Steve Toltz’s debut novel A Fraction of the Whole is one of those books which almost defies critical comment – but I’ve never let that stop me before – by flattening everything in its path with (a) its 700-page length, and (b) its relentless charm offensive which you’ll find either irritating or winning. I found it a bit of both, which I suppose makes me the perfect balanced sample.
Martin Amis observed (I’m paraphrasing as I can’t find the quote; suggestions below) that there are two kinds of long books: books that need to be long, and short books which go on for a very long time. Moby-Dick needs to be long. Ditto Heller’s Something Happened. Then there are long books by the likes of John Irving, or Tom Wolfe – large-print, loud-mouth entertainers (I say that as someone who has enjoyed both), whose books nonetheless acquire a certain force by sheer massing of detail and character. A Fraction of the Whole is the second kind of book, an unashamedly and unembarrassed big, rollercoaster, rollicking – it says here – read.
“This was either rubbish or it was brilliant,” the narrator says at one point, “and I couldn’t decide which.” We are in Australia. The narrator is Jasper Dean, but the main character is his father Martin. He is a man who has struggled all his life to make a mark on the world, usually by foul means rather than fair. Toltz uses him as a mouthpiece for observations about the spirit of the age:
You can’t know what a hero is, Jasper. You’ve grown up in a time when that word has been debased, stripped of all meaning. We’re fast becoming the first nation whose populace consists solely of heroes who do nothing but celebrate each other. … And now everyone returning from armed conflict is called a hero too. In the old days you had to commit specific acts of valour during war; now you just need to turn up. These days when a war is on, heroism seems to mean ‘attendance’.
Martin associates with hardened criminal Harry West (“I chose a life apart from the common flow, not only because the common flow makes me sick but because I question the logic of the flow, and not only that – I don’t even know if the flow exists!”), who inspires him and his brother Terry to form a “democratic co-operative of crime” and to publish his handbook of crime.
Toltz is capable of fine phrasemaking (an unwelcome smile is “like a window painted shut”) and the book is at its most amusing when Toltz, in the guise of Martin or his much-loved brother Terry or Harry West or one of the dozens of other ‘colourful’ characters, goes off on a little riff on some subject.
Honestly, I’ve never known how people do married life. I mean, when I go from the bedroom to the bathroom, the last thing I want to do is stop to have a chat.
The problem is that the jokes, although funny, too often seem to come directly from the author rather than through the characters. Similarly some sections, such as the extracts from the handbook of crime, look as though they have been lying on Toltz’s desktop for some time and were thrown into the mix because bigger is better, because why the hell not?
It’s futile to criticise a book for lacking what it doesn’t aim for, and doubtless it was Toltz’s intention that A Fraction of the Whole should be the epic, vibrant romp that it is. Nonetheless, certain themes recur so often – parents and children, fame and notoriety, how to live and the rebellion against conformity – that there must be some intention to treat them seriously. The difficulty is that because so much of the book is a vigorous splash, and depends to a large extent on its high internal pace, that anything more nuanced tends to be skimmed over in the reading. Similarly, he cannot have his cake and eat it by trying to have characters that are both cartoons and empathetic people (two of them, after all, are mass murderers). Still, they’re more plausible than the females, most of whom – Astrid, Caroline, Anouk, the ‘Towering Inferno’ – are simple sexual fantasies of lithe bodies and carnal willingness.
The length of the book is its strength and weakness. On the one hand, one can’t help but admire the skill needed to sustain a succession of stories at such length, but then again it’s easy to wonder whether it would have been just as much an achievement at 600 pages, or even a piffling 500. I must admit that, with about 200 pages still to go, a Murdoch-style media mogul was introduced to force a conclusion to the plot even more unlikely than everything that had gone before, I sighed a little. Perhaps Forster was right, when he said that we tend to overpraise long books, simply because we have got through them.
On the back cover, A Fraction of the Whole is compared with A Confederacy of Dunces. I’d go along with that: like Confederacy, it’s – to me – enjoyable, unlikely to withstand rereading, and probably best appreciated by readers younger and less jaded than I. Toltz probably foresees such faint praise: the following reflection by Jasper seems decidedly pointed, and comes right in the middle of the book.
‘Mass entertainment is the death of civilisation,’ those highbrows spat, but I say, if a man giggles at something puerile and his body glows from the joy, does it matter that it was caused not by some profound artwork but by a rerun of Bewitched? Honestly, who cares? That man just had a wonderful inner moment, and what’s more, he got it cheap. Good for him, you ponderous fuck!