Stretch­ing a friend­ship

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

Steve Toltz’s 2008 de­but, A Frac­tion of the Whole, was one of the most orig­i­nal Aus­tralian nov­els in years. A hi­lar­i­ous rol­lick­ing adventure, it messed with sa­cred cows, daz­zled with its quixotic plot­ting, bril­liant satir­i­cal sen­tences and hy­per­bolic ex­plo­rations of ideas such as sib­ling ri­valry, fil­ial piety and celebrity cul­ture. It was short­listed for the Man Booker Prize, longlisted for the Miles Franklin Lit­er­ary Award and won the NSW Premiers Prize Peo­ple’s Choice Award.

Af­ter seven years, Quick­sand is Toltz’s muchawaited sec­ond novel. In some ways it re­sem­bles its pre­de­ces­sor: an out­landish plot, stacked with trans­gres­sion of pro­pri­ety and con­sis­tently in­ven­tive wit. But it doesn’t work as well. Un­for­tu­nately, it’s one of those dif­fi­cult sec­ond nov­els that hasn’t man­aged to emerge fully from the shadow of the first.

Whereas A Frac­tion of the Whole was a fam­ily story — of broth­ers, and fa­thers and sons — Quick­sand is a buddy story, of the long friend­ship dat­ing back as far as high school be­tween Liam, a failed writer turned po­lice­man, and his more ex­otic friend, Aldo Benjamin, mas­ter of poor tim­ing, bad busi­ness ideas and rub­bing peo­ple up the wrong way.

As a po­lice­man’s friend, Aldo is a pro­fes­sional li­a­bil­ity. He con­stantly seems to be in trou­ble with the law, with Liam con­stantly called on to res­cue him, a task for which he rarely re­ceives thanks.

There are echoes in Aldo of Woody Allen’s neu­rotic pro­tag­o­nists and it’s dif­fi­cult to sus­tain in­ter­est in his des­tiny across the 430 pages, not so much be­cause he is un­lik­able, which he is, a neu­rotic lack­ing men­schlichkeit, but more be­cause Liam’s ob­ses­sion with him is never ad­e­quately ex­plained. In­deed, it’s hard to get a sense of why the neg­a­tive charisma of Aldo could be so com­pelling for so many of the char­ac­ters in this book. Cer­tainly, in the novel’s ob­ses­sion with Aldo, Liam the nar­ra­tor is never prop­erly de­vel­oped. His be­com­ing a po­lice­man, for in­stance, is treated al­most as a kind of ac­ci­dent.

Quick­sand is a story in the man­ner of The Great Gatsby, the 1987 cult film With­nail and I, or Philip Roth’s Amer­i­can Pas­toral where one friend is the nar­ra­tor of the other’s more no­table story. At times, Toltz breaks this up, no­tably through a se­ries of first-per­son Aldo frames where he is be­ing in­ter­viewed by the po­lice, and then a long sec­tion where he gives tes­ti­mony in court. Toltz adds a post­mod­ern twist by in­tro­duc­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that Liam as a writer may be mak­ing Aldo up, an idea the two friends dis­cuss but that is not de­vel­oped fur­ther. Like Aldo’s schemes, Toltz picks up ideas, plays with them and aban­dons them with some reg­u­lar­ity.

The plot is an anti-bil­dungsro­man, a wild ride from Aldo’s youth in Zet­land High in Syd­ney’s in­ner south to the on­set of mid­dle age and a magic beach. Aldo at­tempts to tri­umph over his fail­ure through in­creas­ingly grandiose schemes be­fore los­ing spec­tac­u­larly, then achiev­ing a su­perbly im­plau­si­ble pyrrhic victory. The novel is or­gan­ised around the span of Liam and Aldo’s friend­ship, one of those in­tense wit­ness­ing mate­ships brewed in ado­les­cence that of­ten begin to dwin­dle with the slide into fam­ily life and mid­dle age. Liam’s lament for Aldo is in­evitably one for the loss of his own youth, leav­ened at the end by the fact his daugh­ter, Sonja, from his own failed mar­riage is able to mit­i­gate her fa­ther’s grief by of­fer­ing him her half-drunk beer.

Per­haps it is true that one of the con­so­la­tions as we grow older is the prom­ise of grown chil­dren who will be so kind as to ine­bri­ate us in our dotage. Cer­tainly, Toltz brings to Quick­sand the same free­wheel­ing icon­o­clasm he de­ployed to such great ef­fect in his de­but. How­ever, here it doesn’t work so well. A key prob­lem is a lack of mod­u­la­tion. There are enough jokes here to sup­ply sev­eral comic nov­els. So many, in fact, that it’s hard not to gloss over many of them. The ef­fect then, per­haps un­rea­son­ably, be­comes one of the hu­mour be­ing forced.

This risk is com­pounded by lan­guage that rarely de­parts from the hy­per­bolic. The de­tails of Aldo’s life are stacked and re­peated, when they might have ben­e­fited from the breath of mys­tery. The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect is re­lent­less, hec­tor­ing and repet­i­tive, rem­i­nis­cent of the ex­cesses of Roth. Read­ing Quick­sand too of­ten be­comes a kind of dead­en­ing by ha­bit­u­a­tion. Here’s an ex­am­ple: “As you know, ladies and gen­tle­men of the jury, you can al­ways find some­one worse off than you, but some­times you have to go out­side your own cir­cles of friends to do so. That’s why I’d spent the day in ques­tion fre­net­i­cally googling my way through a bo­nanza of grotesque-luck cases: the teenager who’d had a stroke af­ter her first kiss; the man whose toes were eaten by his ter­rier while he slept; the farmer whose Xray showed a corkscrew in his brain; the boy who lost an arm out the win­dow of a car wav­ing to his mother. A stock­pile of base­line com­par­isons for ther­a­peu­tic pur­poses. Ev­ery story asked me, point blank, to have my say and I obliged. Thanks for il­lu­mi­nat­ing the true in­co­her­ence of cause and ef­fect, fran­ti­can­gel33, you couldn’t have been un­luck­ier if you were born in a tiger’s mouth. Hey there func­tion­al­ly­il­lit­er­ate007, un­der­stand­ing what hap­pened to you is like try­ing to get a foothold in a river. The en­tire in­ter­net now gives off an un­pleas­ant odour, thanks to your bit­ter tale, pe­ter­hot­pants21, and I pre­dict you will never be en­vied in your whole painful ex­is­tence. Et cetera.”

There is in­deed too much et cetera at work here, with the con­se­quence that a kind of nar­ra­tive pur­pose­less­ness takes hold. Now this could be con­strued as a cri­tique or at least ren­di­tion of the frag­mented at­ten­tion span of the in­ter­net

Au­thor Steve Toltz

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