Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole
I blame Rushdie. It's been nearly thirty years since Midnight's Children was first published, but the specter of the capacious, gravity-defying, say-it-all novel is still with us, and continues to lure unsuspecting young novelists to their doom. Its latest victim, it seems to me, is Steve Toltz, whose debut novel A Fraction of the Whole, tells the story of the All-Australian Dean family - brothers Martin and Terry (the former a champion misanthrope, the latter a legendary outlaw) and Martin's son Jasper - in "fist-eating, gut-wrenching, seat-edging, nail-biting, lip-pulling, chain-smoking, teeth-clenching detail". A Fraction of the Whole is in many ways a splendid and exhilarating work, but one so overwrought with cleverness, so fraught with baroque contrivances, that it fails to establish an emotional connection with the reader. James Wood would call this hysterical realism; and he would be right.
This is not, by itself, a criticism. Unlike Wood, I don't believe that every novel has to conform to some form of 'lifeness'. I'm quite willing to trade cleverness for authenticity, inventiveness for depth. Done properly, there are few things more mesmerising than truly larger-than-life fiction.
And mesmerising, for the first 200 pages or so, is exactly what Steve Toltz is. That long first section of A Fraction of the Whole is a comic tour de force: vigorous, imaginative, witty, pugnacious and bristling with kind of manic energy that keeps you glued to the page with a big grin plastered all over your face. Judged by the first 200 pages alone, A Fraction of the Whole may be one of the finest books published this year, and certainly one of the funniest.
Which is why it's a pity that Toltz doesn't stop there, but keeps going for another 330 pages, in the course of which the momentum of that glorious opening is allowed to dissipate. Oh, Toltz tries all right, and the book is still funny - there are some electrifying one-liners, some hilarious diatribes and every now and then a genuinely comic situation. But nothing that quite matches the full-throttle brilliance of those early pages. Having started off at an almost Pynchon-ian pitch, Toltz slips into a mode that is half Martin Amis and half Peter Carey - without either the former's sharpness or the latter's gift for character development.
Much of the problem, I suspect, is that having told us all there really is to know about Martin Dean (who is the book's undeniable epicenter) in the first section, Toltz is left with very little to add; so that the rest of the novel becomes a set of repetitive variations on a familiar and, by the end, hackneyed theme. So successfully has Toltz brought Martin Dean to life, so swiftly has he added nuance and depth to this unforgettable character, that we come to know him a little too well, and when no further revelations are forthcoming, Dean Sr., whose only real charm is his ability to shock, quickly turns into something of a boor. And because no other character in the book is half as fascinating as Martin Dean is, he takes the rest of the book down with him.
In part, this is deliberate: the central point of Toltz's novel is that for all his smarter-than-thou intellectualizing Martin will end up a bitter, frightened and deeply frustrated man. But because Martin Dean is too outrageous a figure to merit any emotional investment on our part, his eventual fall from grace inspires not sympathy but disappointment. And the fact that Toltz keeps the story going long after it has lost all dramatic interest - the last section in particular is a terrible miscalculation - only makes this worse. By the time the book finally ends that brilliant starting seems a distant memory, as though from a different book.
All of that said, A Fraction of the Whole is a rambunctious, scathingly funny book that, despite its considerable length, is well worth the read. Even at his most uninspired Toltz is never really dull, and the sheer ambition of what he sets out to do here is admirable, even if his achievement falls a little short of his aspiration. If this book is anything to go by we're going to be hearing more about Toltz in the years to come, and I, for one, look forward to that.
[Part of the 2008 Booker Mela]