Here Goes Nothing
by Steve Toltz
Hamish Hamilton / Penguin Australia
Published May 2022
For Steve Toltz, everything, even death, is a joke. His third novel, Here Goes Nothing,is an afterlife satire for a disenchanted secular world. The protagonist Angus Mooney, an atheist, wakes up after being murdered to find his ‘sneering contempt for the supernatural’ confronted by evidence to the contrary. The title reveals itself as a pun: the ‘nothing’ that ‘goes’ is eternal oblivion.
Here Goes Nothing bears many of the stylistic quirks established in Toltz’s previous novels, Quicksand (2014) and A Fraction of the Whole (2007). His characters may have different professions, worldviews, and backgrounds, but they all speak with the same rib-nudging sarcasm and they approach the subject of death with jocularity. You could take the dialogue from one book and transplant it in another, change the attribution, and it might just fit. In A Fraction of the Whole, Martin Dean obsesses over immortality projects after emerging from a coma. Likewise, Aldo Benjamin from Quicksand endures terrible afflictions throughout his expansively misfortunate life. Aware of these continuities, Toltz stated in early publicity that his novels form a ‘trilogy of fear’, describing A Fraction of the Whole as ‘fear of death’, Quicksand as ‘fear of life’, and Here Goes Nothing as ‘fear of the opinion of others’. There are a number of reasons not to amend ‘fear of the opinion of others’ to the pithier ‘fear of judgement’ – the latter evokes a misfortune or disaster inflicted by the divine to punish sin. This afterlife is godless, overcrowded, subject to entropy and ageing, colonised by bureaucrats, fast-food chains, and menial jobs. No reckonings or grand epiphanies or meetings with the Maker are forthcoming. Instead, Here Goes Nothing presents Mooney’s transmigration of the soul as a kind of sardonic, extended skit: left to our own devices, given agency over our lives after death, would we do things better the second time around?
Here Goes Nothing alternates between Mooney’s first-person point of view in the afterlife and his wife Gracie’s concurrent misfortunes on Earth during a global pandemic that brings forth Armageddon. Gracie and Mooney agree to allow Owen Fogel, an ex-doctor with a terminal brain tumour, to die in their house (which he claims was his family home). Once Owen’s elaborate plot to court Gracie is exposed, he murders Mooney and gets away with it. When Mooney arrives in the afterlife, he continues to disparage believers and eschew all attempts to educate himself about the new plane of existence. As in life, in death he guards his ignorance, which he considers ‘the most underrated of human rights’.
Mooney built up his cynicism as a carapace, we are told, after an unstable childhood in foster homes. He cycled through various families and grew disenchanted with their patchwork of religious and occult beliefs. Through these early misadventures, he cultivates incredulity along with a defensive complex: ‘they either looked at you with pity, as if they were born with superior antennae and you were too physically and mentally underdeveloped to perceive the invisible, or they were downright angry that you wouldn’t confirm their version of reality’. Wayward and bitter, he begins an adolescence of petty crime, alongside his brother-in-law Ernie. Yet, in marrying Gracie and moving up, he comes to embody the worst of both worlds: he has both the embittered resentment of his fractured upbringing and estrangement from the middleclass stability of his marriage. The latter is captured in the opening line, ‘Nobody ever cared about me’, which functions as a kind of thesis statement.
Cynicism doesn’t serve Mooney well in the hereafter. Much like the setting of Etgar Keret’s story ‘Kneller’s Happy Campers’ or Will Self’s How the Dead Live, Toltz’s afterlife is a slightly worse version of life on Earth. Upon his arrival, Mooney notes, ‘the netherworld is inconceivable – in that, who would conceive of a place so banal?’ It is not purgatory, exactly, and neither is it dramatically inclined towards either Heaven or Hell. ‘What awaited was worse than reincarnation but better than Hell’, we are told. Mooney is partially vindicated: he was right, insofar as the predictions of mystics and the faithful were off the mark. Not only does Toltz mock the binary of Heaven vs Hell by imagining a dimension that is too mild to be considered either, he also suggests that, given the chance to start over, humans will attempt to reproduce the familiar, and once again, they’ll do it poorly.
