Steve Toltz’s new novel (only his third in 14 years; he’s a slow producer) could be a merry riff on the phrase “the suburbs of hell”. The narrator Angus Mooney (“people call me Mooney”) informs us that he’s dead from the start, and no one could be more disgruntled to discover there’s life after death. What’s more, he soon realises that his fellow wraiths have no more clue than the living about the existence of God. Just like his native Sydney, the afterlife features strip malls, depressing pubs, crummy apartment blocks and dead-end jobs — it turns out a stiff still needs money to get by.
Mooney is the sort of wittily disaffected, downbeat character we’ve met before in Toltz’s fiction. (His debut, A Fraction of the Whole, was shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize.) As Mooney relates his experiences up to and including his sudden, violent demise, he indulges a taste for mordant observation. “Of course things get easier with time. That’s how desensitisation to pain works.” There are churches and mosques in Lagaria, as this city of the dead is named, but Angus never had much time for religion to begin with. “They never let you forget that Jesus is dead, that it was foul play, and that you’re the main suspect.”
Before meeting his wife Gracie back on Earth, Mooney was a petty criminal: “Nothing too violent. Shoplifting. Minor drug-dealing. A few home invasions. The occasional mugging.” Gracie is an unconventional marriage celebrant who has gained a cult following for her sardonic, borderline insulting wedding speeches, and Angus gladly gives up his life of crime to become her videographer.
The arrival on their doorstep of a terminally ill stranger named Owen Fogel presents an easier way to make money. Awash with nostalgia, Owen wishes to die in his childhood home, even pointing out the step where his own father took a fatal tumble. In return, he will gift the couple a fortune in his will. Once Owen is installed in the spare room they realise he’s unbearably annoying and in no hurry to croak. Mooney certainly has no inkling that he will be the one to die first.
Now relocated to his afterlife, Mooney continues to drift around, until he discovers a technology that will allow him to return in ghostly form to check on his pregnant wife and annoying houseguest. The effect is glitchy, and the procedure, involving catheters, is ruinously expensive, necessitating a return to street robbery in an attempt to raise funds.
Despite the lengthy gap Toltz tends to leave between publications, this shows clear signs of being a pandemic novel; either that or he’s a clever prognosticator. One effect of the virus sweeping the Earth is a ghostly refugee crisis; more souls are arriving in Lagaria than can be easily processed and housed (this is perhaps a sardonic sidelong glance at Australia’s own well-documented problems with refugees). Against such a backdrop of strife, Mooney finds solace with Valeria, a rape and murder victim, “How did you die?” being the new “How do you do?”.
Reversing the ghost story so the haunting is seen from the ghost’s perspective is a neat touch, and while literary characters have been popping into the underworld since at least the time of Homer, Toltz refreshingly posits an afterlife without any religious scaffolding. To paraphrase Voltaire, to live twice is no more interesting than to live once. The conceptual framework doesn’t explain how Mooney is able to overhear and narrate post-haunting conversations between Gracie and Owen that take place after he has dematerialised, but we don’t need to quibble.
As the story zigzags on its relentless satirical and metaphysical course, Toltz conjures up scenes few other novelists would dare to imagine, let alone write. In an astonishing, bloody and literally gut-churning scene, Gracie gives birth against the backdrop of societal collapse; somehow it’s a cheering endorsement of collective human ingenuity and compassion, and a brief moment of joy before the darkness sets in once more.
Watching the dastardly Owen hold the child he will never be able to touch, Mooney is left contemplating the fragility of the human psyche as a vehicle in which to spend eternity. Yet there is a kind of deserving goodness to him despite his dodgy morality and self-absorption. For such a misanthrope, he’s entertaining company.
In a book full of narrative tricks, Toltz saves the best, or strangest, for last, with a coda that feels so arbitrary it’s as though there was a muddle with the binding at the printers, and an entirely different work has been interpolated. The final pages come off like a reverse of the trick Ian McEwan played in Atonement, which began with a lengthy passage written in a consciously low generic style.
It’s a puzzling way to wrap up, but perhaps what Toltz is getting at is the very impossibility of imposing a narrative on anything so messy and meaningless as human existence — or indeed the universe itself.
Here Goes Nothing by Steve Toltz, Sceptre £18.99/Melville House Publishing $27.99, 384 pages
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