Published July 13, 2009
Reviewed May 7, 2010
The central problem one finds with explaining life, the universe and everything – beyond the fact that thousands upon thousands of people have killed each other over the centuries to prove one viewpoint or another – is the fact that it all seems so dramatically inconsistent depending on what happens. On one hand you have the miracle that is existence, with new life created every minute and countless expressions of joy and color; while on the other you have just as many disasters of the natural and human variety with no regard to what others hold dear. The devout try to explain it as “part of God’s plan,” while others attribute it to the fact that there is no God and therefore no hand on the tiller.
But there’s another possibility: the idea that the Universe may not be random or planned, cruel or benevolent, but just so tangled up in managing itself that all options could appear true at any given time. Existence is a fairly vast concept, after all, and you have to consider the chance that the ones who keep it running aren’t the all-powerful and all-knowing, but the anal, the stressed and the frivolous. Robert Kroese’s debut novel “Mercury Falls” explores this possibility by studying the contractual obligations of Armageddon and the Antichrist, and the result is a hilarious and frequently insightful tale of the proper procedures between Good and Evil.
These particular procedures, hammered out through centuries into a thick legal document known as the Apocalypse Accord, dictate how the coming and denunciation of the Antichrist will herald the End Times, provided they happen according to plan. Unfortunately, the Antichrist’s appointed executioner has skipped out on his duties, agents of both Lucifer and a third party are trying to work their way out of the contract, and the Antichrist happens to be a 37-year-old loser living in his mother’s attic – all of which could destroy the world, and not in the way it’s supposed to happen. Tangled up in this mess is Christine Temetri, a religious news magazine reporter who’s spent too much time amongst failed cults to believe Armageddon is actually real – that is, until the demons come through her kitchen linoleum.
On the surface, “Mercury Falls” has a lot of similarities to Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” simply trading religion for science fiction. Theories on the identity of the Antichrist run parallel to Adams’ theory on the ruler of the Universe (mostly the massive disconnect between expectation and reality), and Heaven’s bureacracy could contract out to the officious Vogons in how determined they are to make sure no one does anything without the right forms. And though Christine is more reminiscent of Cayce Pollard in William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition” than Arthur Dent, she does have her very own Ford Prefect in the form of Mercury, a cherubim who in the tradition of John Travolta and Ben Affleck is more concerned with Earth’s trivialities than the divine plan.
A lot of authors have gone to great lengths to emulate Adams’ style, but “Mercury Falls” is one of the rare books that deserves to be called a spiritual successor to the “Hitchhiker’s Guide.” First of all, the writing is almost universally solid and funny, making its cross-talk witticisms feel natural as Mercury leads Christine around in verbal circles while constructing a three-story snowman. Then there’s characters who are a mix of bad puns and crafty logic, such as the angel that works for tips (like how to open a frozen car lock). A few moments go for the Adams connection a bit too self-consciously – such as Christine suggesting an angel turn a rocket into a bowl of petunias – but with so much of the dialogue and observations flowing smoothly they’re easily dismissed as the rough edges of a debut novel.
But while writers can create the technical framework of an Adams joke, there needs to be something legitimate behind it, and “Mercury Falls” has some very clever supporting philosophy. Synchronicity – the theory that events causally independent are connected in some deeper way – plays a large part in how Christine and others keep bumping up against the forces of Heaven and Hell, and a debate between determininism and free will comes down to the theory that we are all so many “subatomic coin flippers.” The tropes of Armageddon are also tweaked in contemporary ways with a hidden meaning – for example, the Four Horsemen aren’t mounted knights but miracle-working laptops with a design flaw that makes humanity architects of their own destruction, creating a disaster one out of three times.
These comparisons may make it seem like “Mercury Falls” only deserves to be seen as an Adams heir, but that’s not being fair to how well Kroese constructs this book. Each of his characters come across as legitimate beings, with the third-person voice allowing Christine, her employer, the Antichrist and a slew of angels the chance to go on internal tangents. It also includes some contemporary satire by incorporating a “Harry Potter” doppleganger that proves those who claim the series as Satanic correct, though far more nuanced than what your average book-burner would suspect. And while some might miss this, it also pulls a neat trick by taking its epigraph quotes (a trio from Woody Allen, a 90s reverend and the King James Bible) and turning them into plot points by the first page – a transition I found rather quick and clever.
As I said in my “Tomato Rhapsody” review, every so often it’s important to find a book that is simply fun to read, and “Mercury Falls” belongs solidly in that category thanks to its quick wit and well-conceived plot. If Kroese does turn out to be right, and we are all doomed to perish as soon as Heaven receives all the right forms in triplicate, it’s a comfort to know we at least have books like this to whittle away the time until then.