Stretching a friendship
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