Mooney’s lack of curiosity renders him an inept psychopomp. But despite his intolerance of education, he picks up a few details from co-workers and barflies at his local haunt, the Bitter in Soul, and his case worker Valeria, a Virgil figure who’s sat in one too many HR training sessions. He learns that his necropolitan (to borrow a portmanteau from Self) Lagaria appears to be engaged in an Orwellian endless war as people grow old and die, and a Kafkaesque system of bureaucracy sorts out the dead and assigns them work (he is given a job at an umbrella factory). Since the afterlife sections are relayed in first-person, our knowledge is marred by Mooney’s lacklustre comprehension. He skips ‘orientation’, sees a post-traumatic death disorder group as one-upmanship for whose death was the worst, and blocks his ears whenever someone offers a theory about the nature of his new reality.
Mooney has a troubled relationship with his ignorance. Consider the scene in which he reckons with his own death:
I couldn’t stop myself unleashing a barrage of questions: Did I have the same blood type? Where were my beard and tattoos? If souls were the ghosts in the machine, were we the ghosts, or the machines? Had I gone through a wormhole? Was this a simulacrum? Was I on the royal road to the unconscious? Was I a butterfly dreaming that I was a man? Did this have something to do with quantum weirdness? Was I both a wave and a particle? Holy shit – was I Schrödinger’s cat?
Fair enough: even the most jaded atheist might have a few questions under such circumstances. This isn’t the only moment in which he asks a series of free-associative questions. In an early scene, Owen challenges Mooney about whether he understands cognitive dissonance (he doesn’t) and suggests that his devotion to pessimism occludes the ability to see himself. This assessment appears justified when Mooney unleashes questions as he does above, in tirades in which he betrays an enthusiastic, traumatised desire to learn more about his ontological status, drawing from a vast reservoir of existing knowledge. Chuang Tzu, Schrödinger, and Baudrillard are all mentioned, which is to say that his questions about the second plane of existence are surprisingly well-informed. Is this the behaviour of someone who believes ‘the more I know, the less I understand’ and that ‘knowledge is not worth knowing’? Mooney is allergic to acquiring knowledge, especially self-knowledge. He lacks self-awareness. Instead of perceiving this inconsistency as a failure of craft, Mooney’s unreliability and contradictions forms a subtle but deft second layer of satirical critique on our ability to know ourselves. Mooney is clearly not as ignorant as he claims to be, but he cleaves to this identification to preserve his superiority complex.
The only phenomenon portrayed in more depth is the tunnel of light, which becomes an obsession for the deceased. When Mooney is murdered , Toltz mocks tropes of dying:
Owen placed a seashell to my ear. ‘I thought you’d like to listen to the sea.’
He held up a poster of Bosch’s ‘Ascent of the Blessed’, an image of the dead drifting towards a shining corridor of celestial light.
‘Is this what you see? Do you see a light? A distant brightness?’
I didn’t see anything during that long Indian summer of death.
Never mind the dubiousness of having the Bosch painting handy; this is clearly parody. In order to critique the binaries of belief vs non-belief, mysticism vs scepticism, and curiosity vs ignorance, Toltz contrasts Mooney with a cast of characters who seem, through faith alone, able to perceive the numinous and metaphysical. In a memorable scene, Mooney is drinking on his apartment rooftop with fellow residents when the subject of passing over is raised. As usual, he can’t quite grasp the theories, nor does he care to, so when a dead soul ‘spoke for a while of holographic universes and subatomic scales and quantum entanglement and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – he lost me.’
Because the narrative is focalised through Mooney, we only ever receive a partial view of the afterlife, and the intricacies of metaphysics and ontology need not be explained, because they simply don’t interest him. Entropy, soul particles, holographic universe theory, the tunnel of light, the Heisenberg Principle, and other outlandish hypotheticals are name-dropped – but Mooney just doesn’t care enough to wrap his head around them. This simultaneous embrace and mockery of metaphysics invokes Lucian’s Menippean satire, ‘Philosophies for Sale’, in which the teachings of Greek and Roman philosophers are sold in a marketplace auction. Lucian’s aim was to deride and mock the pretensions of philosophical hypotheses by assigning them a market value while making broadsides against their central teachings. The following quote from ‘Philosophies for Sale’ – ‘The nature of truth is a subject that wise men like you and your teacher are much better qualified to discuss than I am. But I do know this much about it – it isn’t very pleasant to listen to’ – could just as easily come out of Mooney’s mouth. But this is a type of discursive encyclopaedism, never detailed or incorporated significantly into the plot and world-building, like scanning through the relevant encyclopaedia subheadings and not reading the entries themselves.
Gracie entertains ideas of spirituality and mysticism, providing an ‘amusing opposites-attract’ dynamic with her ‘shameless sceptic’ husband. As the K9 virus spreads to Australia, Gracie tries to keep up with her work as a marriage celebrant while shacking up with Owen, who derives a little too much pleasure from watching the global pandemic precipitate on the telly. (At one point he celebrates, ‘Is this or is this not the best thing to ever happen to a terminal case in the history of the world?’)
