Owen Egerton’s latest novel imagines the end of the world — in Austin — with a storyline so audacious it could be distributed with a warning label. Danger: This book contains elements of black comedy and satire. May induce seizure, fainting or coma among the religiously devout. Do not take with clenched jaw or certain mind.
“Everyone Says That at the End of the World” is a “funny” novel that makes a serious impression. I mean: Who wouldn’t remember a book about the apocalypse built around searchers, seekers, a cloned Jesus and a hermit crab? Right?
From the very first page, “End of the World” sets out to break rules of form and imagination. It’s a reckless, ragged ride — by the author’s own calculation, for the most part — deliberate in its intent to push sacred buttons. Egerton knows that his satirical depiction of the rapture, heaven and Judgment Day would fail any mass marketing test, offend almost everyone in a target audience.
Take, for example, Egerton’s imagining of the Second Coming. A “Jesus” returns to West Texas. He can’t speak English, of course. Thus, he’s received by others as either “retarded” or “Mexican.” This “Jesus” is astounded by miracles — electric light bulbs, “pieces of sun on a stick.” Yet he runs from churches, frightened by crucifixion imagery, assuming these houses of worship are execution chambers.
At its heart, however, “Everyone Says That at the End of the World” — Egerton’s third novel, and his second dealing directly with matters of the spiritual world — is downright tender, for it longs to get to the essence of love and God and life and meaning. Despite all its edgy trappings, it champions kindness. It honors mystery. When it comes to faith, writes Egerton, “All things can be if you surrender the need to understand.”
Egerton’s book doesn’t poke fun at God, wonder, or the sublime — though those who come to it lightly might think otherwise. Rather, it honors God, the sublime and wonder. “I should be surprised to be alive more often,” says one character in the book, at the cusp of awakening. “It’s better than coffee … .”
Somewhat like poet and essayist Christian Wiman — profiled a week ago in these pages — Egerton seems to be seeking new ways to talk about God, exploring new vocabularies, especially when considering definitions of faith and belief.
“We are not words,” says one character in the novel. “We are the ideas that pop to life when the words are read aloud. That’s the poetry of it.”
No, Owen Egerton’s biggest target isn’t religion. It’s the presence of hypocrisy or certitude within religion that runs against the larger aim of compassion. At one point in the novel, a character puts forth the notion that the Earth isn’t paradise, or a miracle. Rather: It’s a mental asylum, a repository for all the wayward spirits of the universe. Why else all this predilection toward (emphasis on) killing, and chaos, in the name of God?
Deep down, “End of the World” is more about perception than religion. Through satire, Egerton invites us to think of God and the universe as a matter of perspective, given our limited powers of understanding.
Early in the novel, Egerton introduces us to a hermit crab, living in a plastic box, inside a tourist shop in coastal Florida. The crab’s shell is blue and green. Through the transparent confines of his clear plastic box, the crab can see the blue and white ocean in the distance.
“He crawled in that direction more than any other, scratching at the unseen barrier and wishing for salt and water,” writes Egerton. “He vaguely wondered why he could see what he could never have. What a bizarre way to design a world.”
For all the flash and provocation in the novel, this simple imagery gets to novel’s true homeland — the idea of longing, the desire to get home, the meaning of separation, the palpable mystery, a vastness beyond that’s beyond our knowing.
Egerton’s fans — and he has many, given his status as “Best Local Author” in the last Austin Chronicle “Best of Austin” readers poll — may well prefer his last novel: “The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God” (2010). “The Book of Harold” is tighter, more focused in its intent than “End of the World.” The laughter is deeper and a little more frequent in “The Book of Harold.”
“End of the World” takes a little longer to catch its wave; then again, it’s more ambitious. Yet Egerton’s style of writing — his pacing, his sense of movement, the musicality of his writing, the joyful way he works with imagery — remains one of his most alluring gifts.
Case in point: An early glance at young Rica, a major character in the novel. Rica is pregnant, full of life — and gifted with strong culinary instincts when it comes to spices. Feeling a little fragile one day, Rica takes solace in the kitchen. She makes soup. She throws everything into the pot — garlic and tea leaves and molasses and cilantro and mushrooms and more.
Rica loves cooking to jazz. She puts on an album by Charles Mingus: “Let My Children Hear Music.” Egerton writes it this way:
“She turned the Mingus up louder. It was some of his strangest music. Jazz, it might be called, but the music went beyond jazz. Stranger and fuller. Filled with wild harmonies and unexpected twists and yanks. The music and food, the rhythm and chopping, the spank of the bass and the pop of boiling water, all helped crowd out the thoughts of the last two hours … .
“She turned up the volume till her ears hurt. That’s how she liked her music, just a little painful. She knew Mingus would approve. Hell, he put the pain in himself. He slammed two notes together that harmonized, but just barely, two notes that had to work at it. They weren’t a C and a G, more a C and an A#. That’s how she saw her and (her boyfriend) Milton. No one would choose to put these notes together, no one but a mind like Mingus. … He told the notes, ‘You can fight, you can twist, but know that you are home. This is where you are supposed to be.’ And the notes listened. And the notes sang. …”
Egerton, celebrating the mind of Mingus, reveals a great deal about his own aims as a writer. He wants to be audacious, rebellious, bold, a little scary — defiant of tradition, awed by the possibility of that tradition, deeply aware of what he’s doing in the spirit of improvisation. It may look a little scattered, a little reckless, a little contrary. But the notes? They belong together.
Everyone Says That at the End of the World
Soft Skull Press, $18.95
What: Book release party for Owen Egerton
When: 7 p.m. April 11
Where: Whip In, 1950 Interstate 35 South