/ 30 August 2022

Here Goes Nothing: Novel holds mirror to our social egos with sharp humour

Third episode: Author Steve Toltz explores themes such as love, death, religion, dread and angst in his latest novel ‘Here Goes Nothing’. Photo: Nigel Bluck

Here Goes Nothing is a curious aphorism for Steve Toltz’s new novel’s title. The two main themes of his previous works centred around what he calls “fear of life” (first novel), and “fear of death” (second novel). 

Toltz reveals in an interview that this third offering deals more closely with the fear of “public opinion”. As a colloquial expression, “here goes nothing” captures a middle-of-the-road sense — a tentative attitude. No matter how we skin this Toltz cat, one thing is for sure — the phrase lets us in on the kernel of the novel’s preoccupation. 

The book dives deep into existentialist issues and does so with outstanding lyricism for prose work. Rivalling Dante’s Divine Comedy, according to UK novelist Rob Doyle, the book may as well be an instant classic — for how it curates themes such as love, death, religion, dread and angst with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour. 

If you love big ideas, this is a jam. There’s something easy, seasoned and self-assured about the writer. What makes Toltz’s emplotment strategy ballsy, and its “existential crisis” disquisition charming, is not merely its audacity to fling a literary Molotov at tightly clasped and enduring beliefs of our species. Over and above its dose of cynicism regarding our  biases, the work holds a mirror to our social egos with its insightful humour. 

The novel helps us reflect. It is a work with near-comedic routines, albeit caustic punchlines. Because we must laugh at ourselves even when it pains us.

Drawing on the indeterminacy of the title, one might be curious to understand how the novel, by riding on this “devil-may-care” core, marshals its poetics, how the story condenses and disseminates its protocols of persuasion in character, plot and the main event. 

The existential contingency of the novel is in its anti-hero paradigm, how it peels at atheism onion-layers and dances with a cadence of cynicism, counter-culture and counter-normative mores (aspects of life the author explores). With these, the author uproots the reader from the everyday, quotidian plane and plunks them on to a phantasmagoric plane, a dystopian but fully believable world. 

The more than 400-page paperback tour-de-force’s sophistry grows on the reader. To be sure, too quickly, like a bad habit. By the time it gets a little drab and lacklustre, by page 200, you are hooked. And you need the next fix of sometimes three-page or nine-page chapters. You want every banal detail of the characters’ lives.

This co-optation of the reader, by the author, is gentle. As such this dance of author/reader seduction fully immerses the reader in the author’s escapist dreamworld. Cleverly planted are nuggets of sympathy that work to twist the reader’s hand to let go of the rational faculties even as the story is set in a perfectly normal world. 

This keeps the story pacey, romantic but not entirely soapy; otherworldly, but with feet planted in the real. The phantasm hangs on a certain meme of persuasion which makes the story straddle the worlds of fiction and non-fiction. One of these co-conspiratorial co-optations by the author takes place at the transition moments of character and story development.  

Strange mores for everyday life are undermined here. But they are undermined in believable ways. For instance, it is unthinkable that one might confront a stranger on one’s doorstep, and later, though the house owner is reluctant, end up sharing a bedroom with the stranger, sleeping on different beds. 

Such unthinkable occurrences, perhaps even crude encounters, are in great supply in this novel; not so much as vulgar moments but to foreground a certain childlike innocence at the heart of human existence. 

This naive childlike lens, by contrast, bends what might be considered social mores or received notions of right and wrong in our normative life. This confrontation with the rude and the crude gestures towards the naïve in us. It depicts a confrontation with the vulgar;  in other words, a certain Eden-like or pliable originary status. And like all zero-degree investment of social life in mythic and legendary beginnings, it crafts the existential indeterminacy of Toltz’s fantastic world and turns it into a lively and believable social imaginary. 

This believability is the golden thread and a spine into which the author’s otherworldly frame rises and falls. All the characters are dead but are awaiting their pending final death. The art of the writing is to ease the reader into being invested to stay with him as he paints this otherworldly place that is a complete replica of our own.

The writer negotiates our sensibilities as readers to a sanguine disposition. His slow development of the dying-stranger character, someone “agreeable”, and “unthreatening”, adds a dimension to the man, Owen Fogel. As the Mooneys’ dying house guest who has a crush on the protagonist’s wife, Gracie, Dr Owen Fogel gives himself away as possibly an annoying character at best, at worst, frail and weak. 

Owen, who does not reveal to his hosts that he is a medical doctor right away, is someone prone to geriatric seizures and therefore poses no real bodily-harm threat. 

Gracie, the woman of the house, is “anxious” around the strange old man with a bucket list compunction to stop over at her house, his old home, before he dies. Perhaps Gracie is also unnerved — being alone in the house with an old man with “sinewy arms” and a hearing aid. Rather than scared, Gracie comes off as overarchingly annoyed and indignant. “She swallows… a fuck you” when the stranger gets overfamiliar with her. 

It is at the edge of the unreliability of human subjectivity that Steve Toltz huddles us around to think about the strong imaginative human attribute in our everyday lives. By dwelling on death and grappling with the ecology of the here-and-now as well as the afterlife, the novel confronts the fallacy that life’s termination and dissolution present us with solutions and conclusions (when we die). 

In a recent interview, the author reveals that the inconclusive theme of life on which the book stakes its discursive and creative claim is typically postmodernist. This doesn’t mean it is open to any and every interpretation (deconstruction ad infinitum). 

No! Instead, it means the novel’s explorations and preoccupations with the theme of death open vistas of mediation through different sensibilities. This simply means that the way that Toltz engages ideas within a fictive genre makes what is assumed bounded and foreclosed-upon porous.

The whole novel is a work-of-art argument. As Toni Morrison avers, about novels — drawing on Faulkner’s stratagem in Absalom, Absalom — “The structure [of the novel] is the argument.” Toltz succeeds in doing precisely that. 

In an online interview with Carl Bromley, he reveals that the subjects of “love” and “religion”, which are quite prominent in the book, are designed “to fill the same existential dilemma of aloneness”— yet another marker of ideas differently organised; of philosophical treatises designed to toy with reason from “a divergent reason for naming”.

The novel can be read as a compellingly artistic exploration of degenerative brain disorder, a disorder that leads to dementia and, ultimately, death. 

It urges us to consider our childlike illogic not merely as hallmarks of immature reveries. Because, as Toltz argues, it is when the brain degenerates into scrambled eggs that the elements of myth, fiction and make-believe shine as the most golden attributes of our humanity.

Here Goes Nothing by Steven Toltz is published by Sceptre, R450