The pandemic sections exhibit Toltz at his most ludic and unserious. In an ironic reversal, Gracie, who is more sympathetic to belief and mysticism, must endure Hell on Earth, while Mooney wastes away his days drinking at his neighbourhood bar, the Bitter in Soul. She suffers greatly, experiencing not only the apocalyptic pandemic, but also self-administering a Caesarean that’s live-streamed to her millions of social media followers, all as she’s being preyed on by her husband’s killer. The new plague emerges from the deglaciation in Greenland, which exposed a prehistoric wolf from the permafrost. What follows is a parody within a parody, this time of a pandemic novel that chugs along familiar and inevitable lines, involving the mass extinction of humankind and ironically mocking responses to coronavirus, such as panic-buying toilet paper, the fear of walking out of your front door, and enduring interminable lockdowns. The K9 pandemic goes much further than Covid has (so far). Our current pandemic makes cameo appearances, as a historical reference, but it would be wrongheaded to conceive of Here Goes Nothing as a satire about pandemics. If anything, coronavirus seems to have interfered with Toltz’s original concept of a pandemic novel.
Humankind is briskly, and with little resistance, swept up by the plague, mostly serving as a comic counterpart for the consequences of mass death in the afterlife. Toltz establishes lines of interplay between the earthly and unearthly plane: ‘the K9 virus outbreak on the earthly plane caused an influx of deceased that had stretched resources in every area to breaking point’. What follows is a refugee crisis and overpopulation, plunging Lagaria into an anarchic state. Mooney is given the job of digging mass graves for ‘humanely moving the newest of the new arrivals on to the next level.’ These are echoes and exaggerations of real-world concerns during coronavirus. However, the novel refrains from making explicit political comments about the follies of inhumane refugee treatment. It remains in the rhetorical safety of irony, so that even when Lagaria succumbs to civil war, suffering is overridden by the urge to make fun.
In his recent essay ‘Winning the Game You Didn’t Even Want to Play: On Sally Rooney and the Literature of the Pose,’ Stephen Marche identifies a sensibility underlying a number of contemporary novels, which he describes as writing of the pose. Marche claims that pose is ‘first and foremost, about being correct, both in terms of style and content. Its foremost goal is not to make any mistakes. Its foremost gesture is erasure and its foremost subject is social anxiety and self-presentation. One never loses oneself in the writing. Rather, one admires, at a slight remove, the precision of the undertaking.’ As examples of writers of pose, Marche mentions Sally Rooney, Ben Lerner, and Ottessa Moshfegh, and suggests the sensibility is a product of university-taught writing and Instagram. For Marche, ‘every other aspect of literary craft is subservient to the voice’. This contemporary (and younger) generation of writers form an interesting counterpoint for the ebullience of writers like Toltz.
In Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes clarifies style:
Whatever its sophistication, style has always something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention, and, as it were, a vertical and lonely dimension of thought … it is the writer’s ‘thing’, his glory and his prison, it is his solitude.
Literary voice is Toltz’s strength and also his solitude. Whereas Marche considers the literature of the pose as more prison than glory, Toltz’s style is more of a gambit. Here Goes Nothing is largely a novel of voice, specifically Toltz’s voice, which is loquacious, wry, and pessimistic. Hardly a sentence goes by without a pun, set-up, or ironic play with an idiom. On a sentence level, Here Goes Nothing is a collaboration of clever lines, one after another. Its jocular relentlessness leaves the impression that the novel is more parody than satire. When the jokes land, Toltz achieves the sardonic reversal of making something ordinary appear absurd. Writing in The Monthly, Richard Cooke notes that Toltz’s novels depend on sock-puppetry, ‘authorial dictatorships, one-voice nation states that now stand as a small confederation’. Every character in a Toltz novel sounds the same; they sound like Toltz. Cooke’s observation is that the dominance of Toltz’s voice ‘becomes a wall of sound that drowns out everything else’. This is a fair appraisal. The generative machine of Here Goes Nothing is the frenetic build-up of puns, gags, one-liners, and absurd skits, and the novel is crowded by these comic staples, which are hoarded and strung together. At their best, they are disarming, and ironically subversive. Perhaps the funniest example occurs when a minor character indigenous to Lagaria (born on the second plane of existence, having never lived on Earth) expresses his hatred of earthly immigrants by pulling a prank on the recently deceased:
Griffin reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a hideous, plastic devil’s mask with a smoldering-red light-up effect. He placed the mask on his face and looked out the window.
