At the Bottom of Everything, Ben Dolnick’s third novel, follows two childhood friends who perpetrate a trauma they both keep secret for years. On its surface, the story is: One friend, Thomas, goes insane; years later, the other, Adam, is sent to rescue him.
Thomas’ apparent insanity takes the form of elopement to India, where he wanders around, starving and filthy, in thrall to a guru named Sri Prabhakara. Adam, on the other hand, leads an outwardly “normal” mid-20s life, tutoring and stalking his ex online and having an affair. The seed out of which this disparity grows is the childhood trauma: While Thomas is obsessed with the horror of what they’ve done and seeks to resolve it, albeit self-destructively, Adam effectively compartmentalizes and represses his feelings.
As with all successful fiction, the further toward the bottom you dig, the more complex the story becomes. For one thing, the novel presents Adam’s ability to compartmentalize as both useful and limiting. It’s what enables him to have an affair without considering the consequences—not necessarily a great goal; it’s then what enables him to build a life after the trauma without actually working through it. “I definitely didn’t mean for it to be a demonstration of how it’s better to be able to shove your guilt in a drawer,” Dolnick says. “I think Thomas’ is a more pure and admirable response. I think in some ways, even by the end, the life that Adam has cobbled together is still in some ways not quite adequate to the scale of what happened.” On the other hand, Dolnick explains, he doesn’t glorify Thomas’ response, either: “I think in many cases, including maybe this one, managing to live a life that is only a little bit self-deluded and is mostly okay”—as Adam does—“is a real accomplishment.”
In fact, at a deep level, it’s not clear that Adam is sane and Thomas is not. “I think sanity is kind of a moving target for everybody,” Dolnick says. “One of the things I wanted to play with is, if a truly wise, holy, devoted-to-truth kind of person were to appear in this world, what would that be like? So I think some of Thomas’ craziness and all of that is kind of an unfortunate version of what happens with too pure of a dedication to various ideals.”
Some defenses are necessary to survive, but there’s a distinction between those that serve us and those that cut us off from our own emotional centers. As neither character manages to find the healthy sweet spot, At the Bottom of Everything functions more to raise the question of how we might navigate toward it than as a guide. People like Thomas frighten us because they threaten to reveal the instability of our defenses and the insincerity of our lives, and it behooves us to assign them monikers like “crazy” and thereby push them far away.
By the middle of the novel, Adam has arrived in India, where he’s talking to people who have met Thomas in an attempt to track him down. He has been told that Thomas is one of Sri Prabhakara’s disciples, but has trouble understanding what exactly that means: “At this point, the people I was talking to became hard to pin down,” Adam narrates. “Not, I don’t think, out of any sense of secrecy; it was more just the weirdness of explaining to an outsider something absolutely fundamental. See, there’s this thing human beings do every night where they lie down and close their eyes and just sort of wait for strange visions to come…”
That phrase—“the weirdness of explaining to an outsider something absolutely fundamental”—encapsulates a major thread that wends throughout the novel. There is the history that Thomas and Adam share, which they can’t translate to anyone outside of their friendship; but there is also the gulf between them, and their inability to fully explain themselves to each other.
“There is a very basic untranslatability, not only between different cultures—such as Indian gurus versus secular Western people—but also just between individuals,” Dolnick says. “We all are, I think, each like a little island culture that has sprouted its own language and customs and civilization, and a lot of subtleties are going to be lost in almost any attempt at bringing two people close.”
Jessica Gross is a writer living in New York City.