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Archive for December 24th, 2010

In a lovely moment of serendipity I came across the following quote by E.M. Forster just after I started reading Steve Toltz’s 711-page A Fraction of the Whole:

“One always tends to overpraise a long book because one has got through it.”

What then should I make of Toltz’s epic?  Should I temper my natural inclination to praise such a long book?!  How can I do that?  I’ve tried, but every time I think that maybe I’ve found a reason to dislike it ever so slightly, I am overwhelmed by instant regret and swamped by all the positives.  It really is a case of more is more.

I won’t try to summarise the plot, but it’s a ripping good ‘yarn’, narrated by both Jasper Dean and his father Martin – the most hated man in Australia – whose brother, Terry, is a modern hero of the Australian public in a Ned Kelly kind of way, someone who has endeared himself to all by ridding us of cheating and corrupt sports stars.  Martin on the other hand is a bit of a hopeless philosopher, with a bi-polar-style persona that veers from introverted depression to mania filled with ideas, such as his plan to make everyone in Australia a millionaire.

It is a very funny read.  There are so many jokes that quoting a few here is surely apt to do the whole injustice, but I’ll give it a go.

Martin, a professed atheist, says (p34) that he has an “inability to make a leap of faith … Sorry, Lord.  I guess one man’s burning bush is another man’s spot fire.”

Then there is the hilarious dissecting of the games played at children’s birthday parties (p50-51).  Pass the parcel is a “game of greed and impatience.  I caused a stir when I stopped the game to read the newspaper.”  Musical Chairs is another ‘cruel game’, whose “tension is unbearable … the children’s faces are contorted in terror” … The game is an analogy for life: there are not enough chairs or good times to go around, not enough food, not enough joy, nor beds, nor jobs nor laughs nor friends nor smiles nor money nor clean air to breathe … and yet the music goes on.”

Fortunately for us readers, there are enough laughs to go around in this towering burlesque.  There is the town suggestion box, one of Martin’s great ideas, which initially brings the town together to hear its oracle-like suggestions, such as Martin’s own idea to build an observatory.  But in the end, the townsfolk begin to make suggestions about other townsfolk and what they should do to improve themselves and the whole town unravels into a sniping mess.  The observatory is built and is a success at first, but ends up starting a raging bushfire which destroys the town after its uncovered mirrors focus the sun’s rays onto the surrounding forest!

Later, we get to see the creation of ‘The Handbook of Crime’ written by Terry West, a career criminal who the brothers befriend in the local jail.  Martin edits the book, dividing it into two sections: Crime and Punishment(!).  There are chapters entitled: “Motiveless Crimes: Why?; Armed Robbery: Laughing All the Way from the Bank; Crime and Fashion: Balaclavas Are Always In; The Police and You: How to Spot a Crooked Cop by His Shoes.”

It just goes on and on, spiralling from Poland to Sydney to Paris to Thailand.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008, A Fraction lost out to Aravind Adiga’s hugely successful The White Tiger.  Of the other four shortlisted novels that year, I’ve also read Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture: see my review here.  I liked both of these books, but neither is as good as A Fraction.

I found the ending a little ponderous, Jasper Dean, our narrator admits as much, trying to come up with something insightful to summarise the life of his father and life itself.  It’s almost as if Toltz couldn’t summarise the previous 700-odd pages.  But who cares?  It’s a wonderful first novel.  Make the time for it.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

Penguin

2008

ISBN: 9780143009528

711 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow (aka: personal library).

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