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Steve Toltz, A fraction of the whole

May 27, 2009

I reckon the voters for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards inaugural People’s Choice Award got it right when they chose Toltz’s A fraction of the whole as the first winner. Not necessarily because it is the best book of the year, because I’m not sure that it is, but because it is such a life-writ-large book. It is funny – belly-laugh, sometimes, and quiet chuckle, other times – but serious at the same time. Just when you think you have grasped what it is about, it dives off on another tangent and your brain has to start working all over again.

I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s basically a father-son story, told in first person by the son, Jasper. However, Jasper inserts into his story three long sections in his father’s voice: Martin’s life-story (to the age of 22) as he tells it to Jasper in a seventeen hour stint, entries from Martin’s journal describing his relationship with Jasper’s mother, and Martin’s unfinished autobiography. These add some texture to the novel and allow us to know things that Jasper couldn’t know.

Created by Tinette, Wikipedia, under GNU Free Documentation Licence

Created by Tinette for Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation Licence

The characters are intriguing, with Martin being centre-stage. At my bookgroup’s discussion of the book one of the members wondered whether there could be a bit of yin-yang between Martin and his brother Terry, and she could have a point. Jasper quotes the following from his father’s journal:

No symbolic journey can take place in an apartment. There’s nothing metaphorical about a trip to the kitchen. There’s nothing to ascend! Nothing to descend! No space! No verticality! No cosmicity! … The essential important idea that will shift me from Thinking Man to Doing Man is impossible to apply here. … I am a halfway man …

But, while he tries, Martin never really does move from a Thinking Man, while his brother remains the Doing Man. Jasper seems caught in the middle. Martin’s trouble is that he has “thought himself into a corner”, one where he is so distrustful  of humanity, and so fearful of death, that he can’t trust the ideas that could get him out. As Martin says: “If men are constantly manufacturing meaning in order to deny death, then how can I know I didn’t manufacture that experience myself?”. This corner, this distrust, is to bring tragedy to his life near the end of the novel.

It’s a very funny book, with the comedy being both verbal and situational. It is at different times absurd, ironic or satiric. The satire is aimed at pretty much anything you could imagine – education, politics, media (journalists in particular), philosophy, death and, indeed, humanity. Almost any page you open will provide either a laugh or a description that makes you go “aha” – on many pages you will find both.

So what is it actually about? It is about father-son relationships, and about sons who don’t want to replicate their fathers. It is about Australia (“our demented country”) and Australians – and is not too complimentary about our willingness to put others down, our lack of compassion for those who need our help. It is about the paradoxes that make up our lives and thus humanity and much of the book is expressed in terms of these paradoxes – the good and bad, life and death, pessimism (Martin) versus optimism (Jasper), sanity and insanity, forgiveness and unforgiveness, and so on.

There is so much to write about this book that I think it’s best I end here with, fittingly, a paradoxical statement made by Martin two-thirds through the novel. “Fiction”, he says in his unfinished autobiography, “has a habit of making the real world seem made-up”. Toltz has produced in his novel a world that seems both real and made-up. It is up to us to decide which is which…and act accordingly!

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