On Love, Loss and an Unexpected Life: 'Everything Beautiful Began After'

Simon Van Booy's Everything Beautiful Began After is an Unbearable Lightness of Being for our generation, albeit with a softer, wiser and not so existentialist approach.

Everything Beautiful Began After

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 416 pages
Author: Simon Van Booy
Price: $14.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-07

“Athens has long been a place where lonely people go,” claims Simon Van Booy in the opening paragraph of his novel, Everything Beautiful Began After. If we didn’t already know this or don’t believe it, he’ll quickly prove his point in this akimbo Odyssey filled with characters aimlessly questing for that intangible 'thing' called home.

The novel begins in modern Athens, but often it’s easy to forget which decade, if not century, the characters live in. Van Booy seems to deliberately create a landscape of timelessness for his characters to inhabit, so that even direct references to modern technology slide by largely unnoticed. This emotional climate is essential for his stories, as his characters are deliberately unable to take solace in the typical placebos of the modern world.

The novel is divided into three parts serving the impartiality of an omniscient narrator that inhabits the minds of three very distinct characters. Rebecca, George and Henry are all living in Athens, each striking a personal balance between escapism and discovery. Rebecca has left her marriage and family behind in France, after working for many years as a flight attendent. George is a young, scholarly American alcoholic. Henry is a British archaelogist cheerily pursuing important work but hiding a terrible secret that will haunt him until he excavates it.

The book begins as a love triangle: George is drunkenly and pathetically in love with Rebecca, who needs him because he is her only friend, until she falls in love with Henry. George and Henry also strike up a deeply intimate friendship, only to discover that they love the same woman. Somewhat surprisingly, this conflict is quickly resolved. Henry, whose deep secret is that he is forever tarnished by the tragic death of his baby brother, wants nothing more than to bring happiness to his two new friends, and they willingly and fully accept.

It’s an Unbearable Lightness of Being for our generation, executed with a softer, wiser and less existentialist approach. These characters possess none of the intellectual overtones oozing from Milan Kundera’s. Van Booy achieves this simplicity by crafting the thoughtful narrator as a silent caretaker. There's a voice of compassion and wisdom subtly woven throughout that goes above the heads of the characters. It's what saves the book from plunging into an underworld of unnecessary melodrama.

Of course, while pain is the foundation of the book, its characters are slowly but myopically attempting to escape its clutches. Sadly, when the novel begins, they are all miles away (figuratively and literally) from finding the things they crave. Each has attempted escape as an anecdote to injury, but each embodies the gritty past in every moment. Arriving in the present will require each character to undergo multiple transformations. These characters are fighting a very modern struggle to understand how much belief and innocence can be sustained in this world, and how much they personally are capable of.

Throughout, Van Booy reminds us that we are in fact capable of hearing a story this raw. The plot is highly complex while the sentiments are simple. These characters are not confused about or distracted from their goals of happiness and peace, but they are utterly unqualified to attain them. Unfortunately, more tragedy ensures, and a devastated Henry is left to assume the role of the protagonist, and piece together salvation from the wreckage of decades of grief.

Henry’s pain is so startling and determined that it sometimes feels unrealistic, but Van Booy writes with piercing truth. It’s so stark that it’s impossible not to believe it's real -- in other words: “you can’t make up stuff like this.” Van Booy creates an interesting contrast however; stylistically, his prose is fiction to the nth degree. It's wildly lyrical, inevitably poetic and somehow transcends the mundane cycles of the average human mind.

On the other hand, his subject matter is boldly, almost embarrassingly visceral. We all want to love and to be loved, to find and be found. Fortunately, most of have enough distractions and surface happiness to avoid these thoughts or aches. In Everything Beautiful Began After, Van Booy gives us a pointed but generous reminder that none of us are immune to the layers of life.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.