Considering Montana, one might conjure a pristine vastness, frigid north-of-Yellowstone beauty, the allure of a distinctly American solitude. But this ruggedness—much of which we call Badlands—can also be foreboding, a thickly walled refuge for those who would shirk the strictures of conventional living in favor of the hardened heart of the outlaw.
Then there are the wildfires.
Employing a prose at once suffocating and sublime, Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon, in her debut novel Nothing, fearlessly channels the nihilism of this landscape. Pulsing and atmospheric, the book testifies to nature’s (and by osmosis, humanity’s) inescapable cruelty. We read here a marvelously scathing indictment of a generation that has no choice but to burn.
With the lurch of a near-dead pickup truck, Nothing flings the reader into the middle of the Missoula Valley—a small-town cluster of grizzled veterans, hobos, invisible yuppie proprietors of empty McMansions, and pill-jaded coteries of backwoods club kids.
We land in a particularly intense summer wildfire season. A serpentine first-person narration shifts between two interloping Minnesotans. Ruth, an alcoholic waif, struggles with the inferiority she feels toward her best and only friend, Bridget (“I should look how I felt – like shit.”), and her perceived status as a hopeless outsider. James, meanwhile, has hitched and rail-hopped his way to the valley in search of answers regarding the suspicious death of a newly discovered father.
The lives of Ruth and James devolve into parallel sleepwalks, rife with bouts of solitary binging, unsettling encounters with transients who wallow the town’s streets like vicious subhuman shrubbery, and parties in vacant housing developments where people consume vials of unmarked substances without hesitation or inquiry, their faces obscured in a sinister blur of cell phone light and sweat.
A deadly overdose at one of these events serves as a catalyst that brings Ruth and James together, setting up a tryst that careens toward darkness and mental instability from the beginning. It culminates in an epic flameout brought on by a series of tragic and telling miscommunications … with, always, the auspicious mountain backdrop silently leering like “God’s pornography,” as wildfires blaze closer and the town prepares for imminent evacuation.
Zeitgeist novels, especially those that attempt to accurately depict the nuances of large swatches of a rapidly (and vapidly) fluctuating twenty-something milieu, can be tricky to pull off. For every On the Road and Less than Zero, countless failures abound, authors without an ear to the streets they claim, incapable of the gravitas necessary to render timeless a very specific time.
Cauchon does not live amongst those authors. From Nothing’s outset, she crafts scenes with complexity and a scary prescience. Ruth’s and James’s chosen outpost bathes in a glut of retroactively trendy music (Aphex Twin, Deltron 3030), Ralph Lauren posturing, and casually ingested vice options. Bereft of the starry-eyed romanticism that brought their hippie parents’ generation to the edge of the wilderness, Nothing’s characters exist in constant disappointment at the ugly incongruities between subverted realities and the manufactured escapism force-fed to them since childhood: “A wind started, strongish, and it blew a bit of trash up the street, a plastic bag and a wrapper. But this was no American Beauty.”
Protagonists so steeped in listlessness and ambiguity can deter readers, but in this case Ruth’s and James’s lack of identity makes them compelling, makes them feel tangible without stale tropes, and ultimately propels the text.
Ruth attempts to define herself by what she wears, what she reads and listens to, and with whom she socializes. She possesses a ferocity without filter—“Like the spikes on her clutch, a touch of punk”—that lifts her out of the role of passive casualty and transforms her into a frightening beacon. She illuminates a depleted post-cultural America with nowhere to propagate.
James arms himself with a pathological urge to uncover a past as blank and smoke-charred as the eyes he imagines follow each of his booze-addled wanderings. Think of him as a pitch-perfect example of a doomed idealist with no real center in an era where assumptions arrive almost always flawed, when idealism can be a fatal weakness. He’s a superficially tattooed, suburban neophyte enamored with oversimplified preconceptions—“This was what I’d had in mind when I’d pictured hobos. Men with a little mystery.”
Where Cauchon’s depictions of human interactions and the “bleached” town always feel refreshingly stripped down and authentic, if not unique, her poetic rendering of the natural terrain adds a refreshing element of sinister grandeur to a book that already feels bigger than its scant frame.
Rock formations appear “fractured like stone fingers finger-fucking heaven.” Dawn emerges as “a crust of White Light on the tip of a mountain or on the horizon.” Nature, as a kind of antagonist, constantly imposes itself on these characters; they face an inexplicable force that permeates and reflects each narrator’s gloomy pondering: “But we wouldn’t see the sun where it rose, it would keep behind the hedge of smoke. Where they met, the same little hills turned violent and erupted in stone faces and shards that cascaded down whole slopes, chasing the river for miles.” As the fires draw closer, wreathing the valley in the stink of impenetrable anxiety, one can almost see a pair of smoke-tinged claws goading the town into an eruption of disorder.
Cauchon’s jarringly idiosyncratic use of language, especially in dialogue, provides Nothing’s most striking feature. Free from the constraints of quotation marks, the narrators’ duel spirals of garbled reasoning blend hazily with a clipped conversational cadence – “I think maybe I had too much to drink. I think I’d better. Go. You don’t have to.”
This would risk feeling cute or overdone from a lesser writer. Yet Cauchon’s occasionally difficult syntax only embellishes an utterly disjointed façade, a place where it feels impossible to get to know someone on a meaningful level, where the strength of a friendship waxes and wanes based on responses to text messages, and where enemies come to blows over the slightest bleary glance across an indifferent bar.
The often infuriating inability of characters to say what they want, to escape verbal paralysis in a setting where the preferred forms of communication can be edited or deleted, invokes a welcome sense of pity for souls that could otherwise be dismissed as totally despicable and deranged. Instead of free-roaming rebels, the people who writhe across Nothing’s pages might better be described as victims of a tragedy that surpasses geography and class, a tragedy with repercussions not yet totally defined: “Seemed simple enough, but underneath there was something else happening, something that wasn’t happening at all. Like they, we were inmates plotting the prison break in long looks, in backward glances at the warden. Only the cell bars were wildfires. Only what we’d done was nothing.”
A memorable scene takes place near the end of the book. An abysmally disturbed Ruth enters a pawnshop to purchase a pistol. The shop owner, fleeing the encroaching wildfires, reluctantly agrees to provide her with one, adding, “That’s all well and good, miss. And I’ll sell it to you, given the circumstances. But I regret to inform you, you can’t shoot wildfire.”
The moment perfectly encapsulates the enormous sense of futility that pervades every line of Nothing. An inertia of meaninglessness grows stronger under nature’s masochistic brutality and the intense anger that flares outward from each of the book’s major characters.
Perhaps most impressive is Cauchon’s ability to temper her most ecstatic gestures with a distinctly contemporary sadness, profound and genuine. She finds a way to inject a gnawing desire as unquenchable as the blaze that threatens to engulf it.
In all, we have here a riveting first piece of scripture from our newest prophet of misspent youth. Nothing’s fierce fragments of transcendental realism belie its deceptively simple title.
Chris Vola’s reviews of books, music, and food appear in The Brooklyn Rail, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, PopMatters, The Collagist, and elsewhere. He lives in New York and tweets at @ChrisVola.