In today’s ongoing global financial uncertainty, it’s easy to be swayed by those promising easy answers to tough situations. This is where Canadian author Elyse Friedman comes in with her latest novel, The Answer to Everything. A hilarious yet moving send up of a cult gone wrong (though its members wouldn’t call it a cult), this book is a quick, snappy read. And much is being done to publicize it – from the faux website that mirrors the website the characters set up in the novel and is so laughably pathetic that it looks like something that came out of the web circa 1998, to a Twitter account with the handle of @theanswerinstitute (though, in late July, when I sat down to pen this review, the account didn’t seem to exist – yet).
This is a book that is worth the grassroots, social media publicity, and if this doesn’t get shortlisted for the Giller Prize, well, that would be just proof that the world is an unjust place. This is a delightful book about scam artists, one that questions the veracity of “truth”, if not wisdom.
Set in Toronto – which may make it a slightly tough read for anyone who hasn’t lived in “the centre of the universe” as Canadians are apt to call the city, with some very specific references to certain neighbourhoods and addresses – The Answer to Everything centers on the character of John Aarons, a young, struggling visual artist who basically lives off of artist grant money and whatever kindness he can mooch off others. He moves in with a psychology student named Amy McCullough, who desperately needs a roommate to help pay off the rent. They quickly become a couple, but John also befriends a 30-something neighbour named Eldrich Becker, a hippie-ish, pot-smoking musician who has never held a real job in his life.
Once John witnesses the fact that Eldrich has a bevy of “disciples” who follow him around and listen to his new age-y ramblings, John seizes on an opportunity to make money. He and Amy create the Answer Institute around Eldrich, which starts out as a sort of support group, then a religious charity, but what ends up on the fringe. As more and more followers, including one somewhat famous cult TV star and his daughter, join in thanks to posters put up around the city and the aforementioned website, the more and more money starts rolling in, legitimizing the whole concept. Of course, things degenerate from there into drug use and group orgies (all in the name of healing and spiritual awakening) and, as hinted at the start of the book, things ultimately take a tragic turn.
Friedman, also the author of the chick lit book, Waking Beauty, probably isn’t all that widely known outside of Toronto. However, she’s likely best known for her outstanding 1999 debut literary novel, Then Again, and her work has been shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award, the Trillium Book Award and the Relit Award.
However, as alluded to earlier, if The Answer to Everything doesn’t earn Friedman higher accolades, something is seriously wrong and broken with Canadian publishing. Friedman exhibits a subtle and deft touch towards creating these characters, and even though they aren’t particularly likable, you still wind up being curious about their lives and the choices they make. That’s a rather tough feat to pull off, but it helps that the novel is infused with an infectious energy and a mordant sense of humour.
What makes the book work so well is its depiction of the Christ-like figure of Eldrich. He’s presented as an enigma, a character that is pulled along by the events of others. On the surface, he’s just a Birkenstock wearing drop-out who attaches spiritual significance to the number nine. However, he’s so tapped into new age-y speak, that it becomes easy to see why the desperate and gullible might be taken in by him. In fact, he doesn’t even have to say a word for people to suddenly break down in tears and feel something grow inside of them. These qualities make him such a compelling false prophet and, perhaps, just a little bit dangerous.
But what propels the story is the relationship between John and Amy, which starts out being parasitic and born of a need for financial survival. When the money starts pouring into the Institute’s coffers, the power balance then moves back and forth between the two characters as they are blessed with their sudden good fortune. At this juncture, they probably don’t need each other anymore, but, spurred by wild lovemaking and the Institute’s ever growing cash base, they are hopelessly attached to each other, despite the fact that John is a little bit more concerned about the art instillation he’s devising on the grounds of the Institute’s new home – a house that one of its followers donates to the cause – and Amy eventually drops out of school to administer and feed the Institute’s growing needs, effectively cutting John out of her life emotionally.
The novel also plays with the idea of what is truth – not only in the literal sense, but in the metaphysical – and what is not. To say anything more would be giving away part of the heart-wrenching ending, but the novel has more than enough subtext to gnaw on. Is John and Amy’s relationship true, or is it simply, so to speak, a marriage of convenience? Is there actual truth and wisdom in Eldrich’s tracts, or is it simply the ramblings of a drug-addled, brain damaged spiritualist? Are Eldrich’s followers experiencing real pain or desperation in their lives, or are they simply just looking for something or someone to use as a crutch from day-to-day responsibilities? These are the questions that Friedman so delicately poses, making this a rich and wonderful novel.
However, The Answer to Everything is more than just a deep meditation on the human condition. It’s also a richly pleasurable read. The novel moves at a breakneck pace, and the chapters are short and digestible. Friedman’s writing has an easy fluidity to it, and is brisk and refreshing. Also, she deftly taps into new age-y wonk, and some of Eldrich’s teachings are almost bad poetry (“Truth / What is it? / Where can it be found? / A sculptor knows that the finished piece resides / Fully formed in the un-worked stone / The artist’s mission is to find and reveal / The truth within”).
All in all, The Answer to Everything is an outstanding novel, one that reveals real emotion and poignancy in the lives of its all too believable and flawed characters. Friedman has penned a marvelous tome about the truth that lies in every one of us, and the falsehoods we’re willing to believe to mitigate just how painful facing reality on an everyday basis can really be.