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The Answer to Everything

by Elyse Friedman

You are standing in front of a mechanical contraption, and you have a choice: push the big black SAVE button and preserve a one-of-a-kind photograph, or do nothing and watch the image obliterate in a chemical pool. Whatever you choose, the machine will repeatedly select another photograph and provide you with the same option. This dark device is one of the pieces created by emerging Toronto artist John Aarons in the latest novel from the sardonic mind of author Elyse Friedman.

The Answer to EverythingAarons is a mooch par excellence whose true medium is exploitation. He’s a slacker and a swindler, profiting off the selfish desires of others. However, Aarons gets more than he bargained for when he helps found a New Age cult known as The Answer Institute. Aarons manipulates his neighbour, the naive spiritualist Eldrich, into acting as a guru in order to scam donations, and convinces his gullible girlfriend, Amy, to handle administration. What begins as just another grift snowballs toward a deadly climax.

Like Friedman’s Trillium Book Award–shortlisted novel Then Again (1999), The Answer to Everything explores subjectivity, this time alternating narrators and fracturing the narrative to include texts of emails, tweets, and online comments. This approach showcases the author’s wild imagination and highlights the shallowness of consumer and pop culture in a pointless and haphazard world.

The trouble is, Friedman’s cast is entirely disagreeable. Her characters showcase the worst aspects of our society, reflecting back on us like a grotesque carnival mirror. Their shallowness seeps into the narrative to such an extent that The Answer to Everything reads like a lesser Douglas Coupland novel – more JPod than Generation X. But the question of culpability, with which the novel grapples, is a worthy one in our egotistical era. Aarons’ photo machine actually turns out to be a fairly apt metaphor for our shallow, self-absorbed age.