Toltz avoids tropes as he brings a sharp focus to his characters rather than to procedures and regulations.
One small difficulty is presented by the heightened state of Toltz’s ‘real’ world, which can make it hard to tell just how odd the afterlife is in comparison—even some of its more arcane rules and social interactions could easily turn up in his rendering of our current reality. For this reason, there are early moments where it seems like Here Goes Nothing may retread the thematic and stylistic territory of Toltz’s other novels, with characters filling similar roles to the Jaspers or the Aldos of the past. But the loyalty Angus and Gracie have for one another, despite their bizarre and not necessarily aligned takes on almost everything—and despite the bizarre events of the novel—is refreshing and unexpected, and gives this book a different resonance.
As the various threads of the plot begin to come together, Here Goes Nothing takes on a thrilling momentum. The introduction of an inventive method of connecting life and the afterlife propels the narrative while reinforcing the book’s emotional heart, driving themes of resentment and forgiveness, love and hope, despair and possibility. With its abundance of characters and rules that constantly seem set to unravel, the novel barrels towards its ending and sticks the landing with an almost counterintuitive sense of openness and warmth. Throughout, and even in these closing scenes, it retains its powerfully dark sense of humour and willingness to push its characters to new limits, offering an exciting and otherworldly display of Toltz’s wild imagination.
Scott Limbrick is a writer based in Melbourne. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Overland, Kill Your Darlings’ New Australian Fiction, Westerly, Hobart, the Suburban Review, VICE and others.