The Only Good Thing Anybody Has Ever Done by Sandra Newman

Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
— Nietzsche

The Only Good Thing Anybody Has Ever Done, a first novel by Sandra Newman, is about (roughly in the following order):

1. Chrysalis Moffat (a.k.a. Rosa Espuelas), who lives under her bed.

(Who among us has not considered this very action at many a juncture in our lives? Three times last month, life in the Land of the Dust Bunnies looked mighty appealing to me compared to the alternatives that day.)

2. She tells much of her story by means of lists and outlines, with parenthetical comments, digressions, and descriptions of all manner of things, relevant and irrelevant.

(How can you help but love a heroine like that — especially if you have a tendency toward OCD or just wish to hell you were more methodical and made more sense out of the seemingly random, insignificant things that happen?)

3. Chrysalis was born in Peru and adopted as a baby under very strange circumstances by the Moffats, a couple of wealthy California eccentrics.

(California being, of course, the very epicenter of The Strange, with more weird people per square mile than any other state in the Union. Trust me. I lived there.)

4. Mr. and Mrs. Moffat die.

(Strangely, of course.)

5. Chrysalis is left alone in the Moffat mansion under her bed, ruminating about her Ph.D dissertation, a deconstructive treatment of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, which she’s been working on for almost ten years.

(Just because you live under your bed doesn’t mean you can’t have a rich intellectual life. And when did you last think about a fine work like Dr. Faustus, I ask you? Okay, not recently . . . well, maybe never . . . but I sometimes do, and next time, I’m going to do it under my bed. For sure.)

6. The Moffats’ natural son, Eddie (a.k.a. “Rat Boy,” “Sleaze King,” and Jack) — “five foot seven inches of sheer depravity” and Chrysalis’s sometime-lover — returns from a trip to Boulder, Colorado with his new best friend, Ralph, a self-proclaimed New Age guru and imminent candidate for Buddhahood.

(The only place that comes close to California on the strangeness scale is Colorado.)

7. Ralph (a.k.a. Allan Michaelson, the British-born son of gypsies) lived as a potter in Nepal, where he was led by a white cat into the mountains to meet God.

8. “The rhododendrons bled down the valley and he knew something briefly…Nothing has happened to Ralph since that time.”

9. Now Ralph (bankrolled by Eddie’s sizable inheritance from his parents) is going to start The Tibetan School of Miracles in the Moffat mansion and rip off all those neurotically hip Californians who think enlightenment is this year’s hottest accessory for their perfect tans.

10. A Mystery Woman surfaces (a.k.a. Denise, Deesy, and D.C.) whom both Ralph and Eddie just happened to have known at different times and in different parts of the world, and been powerfully affected by.

11. For some reason, there also happens to be, inexplicably, a snapshot of her in the late Mr. Moffat’s effects, too.

(It’s clear he must have been powerfully affected by her, too, but that’s how it is with Mystery Women.)

12. The coincidences are occurring so fast and heavy that Ralph, Eddie and Chrysalis reflect upon whether what they’re experiencing are just the effects of all those psychedelic drugs they ingest or are they really, truly are living out The Celestine Prophecy.

(The reader will have to decide this one for himself.)

13. Then Chrysalis discovers the CIA’s mixed up in this.

(Aren’t they always?)

14. And it involves weapons of biological warfare.

(Doesn’t everything anymore?)

15. And — here’s the kicker — it’s connected with the weird subculture of international professional poker players.

(About which, by the way, the reader is provided an uncommon amount of interesting information.)

16. In the end, all the characters live/die/have an epiphany and/or disappear in a flying saucer.

By now, it probably seems that the book is confusing, peculiar, improbable and hard to follow. And, to some extent, that’s correct.

However, it is also charming, eclectic, entertaining, un-put-downable even if you don’t quite understand what’s going on, and it may well become a cult classic.

Obviously, all excellent recommendations for it, along with the following points worthy of consideration:

1. It’s a veritable cornucopia of global contemporary culture. There are more pop culture references per page than in any book in the rememberable past. If you’ve been in a coma for the last few decades or recently come from another planet, this book should be required reading. It will get you up to speed overnight.

2. The author is being hailed as the “Vonnegut of her generation.”

3. It features striking prose that reads like poetry:

Our relations were beautiful, like a foal we held in common. No one would be careless with the delicate foal. We walked down halls and they became true halls. Rooms we stood in, shone. Then it was over.

4. It has a useful appendix at the end of the book that reveals the specific strategies used by professional blackjack players, in case you’re vacationing in Vegas soon and hope to subsidize your sojourn with your gambling proceeds.

5. It’s laugh out loud funny.

6. It’s about everything. Some of its chapters are entitled “Alien Spacecraft Section,” “Back in the Bedroom: A Tenacious Burro,” “Facts for Tourists: The Mosque of Al-Hakim,” “You Can’t Go Home Again If You’ve Never Been There Before,” “Fucking,” “More Fucking,” “Morphic Resonance,” “Book Report — Beyond the Zebra by Dr. Seuss, and “What Happens to You After You Die.” Now really, if you can’t find something of interest there, where can you?

7. It’s about nothing. And that’s okay, too. Like Ralph who remarks in the book, “I do fairly well for a fake,” author Newman may be very sly and putting one over on us. But like the students at the Tibetan School of Miracles, who believe what they want to believe when Ralph waves his magic silver wand (it’s a spray-painted chopstick, by the way), we’ve paid our bucks and we’ve gotten our money’s worth — if not in anything of real substance, then in just savoring a damned convincing performance. Good literature, after all, may be the greatest miracle of them all.