A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (2008) Spiegel & Grau (2008) 530 pp
I was warned off A Fraction of the Whole 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.