Steve Toltz, Quicksand (Review)

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


‘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
Hamish Hamilton, 2015
ISBN: 9781926428680

* Aspects of the novel, by EM Forster

Monday musings on Australian literature: Five fascinating fictional fathers

This week’s Monday musings has a personal, sentimental, genesis. Last Friday, my 91-year-old father underwent his third major abdominal surgery in 6 years. It’s a big ask for an older body but he’s hanging in there. My parents, not surprisingly I suppose, were instrumental in my becoming a reader. My mother introduced me to Jane Austen. My father would let me bring my “28 books” (why I thought there were 28 is lost in my childhood haze) to him in bed in the morning so he could read them aloud to me. It was also he who introduced me, through reading aloud again, to Banjo Paterson‘s ballads. I have a lot to thank my parents for – and my being a reader is one of them.

All this got me to thinking of fathers in literature, and particularly Australian literature. There are a lot of men – yes, really! – in Australian fiction, but how often, I wondered, is their role as fathers a feature of the writing? As it turns out, it’s more common than I thought, but I’ll just share five here.

Elizabeth Jolley‘s My father’s moon (1989)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy and, while it is really about Vera and her challenge to find a place in the adult world, the support provided by her father is critical in her life … and Jolley writes of it beautifully:

He always told me when I had to leave for school, every term when I wept because I did not want to leave, he told me that if I looked at the moon, wherever I was, I was seeing the same moon that he was looking at, ‘And because of this’, he said, ‘you must know that I am not very far away. You must never feel lonely,’ he said. He said the moon would never be extinguished. Sometimes, he said, it was not possible to see the moon, but it was always there. He said he liked to think of it as his.

Murray Bail‘s Eucalyptus (1998)

Eucalyptus is one of my favourite books. The writing is gorgeous and it explores fatherhood from a surprising angle – for a modern novel. It is in fact a rather traditional fairy story, with a modern twist. The father in Eucalyptus sets a task for his daughter’s wooers – they must be able to identify every eucalypt tree on the property in order to win her hand, but this modern father finds that managing his daughter’s future is not quite as easy as he thought. She might in fact want a say in it.

Joan London‘s The good parents (2008)

Joan London targets, among other things, the whole issue of parenthood by exploring three generations or so of parents and children. The central family is Jacob and Toni, with their two children, and Jacob is given reasonable “airplay” in his own right as he contemplates his missing daughter and his role as her parent, and along the way his relationship with his mother, Arlene. He wonders, as many parents do at some stage, whether the choices he made for his and his family’s life were the best ones for his children.

Steve Toltz‘s A fraction of the whole (2008)

The father-son relationship is the central idea of Steve Toltz’s big, loose, baggy monster of a novel as it explores Jasper’s rather typical desire to not be his father, the free-thinking-out-there Martin. After a rather wild ride in which Jasper learns many important things, he realises that he will never be his father, that he is the sum of more than one part.

David Malouf‘s Ransom (2010)

And then there’s Ransom, Malouf’s reimagining of Priam’s approach to Achilles to retrieve the body of his son Hector in order to give him a proper burial. The book has larger themes – about daring to dream, about humility, about the power of compassion, to name a couple – but at the heart of it is the love of a father for his son. Without that, there would be no book and we would have missed another beautiful read from Malouf.

This is a pretty quick introduction to some views on fathers in recent Australian literature, because my time right now is otherwise engaged – but I’d love to hear if you have favourite literary fathers. Who are they, and why do you like them?

Steve Toltz, A fraction of the whole

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!