by Steve Toltz
710 pages, Spigel & Grau
Review by Marc Nash
I bought this book off the back of a London Underground poster. Everyday I would pass it on the opposite platform from my carriage, full of the usual gushing wordbites of praise, but my eyesight not being good enough to see the author's name. In the end I Googled it to track it down and the rest as they say is history.
And a very fine book it is too. A debut author to boot. 'A Fraction of the Whole' even survives the stigma of being Australian, in fact, this is one of its strengths as it brashly fails to honour any fuddy duddy literary traditions.
Firstly it is funny. Very funny, chock full of wonderful word combinations that provide for an acerbic, off-kilter view of the world. There is rarely a page that goes by without some noteworthy phrase, a hell of an achievement in a book that runs over 700 pages. "Are you being picked on by a bully? Why don't you give me his number and ask him to call me? I'm sure meditation would really calm him down".
This is the kind of advice Jasper Dean is given by his family and friends. To say dysfunctional is to litotes. His father Martin is a philosopher; part schemer, part indolent. His crazy schemes relate to 'immortality projects', his indolence to the weight of purposelessness pressing down on him as to the inevitability of death undermining any point to existence. "I don't want to be the dying man who learns how to live five seconds before his death". Martin is dying in one spiritual form or another throughout the book. But he won't let go; such is his fear of death.
Then there is Uncle Terry, Martin's crim brother whose penumbra overshadows everything Martin, and by extension Jasper, ever can achieve. He is Australia's most wanted, but not armed with a conventional criminal agenda. I'm led to wonder in the same way as Steve Tesich's book "Karoo" was set against a backdrop of Hollywood and thereby defined the modern American psyche for me, here the crim backdrop of this book seems to define it as quintissentially Australian.
The women in the novel are genuinely objects of desire, dreamy, flawed and generally unobtainable. Objection could be made about that I suppose, but there is an air of unreality about all the novel, in terms of how events unfold. I have seen it in some quarters described as having some magical realism, can we please put that notion to bed for once and for all, both in regards to this novel and any novel written in the current century? It's just lazy.
There is something behind the tone of this book. It doesn't weigh its philosophising too heavily. It comes in now and again, but when it does, it has pertinent things to say that made this particular reader sit up and cogitate for one. "And now he was in the madhouse. I wasn't surprised. Denouncing civilisation takes its toll when you continue to exist within it".
But the sentiment that struck a chord with me was the following: "Dad always maintained that people don't go on a journey at all but spend a lifetime searching for and gathering evidence to rationalise the beliefs they've held in their hearts since day one. They have new revelations certainly, but these rarely shatter their core belief structure - they just build on it". To me this is the crux of where the novel form currently stands in the twenty first century. No more of heroes and redemption and character arcs. People don't really change all that much, how does a novel treat that? This novel is almost ground down by its own inertia, not in its action, nor in its observations, just in the unremitting failure of its protagonists to rise above their fate and learn anything new. I didn't have any problem with this, since it is so entertaining a jaunt. Other readers may well fare less amicably. But I'm telling you, shaggy dog tales are in, rather than Cormac McCarthyism. Voices directly burning into the reader's receptors, through an almost conversational approach is the new 'character'. These are the narrative trends I'm predicting for this season and I'm loving that fact, since that's how I've written my own humble offering. But hats off to Mr Toltz, the one sat on the head of his young cover star presumably fitting the bill. This was a modestly, unassuming work of staggering genius. Dave Eggers can only look on and feel sick.