"The Answer to Everything is compelling proof that Elyse Friedman is one of Canada's best and most crucial writers. Both cynical and searching, it's a hilarious yet deeply moving portrait of an upstart cult gone wrong-it drew me in from page one but never let me settle, continually surprising me and challenging my take on things. It puts its players through the same paces, and the result is a cast of some of the most memorable characters I've met in a long time. It feels urgently timely, too-a book that I'll be recommending far and wide." -Melanie Little, author of Confidence
John Aarons, a brilliant but perpetually broke artist, knows how to cadge a meal or seize an opportunity when he spies one. Turned out on the street by his fully employed, entirely fed up girlfriend, he goes on the hunt for cheap shared accommodation and stumbles upon the ideal set-up-a bedroom in the home of Amy, an attractive psychology student who has been abandoned by her condo-buying roommate. Not only does Amy have a surprisingly affordable penthouse apartment with rooftop patio and a fridge full of high-quality comestibles, but she also has a mysterious across-the-hall neighbour, Eldrich, who appears to be home all day, smoking weed and receiving an odd assortment of visitors.
Before long, John is availing himself of Eldrich's pot, food and wine. He notices that these staples are provided gratis to Eldrich by friends and acquaintances who rely on him for spiritual guidance. That's when John, atheist and misanthrope, decides to start a New Age cult with Eldrich as guru. And so, as half art project, half money-making scheme, the Answer Institute is born. With Amy as a partner in the enterprise, the cult flourishes and grows exponentially, attracting a wide range of broken, strange and spiritually hungry individuals, including an obscenely wealthy Singaporean expat, a psilocybin-dealing hippie, a conservative mom mourning the death of her only child, and the star of a popular sci-fi TV show. Eldrich begins to embrace his role as Leader with a little too much zeal and introduces his followers to increasingly peculiar rituals. Amy becomes progressively more enamoured of the funds pouring into the coffers, and John lets sexual jealousy get the better of him. The more successful the Institute gets, the more it spirals out of control, culminating in a bizarre ayahuasca ceremony that ends in a way nobody could have expected. With humour and pathos, The Answer to Everything examines the gap between reason and faith, and the human need for connection, love and transcendence.