Saga of dysfunctional males weighs heavily
TA Fraction of the Whole By Steve Toltz Hamish Hamilton, 711pp, $ 35
HERE is much to love in this book and much to hate, as its author intended. I love the wonderfully wacky philosophising and the amazing way this giant novel fits together. I hate its bloated massiveness. Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole is as heavy as a dumbbell. It weighs 1.05kg in paperback and, at 210,000 words, takes 30 hours to read.
Toltz’s several stories focus on two generations of loser males in the Dean family: Jasper Dean ( born 1979) tells his story and also those of his father, Martin, and uncle Terry. Martin tells his story, too. It’s a long set of freaky bloke confessions.
The plot loops through a rural schoolyard, a suburban criminal hang- out and a penthouse office of Australia’s wealthiest mogul. Via Sydney, Paris and Bangkok, it ends with a people- smuggling boat in the Indian Ocean and an outback detention centre.
Re the cast: old lags rub shoulders with philosophers and pole dancers; media personal- ities bump into dodgy publishers and hippie housekeepers. Characters are blown up, burned alive, dumped at sea, massacred with machetes and shot at while jumping from the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
‘‘ Always bless every minute of this silly season in hell,’’ Uncle Terry ( gunrunner, strip- joint owner, serial killer and wanted escapee) advises nephew Jasper. It’s his comment on life in general and perhaps on the book itself.
If you want something more than Robert G. Barrett, and similar to but twitchier than Peter Carey, along with dashes of Catch- 22 , Austin Powers and The Simpsons plus entertaining and insightful takes on the great philosophers, this is the book for you.
But to avoid repetitive strain injury, try lying on your back and balancing the novel on your chest. Like two hinged bricks, it stands upright of its own accord.
The development of the plot involves five projects dreamed up and executed by Martin Dean. Each project is an attempt by this radical thinker to make his mark on the world and each
has its appalling consequences. Martin’s first project is the anonymous public suggestion box he builds for the town square where he lives with his parents in the 1960s. It leads to his brother starting a life of crime, his girlfriend’s father becoming permanently blind and a conflagration that razes the town and kills his family.
Other projects follow ( each occasions 100 pages) but his most famous is project No. 4, in which Martin formulates a scheme to make every Australian a millionaire. Supported by national media networks, the scheme flourishes, but corruptions deep in the Dean family cause it to blow up in Martin’s face. Martin, the philosopher addicted to ‘‘ thrilling ideas’’, is quickly despised by the nation.
In 711 pages, much more than the above is recounted. In Terry Dean’s story, Terry kills cops and cheating athletes and is adored nationally. In Jasper Dean’s story, the son is entangled in his father’s dreamer disasters and his uncle’s murderous triumphs. There are other stories too, including some of women.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman , the seminal novel of father- uncleson relationships done in quirky style, happens in 647 pages. Other classic fiction studies of men in jeopardy that stand the test of time — Robinson Crusoe and Moby- Dick — are 384 and 543 pages respectively ( according to my copies). The fattest Hemingway novel about men with profound personal problems is 480 pages.
Yes, size does matter, balanced against effect. At 711 pages, Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole is longer than each of these classics and should be shorter. It’s not as good as them in what it does.
But it is good. Toltz does wonderful philosophising: fun new angles are taken on cliched perspectives. Crazy things happen and we believe them. The novel is ridiculous and true, farfetched and convincing, alienating and addictive.
The central problem for me is I can’t find the book’s heart. It’s a black comedy tour de force, but where is its empathetic centre? The heartlessness is intentional, Toltz will say. A hefty dose of black satire is needed in today’s literature, he’ll conjecture.
But for 711 pages, it’s hard to stay teetered on the existential edge of despair, darkly comic though that may seem.
Since eight is my favourite number, on purpose I’ve not read the last eight pages of A Fraction of the Whole . It’s the kind of thing this novel inspires one to do. Thus, the fraction of the whole that I have read is 703/ 711ths. Surely 703 pages is enough for any book to make its point.
Nigel Krauth is a writer who lives in Queensland.
Fun with philosophy: Steve Toltz