Steve Toltz: A Fraction of the Whole

Before you read the book:

I was warned off A Fraction of the Whole (2008) earlier this year by people who said it was good but who didn’t believe it was worth the book’s weight, and when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize I almost decided not to read it unless it made it to the shortlist.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), I was running out of longlist titles available in the U.S. and had yet to order the rest from the UK.  So, thinking I might as well find out for myself, I picked it up.  Here is the first line:

You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue.

Amused and refreshed by just one sentence after having finished The Lost Dog, I kept going.  And though the book is long, it has a style and plot so propulsive that I was able to get through it quickly, and I did think it was worth the weight.

My initial thought: Ahhh, that was refreshing!  After several misses on the longlist, I finally have come away from a book feeling satisfied by each segment of the book and thankful for the judges for pointing out a treat of a book I otherwise would not have read.  I’m still trying to figure out, though, if I liked the book as much as I did only in contrast to the other longlist titles I’ve read or if the book would also hold its own outside of this bubble I’m in.  I think it would hold its own.

A Fraction of the Whole is a pleasantly perverse combination of American transcendentalism (transplanted in Australia) and nihilism, peppered with existentialism.  The interesting interplay of these theories plus a wit for a narrator, and I never really wanted to put the book down.  The plot was compelling, and Toltz manages the pacing well.  I read it quickly, yet I still felt I was given the opportunity to absorb its stories and its themes which were nicely drawn upon throughout the book’s several episodes without becoming nauseating.  At least, not too nauseating; sometimes the narrator’s unique perspective (which matches the style of several other characters in the book – more on that later) was a bit too much on display, but honestly for the most part I ate it up. 

The book was full of darkly disturbing humor, but it was done in a way that reminded me of the Coen brothers’ Fargo - you know you shouldn’t be enjoying yourself when so much that is awful is going on, but you can’t help yourself.  Thankfully, like Fargo, though the humor is bleak, the author respects the gravity of what he’s doing.  Alongside the wimsy is something dead serious.

The story belongs to Martin and Jasper Dean, father and son.  Jasper Dean is in a prison.  We know his father, Martin, is dead, and I got suspicious about whether Jasper was the cause of death.  Jasper has decided to spend his apparently ample time writing his story, but his story is not complete without going into the life of Martin Dean, who turns out to be an even more central figure in the book than Jasper.

On thing’s for sure: not writing about my father would take a mental effort that’s beyond me.  All my non-Dad thoughts feel like transparent strategies to avoid thinking about him.

The book is divided into seven chapters, which vary somewhat in style and perspective.  As Jasper reflects on his youth, he remembers a time when his father takes him away to tell him about Jasper’s uncle, Terry Dean, one of Australia’s most famous serial murderers.  The book smoothly transitions into a hundred-page-plus first person narration by Martin, recounting his youth where his brother Terry played a large role which would never be out done by anyone else in Martin’s life, even Martin.

To give an idea of the way the book progresses, in the second chapter Jasper finds out about his mother by reading one of his father’s old notebooks from the time.  So we are treated to another first-person narrative through a much looser style.  While reading, we (and Jasper) discover how Martin felt when Jasper was born.

A sickening idea has taken hold – this baby is me prematurely reincarnated.  I loathe this kid – I loathe it because it is me.  It is me.  It will surpass me.  It will overthrow me.  It will know what I know, all my mistakes.  Other people have children.  Not me.  I have given birth to something monstrous: to myself.

Where one person begins and another ends are one of the book’s focal points.  The title derives from a quote by Emerson:  “The moment we meet with anybody, each becomes a fraction.”  Martin and Jasper are the central characters whose relationship is being dissected to see how they each are a fraction of a larger whole that, that each is the lesser without the other.  But Toltz does a great job expanding this to their relationship with their partners, spouses, relatives, friends, community, with their nation, and with humanity in general. 

The title also plays nicely with other topics: insanity, love, life in general.  As I said earlier, this theme is cast on two people with an extreme, quasi-religious belief in nihilism, giving the book a potent flavor that is serious while still being, at most times, comic:

Nuclear energy is a waste of time.  They should go about harnessing the power of the unconscious when it is in the act of denying Death.

Because many of the philosophies used explicitly and implicitly in the book range from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, I felt like I was reading a book about “modern man” but with the voice and setting of “postmodern man” in all of its irreverence.  I would have liked it better, I think, had Toltz expanded (even more?) his scope to include some more contemporary perspectives, but this didn’t ruin the book by any means.

Though the style is amusing throughout, that turned out to be one of the problems with the book, not least because you might find it annoying (which I didn’t, most of the time).  The main problem is that each of the main characters sounded the same – like they all had the same voice and thought pattern, even down to the (masterfully) comic syntax.  That’s not to say that Toltz’s characters all were the same psychologically.  They weren’t.  But when they spoke, they all had the same style, the same way of wrapping up a unique observation with wit and a wry coda.  This might have been intentional since the characters are supposed to be derivatives of each other, but the consistency, while it didn’t feel forced, did feel more like it was just the author’s style.  Also, sometimes the wit was excellent but not quite fitting, further giving the impression that Toltz was speaking and not the characters.

But really, that didn’t take away my pleasure with this book.  It’s packed full of life and death and some of the great philosophies of life and death distilled through the filter of two fairly mundane, lazy wits. 

After you read the book:

Please let me know how you felt about this book in the comments section.  Just mark potential spoilers.

14 thoughts on “Steve Toltz: A Fraction of the Whole

  1. kimbofo says:

    I haven’t read this one, but reading your review made me think of another book, ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by Elliot Perlman, which is told in seven chapters from seven different perspectives, all of which sounded a little too similiar.

    I’ve yet to read a bad review of the Toltz, so I think at some point I am going to have to invest in a copy. I wish they’d hurry up the paperback release!

  2. Kimbofo, I have never heard of the Perlman book before. I’m not sure if what you wrote above is a recommendation or not, though. Kind of sounds like it isn’t, but I like the title!

    Good luck getting your hands on the Toltz book. It and Netherland are the only two on the longlist that I’m planning on keeping on my shelves. The rest (at least that I’ve reviewed so far) are on their way out soon after the shortlist is announced!

  3. kimbofo says:

    Sorry, I didn’t really make myself clear — the Perlman book is wonderful. (There’s a review on my blog somewhere.) He’s Australian, too, like Toltz.

  4. Michael says:

    Amazon says the paperback edition of this novel will be published in February.

    Trevor, will you be selling your unwanted books back, or looking to donate them somewhere? (Hint, hint) :-)

  5. Kimbofo, thanks for the clarification. I definitely have to check out Seven Types of Ambiguity (the novel first, maybe the literary theory later)!

    Michael, initially I was going to try to sell them on Amazon. I sure spent a bit of money on this project, having to get all in hardback and some from the UK, so it would be nice to get some of that back. But your comment makes me think there’s a better use for them! I’m surely willing to donate to the local library if you think its patrons (or you) are interested! Which ones does the library have?

  6. That sounds quite fun, it can be very difficult for comic novels to distinguish characters with distinctive voices, so that’s a fault I can probably forgive.

    It does sound a bit like Tolz is directly addressing us, which is unfortunate, but it sounds like that’s not fatal. I’ll be getting this once it’s in paperback I suspect.

    But Trevor, do you think it deserves to be on a Booker longlist? Is it that good?

  7. You know, Max, I have usually found the longlist to be mixed up anyway with several hit and miss novels on it. So I have to say that I do think it deserves its spot on the longlist. For a first novel, it is amazingly well controlled despite the flaws in voice. And it goes through some interesting themes in ways I’ve never seen before.

    To take it a step further, based on this year’s longlist, I think it deserves a spot on the shortlist, though in a perfect world this would be a longlisted title that was pushed out of the shortlist by an abundance of masterful pieces, but those masterful pieces are in short supply this year! Oh, to go back to 2004 and 2005!

  8. Hurrah!

    That’s what I was hoping to hear Trevor, with such a seeming paucity of good novels this year, I’m cheered that this one at least seems to deserve its place.

  9. tuesday says:

    Thanks for the great review! The only book I’ve read from this year’s longlist is ‘The Lost Dog’, but this is definitely going on my to-read list.

  10. I recommend it, Tuesday. Though a lot of people didn’t like it because Toltz is, in many places, being a bit over the top. I’m anxious to know your thoughts.

  11. Tom brown says:

    Why this is did not become a worldwide best seller is totally beyond me.

    Toltz offers you a deeper insight into the Australian psyche than you will ever get from Crocodile Dundee and shrimps on the barbie, so buy it, read it, and enjoy.

  12. Trevor says:

    Boy, it’s been a while since I thought of this book, Tom, and I appreciate your comment bringing it back to mind. I did really like this book. But, you know, when I read it and when I was reading about it, I don’t remember anyone arguing that it gave great insight into the Australian psyche. Would you elaborate? (Of course, I am 100% confident that it offers more than Crocodile Dundee.)

  13. Tom brown says:

    A Fraction of the whole. By Steve Toltz

    I suspect, that at least some of this book is based upon the real life experiences of Steve Toltz. Jasper’s description of his own appearance in the detention camp is almost identical to that of the author and thirty something years ago, this look and the foreign sounding name of Toltz would be sufficient to receive the attention of unsavoury youths. Add to this any intellectual leanings and a probable lack of interest in sport, and this kid is in for a pretty rough ride.

    Tolz takes a humorous dig at many things that Australians hold dear – Disrespect for authority especially politicians (Pollies), a dislike of rich people (Richies), a respect for hard (manual) working types, fair play for all in everyday life and sports (preferably team) , mate ship, and a great respect for the “Little Aussie battler” the one who doggedly wins out against all the odds.

    In the eyes of the majority, Martin and to a lesser extent son Jasper would be seen as lazy intellectuals. Martin’s not so bright half brother Terry, is a one time sporting hero who falls from grace after being stabbed. Terry quickly moves on to be a successful but unknown criminal, but eventually his desire to gain notoriety leads him to exploit the national love of sport, fair play and distaste for the rich, to become a national legend to equal the narcissistic villain, Ned Kelly.

    Much maligned Aussie media Baron Rupert Murdoch makes an appearance, in the guise of Oscar Hobbs along with his “never as good as the father”son. They back the “Make Everyone a Millionaire” scheme, which is fully subscribed by a population that professes to hate the rich but can’t wait to become one of them. Martin’s one big chance to match his brothers popularity, is scuttled by his presumed best friend Eddie who in fact works for his not quite as dead as we thought, brother Terry.

    Throw in a smattering of girlfriends, an intellectual criminal thug and author who is also outshone by Terry and the demise of Eddie, the failed Thai doctor who is so captivated by this living soap opera, that he spends most of his life apart from his wife and the irony of Martin’s one time housekeeper and bedfellow Anouk, a left wing, kill the rich equality warrior becoming the richest woman on the planet and in my opinion you have one of the best reads of the decade.

    Whether Steve Toltz will pull another one out of the hat remains to be seen, but right now he is surely up there with the best.

    Regards
    Tom B

    Note: The fact that I lived and worked in Australia for many years, am married to an Australian and spend time there whenever possible makes this read all the more enjoyable.
    PS. By coincidence, I am writing this from a resort in Queensland.

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