Angus Mooney is dead. Freshly murdered, he’s appalled to find himself in an Afterworld, having always rejected the possibility of life after death. Moreover, he can observe his murderer getting on increasingly well with his innocent widow.
Mooney’s Afterworld is a deeply unsatisfactory mixture of computerised bureaucracy and urban chaos. In a landscape undreamed of by Dante, his guide is no cicerone but a woman with a welcoming bed and good contacts in Management, who knows her way around the local drinking spots.
The Australian novelist Steve Toltz specialises in the blackest of comedy. His first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2008. Here Goes Nothing, his third, plays with murder, suicide and apocalypse. Laughter in the dark.
He gives us an unlikely trio of protagonists. Apart from Mooney, a petty criminal with occasional GBH in his past, there is Gracie, his adored wife, a wedding celebrant with a scruffy blonde topknot who specialises in gleefully obscene sermons, and Owen, the balding sixty something with a terminal diagnosis who knocks at their door, offering all his worldly goods if he can die in the house where he was born. But it’s Mooney who will go first, killed in a bizarre attack. To complicate matters, when Owen’s diagnosis is fulfilled, he turns up on a barstool next to Mooney.
A parallel narrative reveals what’s happening on Earth, where a pandemic is emptying the planet so efficiently that the new dead are swamping the Afterworld, the authorities using barbed wire and camps to keep out the desperate arrivals. Gracie checks obsessively for signs of infection: is the virus navigating her bloodstream or not?
‘It was a night of Schrödinger’s virus – she both had it and didn’t have it.’
Savagely comic, Here Goes Nothing is a Jeremiad with jokes, though there are patches where the Afterworld loses its grip. But when the story focuses on the end of days on Earth, Toltz abandons existential standup for the detailed horror of what we all might have faced if Covid had triumphed. Wider questions persist about what it means to be alive.
As Mooney desperately tries to find a way to be reunited with Gracie and their child, the narrative hits us with everything from Nietzsche to New Age reincarnation. A bonkers, touching twist has Mooney and his murderer joining forces to offer Gracie a wild hint of hope. Toltz is asking: can death kill love? It’s pretty clear what he believes.