October 23, 2010
A Fraction of the Whole
First published in:
Cover photo: Heritage Collections, State Library of Tasmania
Every single bookstore. There it was. Stacked on the display table (not the shelves, no no. The table). Hot pink dots on the cover joined the phrase "Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008". It was irresistible to me, a book I felt deeply I should read as a reviewer, but also as a lover of books. This was one I couldn't miss. When I found A FRACTION OF THE WHOLE at ABC The Hague, well. In the shopping bag it went.
Still, it took me a while to actually read it (earlier this year), possibly because I read the Man Booker winner (Aravind Adiga's THE WHITE TIGER) and found myself to be rather underwhelmed. How would I feel about a nominee if the winner didn't do it for me?
The answer? I feel a little silly. The Man Booker is an important literary prize, but winning it says nothing about the quality of the other shortlisted books (or longlisted books – or books that didn't even make the cut).
I quickly realized when I started reading A FRACTION OF THE WHOLE that I liked this book so much more than the winning book.
Martin Dean's entire life has revolved around one important thing: his brother Terry's actions. A notorious criminal, Terry's been on a murdering spree – killing athletes who took pay-offs, for one – until his own death, which made him an even bigger legend. Ever since, Marty's been focused on being A Somebody Too, but that's not an easy feat when you're a cynical misanthrope who analyzes and philosophizes everything to death. Marty's son Jasper looks on in embarrassment, wanting nothing more than to be free from his father's overbearing opinions on life, but unable to because his dad is all Jasper's got. It's only when Marty dies that Jasper can actually look upon their lives together and their crazy adventures (in Paris, Thailand and their homeland, Australia) in a different, more independent light, allowing himself to discover who he is with, and without his dad.
A FRACTION OF THE WHOLE is Toltz's debut, and an impressive one: the fractions that make the book a whole are so, so strong.
Toltz is a fantastic storyteller; his work is highly imaginative without going inexcusably overboard. If you think Steve Toltz is insane, try reading a book by Christopher Moore – whom I adore, but yeah, he's insane. It's why I buy his books. They're delightful.
Steve Toltz has tons of ideas and he does go everywhere with his story – some of them are outrageous, especially in the end – but he goes everywhere with self-confidence, a goal. He's forgiven because he remains very much in control, careful not to let the crazy overshadow the heart of the tale. And there's plenty of heart.
FRACTION is absolutely lough out loud funny. This started immediately; I'd already laughed a gazillion times by the time I reached page 30. There was something witty on every page – at least, I felt it was witty. His humor seems to come natural to him; it doesn't feel forced, the jokes aren't done before. It's fresh, it's daring, it's cynical – but it never puts down serious issues which do occur in the book.
An important theme is suicide; one of the most moving moments in the novel is when Jasper's classmate commits suicide, and the effect it has on his father, a teacher none of the kids could stand. It's a moment I won't forget; FRACTION has a lot of these memorable moments.
It's moments like these which brings me to the strongest aspect of FRACTION, and that is its characters. FRACTION does have a plot line but is clearly a character-driven book. Moments in their lives define Toltz's characters, as do relationships with each other. It's about Jasper's coming of age, absolutely. But even more, FRACTION explores the relationship between father and son (who share the position of narrator), and the bond between two (competitive, and very different) brothers. This is what you need to realize when you read this book. The heart of the book lies between two brothers, and the son of one. Toltz writes about these men with feeling, with soul… and with his brains.
Toltz is an opinionated man – a man who lets his thoughts (existential, philosophical) roam free. The thing that makes it work, is that he's able to get it all across to his readers without making them feel stupid – which a lot of other authors simply fail at. (I'll never forget putting down a revered book by Dutch author Harry Mulisch, in which existentialism is discussed at length between characters. I understood what he was talking about, but it all sounded like pretentious drivel and it put me off entirely.)
It's good that you're thinking about life and death, authors, and that you have questions and are seeking answers, but if you plan on dumping them on your readers (who expect a book about a dysfunctional father/son relationship, not necessarily a work containing a lot of philosophy), at least make it relatable, understandable, transferable. Toltz gets that and I appreciated this.
Furthermore, the reader doesn't have to agree with everything to see the literary value in Toltz's writing. His thoughts are so cleverly worded, that they make for enjoyable reading, so much that it didn't bother me that (my edition of) the book was 700+ pages long. I enjoyed every single word on every single page.
I'm such a huge fan of this author. Please please please, write another book, Steve Toltz. I'll be one of the first to read it. I have complete faith in this man's ability to write a brilliant sophomore novel.
It's not a big literary prize (it's not even real but shh, not the point), but it's a heartfelt one: the Karin Elizabeth Prize 2008, it's yours, Steve Toltz.
© Karin E. Lips
2008-2011 and beyond.