Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thoughts on Everything Matters!

Being pleasantly surprised to discover your instincts were right is always a good thing.  Having those expectations obliterated is more rare.  That's already happened to me once this year, with Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey, so I wasn't exactly expecting it to happen again.

I knew when I first read about Everything Matters! that it was going to be something I wanted to read, and so I got it, put it on the Reading List, and waited for it to be at the top of the queue, and by that time, I'd pretty much forgotten why I was so interested in it.  I quietly slipped the slipcase jacket from the cover when that day finally arrived, and started reading.  For the first few pages, and even after the big reveal of Ron Currie, Jr.'s overarching concept for the book, I still compared it to some other books I've read recently, like Union Atlantic, or The Unnamed, or even Before I Go to Sleep (all of which, in their ways, were exceptional, inventive reads).  By the end, I decided Currie was a better writer than T.C. Boyle, had the kind of vision Salman Rushdie impressed on me with The Satanic Verses, and is comparable to the folksy appeal and scope of Stephen King in his best works.

He is, in fact, the first writer I've been able to compare to King, and it's really not a bad thing to be associated with Rushdie.  

Everything Matters! tracks a man who could be played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a movie, someone who's smarter than anyone else in the room but unlucky enough to be in circumstances that rarely favor him.  Of course, when they do the guy's positively transcendent.  The thing that truly makes our main character stand out, however, is the knowledge an impartial (for the most part) observer transmits to him throughout his life, including within the womb, of the many details that should otherwise be inaccessible to him or anyone else, including not only the fact that the world is indeed coming to an end, but the precise date on which this will occur.

This understandably has a significant impact on his life.  Shifting perspectives from the main character to the observer to the several people in his life that inevitably define it, including his father, mother, brother, and lover, Currie masterfully weaves a tale that helps explain that title, how the main character struggles to comprehend this wisdom, and what he does with it.  The details are often larger than life, but just as often grounded in the mundane and predictable self-destructive habits that so often destroys lives in our modern times.  There are cultural touchstones Currie relies on to convey some of this, though he notably skirts around 9/11, using it more for the inconveniences it produces than for the moment in time it creates, because of course the end of the world is still bigger than that singular morning.  But that's what the whole book is like, figuring out how moments like that can come to define everything we are, if we let them.

This is fiction as it ought to be, exploring what we know we are and what we might be, if we are willing to suspend our disbelief.  The Cubs have not won the World Series, and there has been no genius that I know of who's selectively cured cancer, and ten-year-old environmentalists have not changed the world, but these things happen in Everything Matters!, but none of these events are really the point.  The point, made in a very surreal and magnificent way, is that life is something you live, rather than hide from.

That's literature at its best.

2 comments:

  1. I've got to disagree on this one. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The choices made in the final quarter of the novel (post "dimensional jump") drove home to me a deep, deep nihilism that is precisely opposite to the book's title.

    In my review of Batchelor's Antarctica, I threw out an offhand reference to "tragedy porn" in modern literature: the addition of bad events into characters' lives to make a novel seem more serious and literary. I mentioned McCourt and Irving, but I was also thinking about Currie.

    Make no mistake, though. I agree with you that Currie is an excellent writer, and he certainly makes you FEEL. That goddamn global warming penguin at the very end. I cried, I'll admit it. But I don't recall a core of anything remotely uplifting about that ending. He name-checked the title and blathered about the many-worlds interpretation, but he made it all burn nonetheless.

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    1. If anything, I'd argue that he did exactly what he said he was going to do from the very start, using the many-worlds reboot to allow Junior to live a life as if the voices had never affected his decisions, which is hugely ironic, because he's given the choice by the voices themselves. The story that occurs to the point of this decision has still happened, but Junior has now realized that the only life that matters to him is the one where he's broken free from the vicious cycles that have haunted his family (and by implication, humanity) for generations. He's made a healthy relationship work. The original version of him was absurdly heroic, and he's able to accomplish everything that needs to happen to save humanity, which in any other narrative would have been the huzzah! moment, but for Junior and Currie, all of that is undone when Amy dies after putting the proverbial cherry on top. By living a normal life, Junior doesn't save the world or his father, but finally has a sense of inner peace.

      "Everything matters" in the sense that Junior lets go of his pain, which has crippled him all his life. Pain got him very far, yes, but none of it mattered to him. He pushed himself onward robotically. One could argue that he was selfish in both timelines, finding a cure for cancer, but only for his father, saving humanity, but not all of it. Of course, these things were in only so much of his control. The point of "everything matters" is that none of it was in his control, and once he relinquished responsibility for everything, he could find peace.

      It's a deeply pessimistic book one way or another. I would not say nihilistic. The Road is a deeply nihilistic book. Currie has written the opposite of that story. One might argue that Junior lives in a post-apocalypse his entire life. He struggles every day of it to understand his role, how he's supposed to redeem the end of the world. In both lives, he fulfills his objectives. In one of them, he's happy about it. That should amply qualify as a happy ending.

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