The Answer to Everything
by Elyse Friedman
224 pp; $26.99
It’s not necessarily answers that the characters in Elyse Friedman’s latest novel seek. What they’re really after are the usual things that human beings long for: acceptance, community, forgiveness, love, belonging.
Oh, and a 60-inch wall-mounted HDTV, bathrooms finished in real Italian marble and a refrigerator crammed with grass-fed beef and organic cherries couldn’t hurt, either.
After noticing the oddly magnetic effect that his busker neighbour Eldrich seems to have on total strangers, John Aarons, a sly and resourceful starving artist, smells the potential for profit. Aarons is about as likely to walk away from a promising financial opportunity as he is from the canape table at a gallery opening on Ossington.
Enlisting the help of Amy, his new roommate and pseudo-girlfriend, the debt-ridden twentysomething slackers create The Answer Institute, using the benevolent and patchouli-drenched Eldrich as the figurehead. Before they know it, devotees (known as “Seekers”) and donations start pouring in and they have a runaway phenomenon on their hands. Unfortunately, the course of a start-up New Age cult never did run smooth.
Tales about people searching for meaning in an empty culture and confusing universe aren’t new, but Friedman tackles hers in a fiercely funny and original way. The novel is told through a series of character-penned journal entries, never lingering too long on any one character before tagging in another potentially unreliable narrator.
Hold a pocket mirror to the smirking mouth of protagonist/antagonist John Aarons, it’ll fog up
The rapidly shifting POVs that make up the structure of The Answer to Everything lend an almost theatrical sensibility; so many of the chapters could easily fly as stage monologues. With the addition of grand visuals (such as Aarons’ latest art installation, a huge and realistic mother a la Ron Mueck with a massive, crawl-in womb), the story often feels cinematic. Scenes and dialogue unspool as in real life or an exceptionally vivid dream.
Friedman’s understanding of and empathy for her characters runs deep. Like a medium or a mole, she seems to inhabit the brains of her complex and deeply flawed characters, always salvaging something worthwhile. Some of the best and darkest humour in the book stems from the unlikely friendships and the divergent views that John, Amy and Eldrich have on The Answer Institute and its relative importance in the grand scheme of things:
“I find Eldrich seated cross-legged atop the granite island in the kitchen. He is sporting a paisley silk robe that is four or five sizes too small (Phil’s, obviously). He informs me that no only did he see God on the previous evening, he briefly became God. I congratulate him as I thaw a rib steak to grill for my lunch…”
Characters as realistic and finely drawn as these ones are are a stunning accomplishment. Hold a pocket mirror to the smirking mouth of protagonist/antagonist John Aarons, it’ll fog up.
The situations, too, feel as though they could have actually occurred. Even the most unlikely of scenarios, including the novel’s climax featuring an Ayahuasca (Peruvian vine hallucinogen, apparently excellent) ritual gone spectacularly awry, remains firmly rooted in realism. It’s never an easy thing to find this much light in the darkness, and Friedman should be applauded for succeeding so adeptly in this tragicomic balancing act.
It’s telling that Friedman chose to keep her chapters so short and straightforward, interspersed as they are with email exchanges, sci-fi celebrity Twitter feeds, telephone pole flyers and even a full magazine feature penned by an opportunistic journalism student for — cough, cough — T.O. Magazine. Are the rapid-fire scene changes and cut-and-paste ephemera included in the novel Friedman’s attempt to hold our attention in a world where nothing seems to fascinate for more than five seconds, or is the novel’s hodgepodge nature a criticism of our culture and collective shortened attention spans?
I’d go with a little from column A, a little from column B, which is how much of the novel operates: straightforward without being simplistic, heartbreaking without being maudlin and wildly funny without sacrificing depth.
Sofi Papamarko is a writer and matchmaker who lives in Toronto.