REVIEW: Nothing by Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon
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by Benjamin Rybeck
Look at the title of this book: Nothing. Look at the photo of Nothing’s young author, Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon, clad in a black dress, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, hand on her hip — read this book, she seems to be saying, or, you know, like, whatever. Check out the first sentence: “Freak.” Read the first page, with its chain-smoking heroine, Ruth, heading to a party and feeling blasé about it. Oh, and see that Lou Reed reference?
This book is probably a lot cooler than you.
Published by Two Dollar Radio, Nothing is Cauchon’s first novel, and she hurries to define it as nihilistic-hipster-chic — but there’s something a tad retro about the novel’s too-cool-for-school attitude, like a movie adaptation of Daria as directed by Gregg Araki. Cauchon introduces Ruth — our narrator — and her best friend Bridget as disaffected twentysomethings drifting from party to party. Ruth is unemployed and almost broke, but her crisis is way more existential than that. Bridget seems to be the only element of Ruth’s life that gives it any meaning. So, if Bridget one day ditched Ruth for some new friends, would Ruth cease to exist?
The novel’s other narrator, James, hops trains to Missoula to learn about his dead father. Wandering mountain paths and engaging with the local homeless population, James is just as paranoid as Ruth, believing that everyone is lying to him and trying to steal his stuff. When he and Ruth meet, they feed off each other’s worst tendencies, and the energy almost makes each page glow.
Nothing takes place in Missoula (Cauchon received her MFA from the University of Montana), where nearby wildfires fill the sky with smoke and — as the novel’s jacket copy reads — “everybody’s got a gun.”
Though this novel starts as Bret Easton Ellis, it ends as Nick Cave — thunderous, apocalyptic.
The move into the grand and mythic separates Nothing from the usual stuff concerning the bored and the pretty.
Nothing, however, can feel a little cold. While I don’t need every novel to be a group hug, Cauchon sometimes uses this coldness as an excuse to wallow in familiar ennui. She presents the overstimulation of parties effectively, though somewhat predictably, with broken syntax and stream-of-consciousness. Frankly, I find it more effective when Cauchon employs matter-of-fact surreal language to describe the setting and Ruth’s perception thereof: “Everywhere was lips.” Man, I really do love that sentence.
Eventually something is revealed about Bridget and James. An astute reader will see it coming, and some will criticize this, I’m sure. But I’ll defend it. While the twist is predictable, what isn’t predictable is how Ruth handles it: She’s uninterested in the real drama happening around her, caring only about her own delusions. She cares only about herself.
Ruth’s narcissism is the focus of this novel, and Cauchon uses a splash of melodrama to bring it out.
“Underneath there was something else happening,” James frets at one point, “something that wasn’t happening at all.” Cauchon nails this ambiguous dread, never trying to name it, just letting it boil under the surface until it explodes.
The novel creeps into violence, and Cauchon’s paranoid prose — which always suggests something horrible is about to happen — makes Nothing compelling, even when it delves into familiar subject matter. Toward the end, Ruth is in a stolen car, running from her broken life: “Someone is watching us, I was thinking. Someone planned it like this.” It’s a moment that evokes God, but God is long gone from the world of Nothing. Nobody’s watching, and there’s no plan: Ruth, Bridget, and James have lost or forgotten all the things that could’ve saved them — or maybe they never knew those things in the first place.
by Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon