Saga of dys­func­tional males weighs heav­ily

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Nigel Krauth

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.

Pic­ture: Andy Baker

Fun with phi­los­o­phy: Steve Toltz

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