With Toward You, Jim Krusoe completes his trilogy about death, resurrection, and the afterlife, a series of novels that are both comic and consequential.
“It pleases me to think,” said Milan Kundera, “that the art of the novel came into the world as an echo of God’s laughter.” I found the Kundera quote in Howard Jacobson’s fantastic Guardian essay, “Taking Comic Novels Seriously.” Jacobson writes, “God’s laughter, in other words, is laughter at the very idea that we can think our way out of the unthinkable.” In Toward You, Jim Krusoe’s final novel in his trilogy about the afterlife, one of the narrators attempts to do just that.
The book begins with an accidental death. Bob, a furniture upholsterer, hears the squeal of car brakes outside of his home and runs out to find a mortally wounded dog, also named Bob. The perpetrator is nowhere in sight. All is not lost, however, as human Bob believes canine Bob died trying to relay a message. According to the dog, Bob needs to stop his “woolgathering” and fix the Communicator, a machine that theoretically listens in on the Terminal Waves broadcasted by the dead. Even though Bob self-constructs the animal’s message from the grave, he still questions its authenticity. “Woolgathering?” Bob thinks, “Where did that come from? I’d never used that word in my life. Why was I using it now?” In this way, the Communicator already works. Bob has his ear against the wall of the eternal divide; he just isn’t listening very well.
Bob buries the dog in his backyard, memorialized with a hand-painted wooden cross. The next morning, Yvonne, an old college flame from the Institute for Mind/Body Research, shows up at his door with her young daughter, Dee Dee. They are looking for a dog that bit her on the arm.
Bob, still lovelorn, immediately betrays Yvonne, telling her and Dee Dee nothing about the other Bob. He thinks, “If there was any chance at all that the flame that once flickered between us could be reignited, would the two of us standing over a rotting dog corpse be the best way to do it? I was no expert in the ways of women, but I was guessing it would not.” Instead, he plies Yvonne and Dee Dee with some cake made with fennel. He may be a self-centered prick, but damned if the man can’t bake.
All does not fare well for Dee Dee, who narrates the rest of her story from the afterlife, a place that is all “white white white with just a bit of yellow-gray.” This is a spirit world unlike we’ve ever encountered, where Bob the dog chases the concept of a ball, and Dee Dee spends a lot of time both explaining her strange surroundings to anyone listening as well as attempting to escape. Heaven, she thinks, “could be stacked up, like storage units, anywhere, maybe even on top of each other, a jillion at a time.” Krusoe does the same with narrative devices, folding newspaper reports, circuitous letters, and a scene from a children’s television show into alternating chapters voiced by Dee Dee and Bob. In the Tin House collection The Writer’s Notebook, Krusoe remarks that letters have “the effect of opening a window on the narrative and letting in some air.” In Toward You, the curtains are constantly blowing. He also writes that a chapter can be used to change the point of view, although he is “very wary about this one.”
Lucky for us, he became unwary. According to a Tin House interview online, the reason Krusoe gave Dee Dee a voice was because he grew impatient with Bob’s “poor attitude” and “began trying to discover his victim’s side of the story, in part to remind the reader not to forget her, in part not to let Bob off the hook.” His strategy works. Erased, his previous book in the trilogy, suffered from a story that felt like it was on rails. Toward You successfully veers off in many directions, much like the other world Dee Dee attempts to narrate her way out of.
As Bob redoubles his work on the Communicator, two more characters arrive at his door: Steadman, the neighborhood policeman on the hunt for an arsonist, and a disturbing figure who calls himself The Wagonmaster, but who quickly reveals himself as Dennis, dog Bob’s former master. Human Bob simply submits to the demands of these two characters, whether that means being shuttled off to the precinct for questioning or serving Dennis tea and cookies. It’s frustrating for both him and the reader. At one point Bob wonders, “Why didn’t I know the kind of people who called ahead?”
Nevertheless, should we be blessed with a movie adaptation of this book, Steadman would be a plum role for a comedian. He’s a bit of a stand-in for Krusoe himself. Steadman thinks a lot about books, as his precinct is an earthbound heaven for writers. On breaks, the police work on essays, novels, and memoirs, while the criminals write poetry. “I don’t know if it’s a certain criminal lack of attention span,” Steadman says, “or just poetry’s innate potential for violence and its implied permission to use inflammatory language, but they certainly do churn it out for some reason.”
The Communicator only raises more questions for Bob, which is the point Krusoe has been making all along. In the end, there is no answer. But for now, we have laughter. Jacobson writes that there should be no distinction between comic and serious novels, even though readers have “created a false division between laughter and thought.” Over the course of this trilogy, Krusoe has proven that one is accomplice to the other, like a friend who gamely points to some fantastical sight in the distance, then socks you in the jaw. If God ever witnessed our attempts to understand what happens at the end of this life, there’s no doubt what his response would be.