By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
By Ron Currie Jr.
Viking. 305 pp. $25.95
Astronomers at Caltech say the Earth will last 1 billion years longer than previous estimates, which makes me wish I'd chosen the bedroom wallpaper more carefully. But Ron Currie's strange new novel raises the opposite prospect: "Everything Matters!" begins with an announcement that a comet will destroy our planet on June 15, 2010. That fast-approaching deadline raises "a question which men and women, great and not-so, of every color, creed, and sexual persuasion have asked since they first had the language to do so, and probably before: Does Anything I Do Matter?"
In a sense, every novel is a search for what matters, so posing the problem here in Caps and italics is not the subtlest move a writer can make. But there's something refreshingly youthful about Currie's eagerness to call out big existential questions that most of us have grown too embarrassed or cynical to ask since we scraped through Intro to Philosophy and moved on to matters of getting and spending. He's writing for the "Slaughterhouse-Five" kids (you know who you are), people who respond to that quirky mix of dark humor, moral imperative and science fiction. Like Vonnegut, Currie is an atheist -- his first novel, just out in paperback, is titled "God Is Dead" -- and that absence of faith seems to have left him with an intense curiosity about how we live in a world without divine oversight or intervention.
"Everything Matters!" focuses on the immensely consequential life of John "Junior" Thibodeau, "the fourth-smartest person in the history of the world." We meet him in 1974, in utero, before he has to "master the involuntary coos and facial twitches which are the foundation of infantile cuteness." The narrator of this section is an omniscient Voice, a kind of cosmic, tough-love therapist that exists outside time and space and maintains a "long-standing policy of supportive neutrality." It speaks directly to Junior as though conducting an experiment: "Throughout your life, no matter how long or brief, the choice is, in the end yours. Simply bear in mind that most every choice will have consequences." But then the Voice drops the ultimate buzzkill about a comet set to hit "the Earth with the explosive energy of 283,824,000 Hiroshima bombs."
So, this is a novel in which cosmology becomes personal: How would you live if you knew, for sure, that everything will be destroyed when you're 36 years old? It's a question that inspires despair and sarcasm in equal measure, like the boy in "Annie Hall" who stops doing his homework because "the universe is expanding." But Currie never makes fun of humanity's predicament, even though he's often funny. "Irony," one character notes, "is a luxury the doomed can't afford."
As a toddler, Junior realizes just what the Voice has revealed to him. "Suffering from the soul-dread caused by knowledge of the impending end of all existence," he becomes a very serious child, who marks an X on his calendar each day and grows "preoccupied with apocalypse." The Voice observes: "You move through life like a ghost, semipresent, barely displacing air. . . . The other kids think you're a Jedi or something. This sort of creepiness does nothing to improve your popularity." Not too surprisingly, Junior struggles with an overwhelming sense of pessimism, constantly reminding himself that "the world's going to end soon so what does it matter?"
But there's nothing predictable about this story, despite its firm ending date, and Currie repeatedly upends our expectations. Perhaps what's most surprising is how interested he remains in the other members of Junior's family, who aren't burdened with knowing when the world will end. In alternating chapters narrated by Junior's mother, father, brother and girlfriend, we watch their sad and poignant struggles with relationships and employment and particularly substance abuse. Moving episodes of their lives are punctuated by commentary from the Voice that comes to us in numbered segments counting down to zero.
I wish, though, that that novel didn't seem so cobbled together. Currie is prone to abrupt shifts in tone, from quiet monologues by Junior's smoldering father to a corny medical melodrama, from a tragicomic act of terrorism to a frightening scene of torture. The story wobbles even more erratically when we get some goofy scenes involving a secret government agency and a thinly drawn scheme to move lucky citizens to another planet. (It's a nice touch, though, to have President Huckabee announce the End of Days.)
But Currie's real interest, in each of these various episodes, is how people choose to behave when everything seems "a messy and heartbreaking and overall pointless affair." Of course, that kind of despair doesn't require any inside knowledge about the end of the world; nobody needs a planet-crushing comet to justify hopelessness. The apocalypse, Currie suggests, comes to each of us individually, and how we respond in the face of our own inevitable darkness is what really matters. Still, this isn't Jean-Paul Sartre or even Ernest Hemingway. When the Voice assures Junior that "with infinite choices comes the potential for infinite happiness," it's hard not to hear the syrupy song of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
It seems to me that Currie has rejected God only to deify free will in a way that risks sounding metaphysically shallow and psychologically naive. Where, I kept wondering, is the agony of Saint Paul's confession: "The good that I would I do not"? And readers of all persuasions are likely to take issue with Currie's finale, which upends the novel's premise with a bit of cosmological sleight-of-hand. But these are objections you'll want to ponder and argue about as you read this eccentric story. "Everything Matters!" offers a chance to dig around in the attic and reclaim your collegiate earnestness while there's still time.
Follow Charles on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.