Tuesday
Feb042014

Nothing

By Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon


 

Two Dollar Radio
November 2013
978-1937512118

 

Reviewed by Nora Boydston


 

Nothing is a little like a caged animal: it comes at you, teeth bared, but you can’t figure out why at first. Fast-paced and biting, the novel switches between two narrators, Ruth and James, whose paths cross briefly in Missoula, Montana, as catastrophic wildfires sweep through the mountains around them.

They may think they are fundamentally different, but Ruth and James are more similar than they’d care to admit. In fact, they both narrate and speak in such flat, monotone voices, one might not immediately realize that there are two separate narrators.

Ruth and James are outsiders in a small town where the air is thick with more than just smoke from the wildfires. There is a palpable tension between the lifers—people born and raised in Missoula—and those just passing through. Without giving any particular reason why, Ruth disdains Missoula and spends her nights attending strange, secret parties in a gutted McMansion in the hills where she drinks heavily and half-heartedly ingests nameless dissociative drugs; for days afterwards she wades through a fog of loneliness and guilt. But to call these gatherings ‘parties’ is generous, since no one seems to be having very much fun, but simply going through the motions of what they think is expected at a party.

James ends up in Missoula on a strange sort of walkabout, following the shadow of his father, a man he never knew who died there nearly 30 years ago. Irrational and obsessed, James is given to flights of fancy, describing the landscape around him with rhapsodic language. He believes that by pitching a tent in the woods and swapping beers and stories with a group of local bums, he will find the information he seeks.

Both Ruth and James are only “posing” in their respective roles, however. Ruth wears designer labels even though she’s broke, not because she grew up poor—a townie with something to prove—but because she quit her job (for no apparent reason). James pretends he’s a homeless street kid while trying to hide the fact that he has a large stash of money, but he’s quickly given away by his expensive Italian leather boots.

Between them is the beautiful and aloof, casually cruel Bridget—dubbed ‘Monroe’ for her perfectly coiffed, bleach-blonde hairdo—who makes the perfect point in a strange love triangle. Even though Ruth describes Bridget as her best and only friend, she spends much more time thinking how much she hates her.

“Freak” is the first word in the book. It is not dialogue, but Ruth’s inner monologue; her own thoughts projected outward. She believes Bridget sees her as a freak. Whether or not Bridget actually thinks this is irrelevant though. It’s not about what others actually think, but about Ruth’s own unyielding obsession with how others perceive her. Even her self-hatred is really just narcissism: “More than I hated Bridget, I hated my stupid fucking self. Just a freak alone. A nobody, a nothing. Like I was the void all this shit was spinning around. Like maybe this was all just my dream, my nightmare.”

Ruth and James are both embarrassingly unaware of their self-absorption, imagining their lives as if they were in a movie. As Ruth describes it:

I thought about how I looked. Maybe like an actress in an indie movie with books scattered on the floor, the red bedding, I could be a character in a movie like that. The way I dressed, the cigarettes, the pills, the parties, me and Bridget. Everything we did felt like a movie.

James echoes this imagery later: "I walked back toward town, kicking at the rocks, hands in my pockets. Thinking Montana, thinking nothing, thinking how I might’ve looked if this scene was a movie."

They are also both given to bouts of paranoia. Both Ruth and James believe they are constantly being watched. The degree to which this is true does not necessarily matter. Instead, they want to be watched. They both desperately crave the attention and approval of those around them. They are both driven to near insanity by this same aching need, yet they are so blinded by it that they cannot fill that need for one another.

Wirth Cauchon doesn’t provide much backstory beyond cryptic snippets from which the reader attempts to wring some deeper meaning or motivation. This makes the characters always slightly less than convincing. One never quite believes their words or deeds, but this is intentional. They’re all just playing at life. When she is with James, Ruth consciously positions herself as if for a photo shoot:

He took several steps backward watching me and I shifted slightly to take a more enticing pose but the broken springs made a big sound. […] So I posed and pretended to fall asleep. When he sat again the cheap mattress bowed and I pretended to wake again.

The characters feel somehow empty and if you look below the surface—in a book that has consciously constructed surfaces, appearances—what is there?

The narrative is infused with a discomfiting sense of inevitability. The fires haven’t reached town yet, but they will get there, no matter how much fire-retardant green goo they spray on the buildings. This feeling of predestination is mirrored in the characters’ personal lives as well. In one of the most telling scenes between Ruth and James, they drunkenly fight over Bridget:

It felt scripted. Hollow. Fake. I didn’t really mean it but his voice rose. […] He pretended to hit me in the side of the skull with his fist but this was just play; I could tell we were just pretending. […] I would’ve laughed. It disgusted me how there was no meaning in all this but there was no way to stop it now, there was nowhere else to go.

Although it is peppered with pop culture references sure to resonate with the anticipated audience, the prose feels a bit uneven. The language is mostly sparse and deadpan but there are sudden, unexpected forays of flowery descriptions, and macabre fantasies. Wirth Cauchon eschews quotation marks but expertly punctuates the dialogue to mimic the characters’ clipped speech patterns: “I’d hold your hand, he said in the parking lot. But I like to. Keep my hands free.” 

The thrust of the narrative is neatly captured in the fatalistic graffiti written in blood-red spray paint on the walls of the party house:

No Outside
Nothing but Outside

I die

But these characters are not blindly speeding toward their fate; rather, they’re performing a belabored shuffle toward what they have resigned to as inevitable. The fire will burn away the forest, and all the affectations, and what will be left behind will be the truth. There is only a constant questioning of what lies beneath the surface of these characters and even the narrative, and in that way it is successful—the central theme holds true to the bitter end.

But will the fire provide cleansing, renewal? And what will rise from the ashes? Perhaps the answer is already given in the title: nothing.