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Steve Toltz, Quicksand (Review)

February 5, 2016

Steve Toltz, Quicksand, soverAldo Benjamin, the anti-hero of Quicksand, accuses wannabe-writer-friend Liam of having “such little imagination”. You could not, however, accuse the novel’s author, Steve Toltz, of this. Quicksand reads a bit like a 19th century satirical novel transplanted into the 21st century. It is big in size (though not as big as his first, A fraction of the whole), broad in subject matter, and full of colourful characters. It’s wild, imaginative, and darkly funny. It’s the sort of novel that you can tackle from different angles depending on what interests you most. Religion, god and fate? Tick. Life and death? Tick. Love and friendship? Tick. Social commentary? Tick. Art (broadly), artists and the making of art? Tick.

“Bad luck is my pathology” (Aldo)

Before I tell you what interested me, though, a little about the plot. Quicksand is the story of Aldo Benjamin, told partly by his friend, Liam Wilder, and partly by himself. Meeting at high school, Aldo and Liam remain friends until the book closes when they are in their early to mid 40s. Together they reveal the ups and downs – mostly downs – of Aldo’s life as he tries to make his way against what he sees as the tide of fate or bad luck. The novel opens when they are in their early 40s and Aldo, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, has just been released from prison. We don’t know how long he’s been in the wheelchair or how that came to be, and we don’t know why he’d been in prison. These come out in the course of the novel, which flashes back in chapter 2 to their schooldays and then moves between the past and present to tell the story. We also discover in the opening chapter that Liam is trying to restart his writing career by writing Aldo’s story, much to Aldo’s resigned disgust: “I’m nobody’s muse”, he says. Ironically, though, not only is he Liam’s muse but he’d also been one for his musician wife, Stella, and photographer lover, Mimi.

Aldo, “The King of Unforced Errors” as Liam calls him or a sufferer of “clinical frustration” as Aldo sees it, gets into all sorts of strife. He is regularly bailed out by friends (who cover “the full suite of professional services” such as policeman Liam, Doc Castles, his old school teacher Mr Morrell) and lovers. Nothing much works for him, particularly not his various get-rich-quick business ideas, like the device that was supposed to detect the presence of peanuts in food, or clothing for obese toddlers, or tanning salon taxis, or maternity clothes for goths (“a demographic with an 85% abortion rate”). Moreover, his marriage fails, his child dies, his multiple suicide attempts are unsuccessful, and, to rub salt into his wounds, he ends up in the two places he most fears, prison and hospital. As Liam says in response to Aldo’s question about why write his story:

Because you’ll inspire people. To count their blessings.

I love this sort of writing, this dark humour. It’s full-on to read because lines like this frequently fall over each other, sentence after sentence, leaving you wanting to stop and smell the roses for a minute. Still, I was hooked by page 5 when Aldo presents to Liam a long list of our 21st century insecurities, pretensions and self-deceptions, including

‘You know how people are worried their kid’s going to turn to them and say, What did you do to the biosphere, Daddy?

AND

‘And you know how there’s no replacement cycle too short for today’s consumer?’

AND

‘You know how while we’re enjoying reading dystopian fiction, for half our population this society is dystopia?’

These go on for three pages. Wonderful satire. No matter how superior we might feel about most of the pronouncements, there’s bound to be one or two that get us where it hurts! Toltz looks unblinkingly at our lives and shines them right back at us in the most direct, no-punches-pulled way. It made me laugh – but ruefully, if not guiltily at times – almost every page.

“To troubleshoot the human spirit” (Liam)

The other aspect I enjoyed was the thread about art, artists and art-making. The major focus of this is Liam’s novel about Aldo’s life. After years of failure and giving up, Liam finally decides that Aldo is his “natural subject”. Writing about him, Liam tells Aldo, would be “to troubleshoot the human spirit”. It would, he thinks, throw him “into a head-on collision with the meaning of fate, humanity’s sure, but Aldo’s strange specific one too”. Aldo and Liam discuss Liam’s progress frequently, with Aldo always ready with an astute comment or criticism. “Does my character in your book”, Aldo asks, “need to be more consistent than my character in real life?” “No,” says Liam, though in fact many readers do, I find, prefer it to be so!

Liam is not the only creator in the novel. Aldo’s musician wife Stella plunders Aldo’s life for her songs, and then there’s the art teacher from Liam and Aldo’s school, and the artists in the artists’ residence where Aldo lives for a time. Through all these the novel interrogates why we make art, what art is about. Early on, before he starts his Aldo novel and after years of failure, Liam decides to give up writing. He says

I had settled into a life I had always feared but secretly desired, a life uninterrupted and unencumbered by art.

Chapter 2, though, begins with art teacher Morrell’s statement that:

We make art because being alive is a hostage situation in which our abductors are silent and we cannot even intuit their demands.

Art is not, however, presented as something that is easy or even always right. Toltz’s artists struggle to achieve, are frequently self-obsessed, and unapologetically mine their friends and family for material, all the while, thinks Aldo at least, having a good time. “Their brains are all pleasure centres and no circumference”, he tells the court. They are not, in other words, unilaterally lauded, but this is, of course, ironic, if not subversive, since what we are reading is a novel, a work of art itself. The wheels within wheels in this novel – the ironies, the paradoxes, the self-reflexivity – sometimes make your head spin, but in the end, there is an end, and it’s a surprisingly positive one.