‘Here’s one,’ Griffin said, and headed outside.
I went to the door and watched as he strode over to a man in active wear, stepping off a rickshaw: a new arrival. ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ Griffin said, in a raspy voice. The man fell sobbing to his knees and begged for mercy. It was immediately not funny and I could tell from his constant glances in my direction that Griffin was grinning madly through the mask.
The joke lands because it fortifies the themes of the satire and reflects upon the interesting possibility that residents of the afterlife may be stripped of empathy during the refugee crisis of the dead. Other moments, however, feel shoehorned in, as digressions, such as the following exchange at the umbrella factory:
Joseph clasped his hands on Kira’s shoulders. ‘You look tense. Would you like a massage?’
‘Hey, bossman! Get this creeps’ hands off me!’ She metoo’d him and it wasn’t even ten in the morning.
It would be pedantic and fruitless to analyse Toltz’s various hits and misses. Suffice to say, the above scene seems to exist merely as a way of delivering a punchline.
The popularity of Toltz’s work and its domineering authorial voice challenges Marche’s view that ‘the literature of the voice is dying’ in the twenty-first century. If not the antithesis of the literature of the pose, voice-oriented writers provide a rebuttal to the laconicism of certain contemporary novels. Instead of erasure, Toltz writes with generous exuberance. There is a risk involved in writing in such a mode. But risk is not the same as carelessness. Toltz is a careful writer, whose sentences are sculpted into a bloated maximalism, and much critical reception has noted the energy generated from his voice. Cooke is critical of the magisterial presence of Toltz’s voice, suggesting that the repetition of clever one-liners and tongue-in-cheek sarcasm produces a kind of univocality. But isn’t this the necessary trade-off for parodic and satirical writers? The same univocality can be found in A. M. Homes, Francois Rabelais, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Jaroslav Hašek.
A chief mechanism for Toltz’s narrative voice is that of a sermon-giver. In all of his books, Toltz enlists characters to deliver offbeat ramblings that function as comic megaphones. These rants draw from a comprehensive, albeit unfocused, repertoire. As Cooke observes, the Toltzian sermon is channeled through Gracie, a marriage celebrant who turns to eulogies during the pandemic. Here is the speech she delivers to a group of infected people about to commit mass suicide:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by unceasing self-regard and a dopamine-addiction feedback loop. Remember the brief period when we thought multitasking would improve the human race and when low self-esteem was considered one of the western world’s greatest problems? We married our phones and waited for the external hardware to consummate the relationship. We evolved into a distracted species when our main task was watchfulness! Our bleakest doomsayers were too optimistic. How could a species hardwired with negativity bias not see this coming? The algorithms couldn’t predict this because you can’t commodify oblivion.
Toltz’s loquacious and rambling style seems, in isolation, to carry an aphoristic indictment of our techno-saturated society. But put together, what does it mean? Do they even belong together? Even Gracie catches herself, at the speech’s end: ‘“Either all ground is consecrated or none of it is.” That made no sense but she liked the sound of it.’
These statements are open for interpretation, indeterminate, and digressive. They are not intended to coalesce into a totalised network of beliefs – indeed, derision of the certainties of belief animates Here Goes Nothing. This is not to say that Toltz’s listen-up tirades are meaningless. They bear a resemblance to the work of artist Jenny Holzer, whose work takes the form of ‘truisms’ such as ‘it takes a while before you can step over inert bodies and go ahead with what you were trying to do’, ‘protect me from myself’, and ‘what urge will save us now that sex won’t?’ In true aphoristic style, both Toltz and Holzer seek to bridge the banal and profound by couching them in a platitudinal form.
Here Goes Nothing is a wry commentary on belief, poking holes in the presumption that death will bring the apotheosis of the self. Or peace, for that matter. It encourages questioning and eschews answers. Toltz’s penchant for incessant digressional tirades can become tiresome in its perseverance but also rewards with its Menippean critique of attitudes towards death.
Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, Jonathan Cape, 1967.
Richard Cooke, ‘The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’’, The Monthly, 2022.
Jenny Holzer, ‘Truisms’, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2004.
Lucian, ‘The Sale of Philosophers’, in Lucian: Selected Works, Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.
Stephen Marche, ‘Winning the Game You Didn’t Even Want to Play: On Sally Rooney and the Literature of the Pose’, Literary Hub, 2021.
Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole, Penguin Books, 2008.
Steve Toltz, Quicksand, Sceptre, 2015.