Friday, 9 January 2009
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
There is so much I want to say about this book. It is overwhelming, hilarious, tragic, touching, thought-provoking and bursting at the seams with wit, insight, cynicism, wisdom and delectation.
Jasper Dean tells the story of himself, his father (Australia’s most hated man), his uncle (Australia’s most adored man) and the characters surrounding their topsy-turvy lives from the confines of his prison cell. We follow Jasper to his roots, his father’s childhood, and then back to present time – whisked along on their journey from rags to riches, anonymity to fame, nation-wide adoration to nation-wide loathing. Thrown in for good measure are insane asylums, strip clubs, jail-breaks, labyrinths, bushfires, poison, people-smugglers, telepathy, philosophy, The Handbook of Crime, resurrections, deaths and births, and tons more.
Jasper's father Martin is a philosopher who has thought himself into a corner; he is a megalomaniac and a failure - a walking contradiction full of frustrated and unsated compulsion. He lived his youth in the shadow of his rebel-martyr brother Terry Dean: Serial Killer With A Cause. After Terry's untimely death at the hands of a raging bushfire that consumed the prison he was locked up in, Martin travels to Paris in search of his childhood love (who was also in love with his brother Terry). There he meets a strange woman named Astrid and has a child with her (enter Jasper), before Astrid commits innovative suicide and Martin decides to head back to Australia. Jaspers childhood is full to the brim of his father's insanities and frustrations, and even after they take on Anouk: their sexy, meddlesome new-age housekeeper, things just turn more pear-shaped. Martin's compulsion and need for a 'project' lead him from one ridiculous crusade to another - building an almost-impenetrable labyrinth around his house, making everyone in Australia a millionaire, editing The Handbook of Crime, and so on. The effect this has on Jasper's life is considerable, as each day he fears more and more that he is becoming his father...
Every page was a joy to run my eyes over, and some of them I read again and again.
This is a father-and-son story, but one thing I noticed was how all the characters, even the bit-players, were given fully realised humanity (even if sometimes briefly). Everyone has their sense of reality, of truth. The main characters are all so absurd they are completely believable. In that way I found Toltz’s writing a bit Peter Carey-esque, because his plotline spans generations, and gives that feeling of infinity, of infinite stories having unfolded, unfolding, waiting to unfold.
I don’t know what else to say but read it. Aside from occasionally being a bit waffle-y, it is flawlessly invigorating, entertaining, mind-shaping and, possibly, life-altering.
Five hundred stars out of five.