The Answer to Everything, by Elyse Friedman, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
Elyse Friedman has managed a breathtaking balancing act. Her new novel is at once hip and snarkily (but justifiably) critical of hipness. It speaks to the value of art while skewering the egotism and pretensions of artists. It draws a simultaneously scathing and compassionate picture of emotional weakness and the temptations of wealth and power. It is relentlessly cynical, and yet it is steadfast in its affirmation of the universal value of loving-kindness.
It’s also very funny – the kind of funny that gives you a twinge, because it’s true.
The Answer Institute begins as a kind of unholy one-nighter of art and commerce. John Aarons is a starving artist (well, not starving exactly, more like hungry; he gets along by bingeing on art-opening cheese and bar snacks) who lucks into a cool apartment with Amy, whom he (correctly) figures he can sponge off. Unbeknownst to him, she was nursing a dormant crush on him, developed as a result of repeated exposure to his art – and a photo of him, a “cute young guy” with a “sly smile.” When John moves in with Amy, he also meets their neighbor Eldrich, a Birkenstock-wearing hippie who moves in a sweet cloud of hash smoke. John figures this will suit him fine: he can eat Amy’s food, wash his hair with her shampoo, and hop across the hall to get high.
But it seems that Eldrich is not just a pothead. He is also a sort of mini-guru, with acolytes who slip him food and cash as he dispenses feel-good aphorisms in the park. John has an eagle eye for an opportunity; thus the Answer Institute is born. John and Amy work on marketing and logistics. Eldrich is in charge of wisdom. The Institute quickly gains momentum, attracting needy Seekers from far and wide. John and Amy display varying degrees of acute business sense, rampant opportunism, and a genuine desire to help people as it develops at an increasingly wild pace into a lucrative and apparently real source of spiritual sustenance for a growing crowd of dysfunctional followers. What could go wrong?
Friedman does a beautiful job of exposing the constant tug-of-war between legitimate aspiration and sly self-deception. The intersection of the lust for money, success and power with the desire for connection, emotional and sexual, is a perfect support structure for the tangled web the characters weave as the story of the Institute’s thrilling rise and sordid descent unfolds. One of the book’s strengths is the way Friedman allows legitimate explanation and slick self-justification to coexist in a realistic way without any authorial attention-drawing. On the other hand, none of the characters ever really comes face to face with the damage they have caused, which is probably about as realistic as it gets, but not as narratively satisfying as some kind of moral resolution might have been.
The Answer to Everything is written in crystal-clear prose. It is laced with humour on every level, from the clever descriptions (Eldrich offers a visitor a cup of “dragon fruit zinger” tea) to the image of the enormous Bridle Path mansion crawling with drug addicts and oddballs baking butter tarts and seeking salvation. It is a vivid image of the way that, driven by pain and unfulfilled desires, we exploit each other and allow ourselves to be exploited, with the most ruthless and the most powerful always coming out on top. But because Elyse Friedman is a brilliant writer, it is also a story about the way we can be saved by love and compassion.
Elise Moser’s YA novel, Lily and Taylor, is from Groundwood Books. She recently edited the anthology Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec, published by Véhicule Press.
– photo: kylesteed, Flickr Creative Commons