And here, I’ll end! This novel is so full of funny lines, so full of ideas, so full of biting commentary, that it’s hard to know when to stop so, as EM Forster* wishes novelists could do, I think I’ll just end, not because I’m bored which is the reason he gives, but because I might as well.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed it.

Steve Toltz
Quicksand
Hamish Hamilton, 2015
435pp.
ISBN: 9781926428680

* Aspects of the novel, by EM Forster

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2016 6:34 pm

    Great to read your positive review. I saw the author last fall (on a panel on black humour, by the way). Unfortunately the $34 price tag on the hardcover book kept me from purchasing a copy to have signed, but I did consider it. When the paperback comes out here I will probably pick it up.

    • February 5, 2016 7:14 pm

      Thanks RG, how great to have seen him – and yes, black humour is certainly his schtick and I love it. I understand he currently lives in the US. I hope you get to read it soon.

  2. February 5, 2016 8:03 pm

    I also really loved this book until something gave way for me, and I can’t articulate what it was, exactly. Like you, I loved the dark humour and the characterisation. Also that it was different. There’s an article I clipped where Toltz says he doesn’t like Australian fiction. I can’t remember the word he used to describe it, but there is something in this book (haven’t read A Fraction yet) that gives a clue why.

    Is it ok if I put a link to your review on my post, Sue? It’s a great review.

    • February 5, 2016 9:01 pm

      Thanks Jenny, of course you can. I think I understand how you could feel that way and not be able to articulate it. And I feel I’ve seen something about him not liking Australian literature too. Not a wise thing to say – and, anyhow, why?

      • February 5, 2016 11:22 pm

        I think in the end it was just too hectic for me. But it is a book I think I might re-read because when I enjoyed it, I really enjoyed it. Marvellous humour as you’ve noted.

        • February 5, 2016 11:35 pm

          It is hectic I agree – breathless, frenetic. I kept thinking, save some ideas for next time, but I suspect he doesn’t run out!

      • February 7, 2016 1:31 pm

        Yes, he said it in a profile piece in one of the papers. Maybe he feels outcast from Aus literary space? Or maybe he really doesn’t care for local literature. I will say what he does with his writing is different to what most writers here do. He doesn’t play it safe, that’s for sure, and I really admire him for that. I still have to read A Fraction of a Whole. And I will link to your review now.

        • February 7, 2016 2:53 pm

          Hmmm … though he did win a People’s Choice award (NSW Premier’s prize I think) which is pretty impressive though perhaps less to to a writer who may want peer acknowledgement. It’s a while since I’ve read it but there’s that other expat Aussie male DBC Pierre who doesn’t play it safe either. I’m thinking of his Vernon God Little. (At least from my admittedly failing memory.)

      • February 7, 2016 1:33 pm

        So funny, I’ve already linked…

  3. February 6, 2016 4:14 am

    Oh this sounds wonderful! And even better my library has a copy of it! I put it on my “Priority” list so we’ll see how long it takes me to get around to reading it!

    • February 6, 2016 8:49 am

      Great Stefanie. I guess your library has it because he lives in the USA. Be aware that it’s the sort of book that polarises. It’s not perfect … He’s not a less is more sort of writer … But I think he’s worth it.

  4. February 7, 2016 9:04 am

    My book club read A Fraction of the Whole last year, and most of us were not fans. Yes, we found him funny at times but we just found the story boring. So I don’t think I will be reading Quicksand.

    • February 7, 2016 12:44 pm

      Sounds like my reading group, Meg. We’ve read them both now, and there tends tone more naysayers than lakers. He is a different sort of writer, but I like the difference even if it’s over-the-top and full-on because his commentary on society is so whip-smart (but that’s just the way my brain reacts to writing like that!) A fraction of the whole was long.

  5. February 7, 2016 6:01 pm

    I enjoyed “A Fraction of the Whole”, but this one sounds a tad too dark for me at the moment. I’ve been reading a lot of Annie Dillard lately and think I need to read something frivolous for a change. 🙂

    • February 7, 2016 6:46 pm

      Oh it’s dark, but not totally grim. There’s too much humour for that I think.

      Annie Dillard? I’m just about to finish The Mattress. Great writing but I think I know what you mean!

  6. ian darling permalink
    February 8, 2016 9:07 pm

    I have a copy of his first novel and this review rather persuades me to give it a go!

    • February 8, 2016 9:16 pm

      Good Ian … he’s an interesting writer. The first one is looser and baggier but I remember enjoying it.

  7. February 9, 2016 4:04 am

    Oh, this sounds fab, but I have to wait for the UK publication date (May, I think). I never did read A Fraction of the Whole though: I was (shamefully) put off by the size!

    • February 9, 2016 8:07 am

      I totally understand, kimbofo. I have to steel myself for long books, though when I do, I usually enjoy them.

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