Nothing, Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon's disturbing debut novel, gives a brutal portrayal of the millennial generation set amid Missoula subcultures. It's a modern noir in which the University of Montana creative writing grad successfully captures a world of party kids and young transients plagued by 20-something narcissism, indulging in endless cigarettes, drugs and booze.
The story centers on Ruth and James, two outsiders in search of identity. James journeys to Montana to learn more about his biological father, and receives more than he bargained for. His first night in town he encounters Ruth and Bridget at a party and their meeting causes a chain of events that sends them on life-changing trajectories. It helps add to the atmosphere that Cauchon has set the story in the midst of wildfire season. The burning backdrop adds easy metaphor to the characters' drama and intensifies their downward spiral of delusion and paranoia.
In a strange coincidence, both James and Ruth hail from the same suburb of Minnesota, and that's really the only common thread they share. Through their alternating narratives, however, that thread becomes tangled into a shared obsession over Bridget, a troubled townie whom Ruth has befriended. Both believe that Bridget has the answers to all of their questions. Their faith in her becomes a pitfall that leads to an unraveling of the identities they were carefully trying to nurture.
The characters are detestable, yet compelling. On the surface they are carefully constructed illusions. They envision themselves as movie archetypes: the indie darling, the rebel and the mysterious ingénue. Their reality, however—the way Cauchon reveals it to the reader—reads more like a Harmony Korine script, the gut punch of Kids but set in the hell of a fiery Montana summer.
The alternating narrative between James and Ruth allows us to see beyond the characters' surface and delve into their psyche. Ruth's narrative becomes more honest over time and the illusions around her shatter, which makes her retreat within herself. She is only able to drown out that voice with a steady stream of alcohol and pills. James' narration is more bombastic. Discovering that the life that he knew was an illusion, he is free to recreate himself as any character he desires. His voice is that of young boy play-acting, and he is unable to hide behind his new creation for long.
As the smoke and ash choke the valley, panic sets in; Ruth and James make fatal mistakes. In an interesting plot device, Cauchon describes certain objects as being "kryptonite" green. Whenever kryptonite appears, it serves as a warning to the reader that Ruth and James are in trouble: The inside of Ruth's apartment door, a bouncer's gum, Ruth's thong underwear, the safety jacket of a cop. Ignoring these warning signs leads the pair down a path of wild self-destruction.
Cauchon scatters symbols throughout the novel—the kryptonite, for one, but also a neglected baby—and the same symbols appear and reappear in the least expected places. Even the characters seem like symbols for some larger purpose: Ruth, the devoted friend, James, the follower, Bridget, the exalted one, all hold a deeper meaning within the layers of the novel. I recommend reading the book a second time, as discovering the symbols and clues throughout the story becomes a bit thrilling. You will begin to see symbols everywhere.
Nothing takes a few missteps. James' storyline dips a little too far into the realm of magical realism, clashing with the raw reality of the rest of the novel. The neglected baby is a device that feels like a device, though it's unclear whether it's supposed to be trying to drive home a loss-of-innocence theme or something else. If it appeared just once and never again, it would have provided a haunting echo for the rest of the novel. That it literally reappears feels like too much. (And it recalls the gruesome baby scene in Trainspotting.)
For the most part, though, Nothing is a strong novel that pinpoints the feeling of being trapped in the unescapable eddy of a small town. Cauchon's descriptions of Missoula are remarkably accurate and devoid of romanticism. As Ruth, Cauchon describes one scene with cynical yet honest clarity: "Behind Safeway was the mountain, as skiers call it. The mountain was walled in on three sides so all winter the snow fell like light-splinters of the sky whereas the inversion made the valley smoggy, gray, and dry with snow. Because it was walled in, the mountain felt private or like a secret even though there were always a lot of people there skiing, drinking, jumping off shit. But the valley was flat and broad and everything was revealed, nothing hidden, and yet everyone kept pretending there was something left to discover."
Nothing is a gripping novel. With Cauchon's guidance, a reader unfamiliar with Missoula can get a sense of the layout of the city and the strange, seductive vibe of a valley oasis. For those of us who grew up in Missoula with the reality of wildfire, she repackages fire as a powerful metaphorand plants the horrifying thought of what would happen if Missoula itself went up in flames.
Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon reads from Nothing at Shakespeare & Co. Sun., April 13, at 4 PM along with poet Lehua Taitano, who reads from her new book, A Bell Made of Stones. Free.