The stunning opening of Jean Thompson’s latest novel, The Humanity Project, makes it clear that we’re in the hands of a writer who knows what she’s doing—and knows us, as a nation, all too well. In the first of three passages that mark the novel’s sections, she lays out the cultural desperation and frustrations that ail us, cataloging all that we fear. First, “our children, who lived in their own world of casually lurid pleasures,” and next, our neighbors, “who were organizing themselves into angry tribes recognizable to one another by bumper stickers.

But we also fear those people “who hated us with ancient, inexplicable, and undying hatreds,” who “might precipitate some majestic destruction that we could not imagine, or no, we could imagine it all too well, the fire, the choking ash, the impossibly small spaces that our bodies would be made to fit.”

In the face of all this chaos and anxiety, what does it mean to be good, and what motivates people to try? As you might expect, based on her previous ruminations on American life, including The Year We Left Home, Thompson offers no easy answers.

Though these passages are sparing, Thompson says she wanted readers to understand she has a serious purpose. “I wanted an authorial or omniscient voice to come in and say, ‘Yes, I am hovering over all of these characters and their outlines and meditating on them and guiding you,’” she explains. “It’s something I hadn’t done before—to use that more elaborate, rhetorical voice.”

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Most of the time, however, Thompson writes like she’s your witty neighbor, watching everybody over the fence and reporting the latest on your mutual acquaintances with wry, spot-on observations. There’s Sean, whose odd jobs dry up after he does “something unholy” to his back and who winds up addicted to painkillers, and his son, Conner, trying to earn cash doing odd jobs for the widowed Mrs. Foster. Linnea, who wonders why her family is “inflicting their stupid selves on her,” is sent to live with her absent father, Art, after surviving a high school shooting that claims her stepsister’s life. Art is a hapless and hopeless community college instructor, who knows he is “past his stale date.” He’s intrigued by his neighbor Christie, a nurse, who strives to maintain a detached, Zen-like perfection in her relationships, noting that things are “so much easier on everyone else when you did the things that were expected of you.” One of Christie’s patients, the same Mrs. Foster whom Conner works for, charges Christie to lead her new charity, The Humanity Project, thinking she might be able to pay people to be good—and all of the characters collide in a messy, dark, yet frequently funny examination of human nature.

No consideration of morality is complete without scrutinizing the role that money plays in the decisions we make. “The economy is looking up now,” says Thompson, “but when I was writing the book, people were in such terrible shape, and still are.”Thompson Cover

Sean and Conner are barely scraping by, but Conner feels their precarious lives are invisible to others. “Sometimes he thought about all the really miserable parts of the world, Africa or India or wherever else you were supposed to send your charitable donations, places with water buffalo and mud huts and dying children,” Thompson writes. “At least there it would be obvious you were stinking poor, and you wouldn’t have to pretend otherwise. Here in America, you could walk around looking pretty much like everybody else.” 

None of the characters serve as an easy moral center for the novel. Conner takes advantage of Mrs. Foster to provide for his dad. Mrs. Foster’s daughter resents her inheritance being spent on what she considers futile causes, but is probably right that no specific financial incentive motivates goodness. 

The self-righteousness, pretension, and hypocrisy that can surround even well-meaning efforts to help others are exposed in that most tedious of modern intellectual endeavors: the conference. Organized to address the charity’s nebulous goals, the meeting devolves into farce, and Christie realizes, “Maybe that was why she’d given up, without knowing she was giving up, her own insignificant attempts at being virtuous. It bored her.”

Thompson provides few certainties and a surprising ending, which “is my version of a happy ending,” she says, noting how seldom she writes them. “The new start is, of course, such a cliché, but we love it in America. It’s the whole idea of being born again, that all my sins are washed away, everything is going to be better now. I’ve disowned my past and I’ve moved beyond it.”

A more authentic version of the fresh start is a lot harder than it looks in pop culture, Thompson implies. It might involve telling and retelling different versions of our story, like Linnea, who is trying to come to terms with who she was before the shooting and who she is now. Being good might just look like hard-won self-acceptance.

Stacey Mickelbart is a freelancer who has written for newyorker.com and edits THiNK Magazine.