Steve Toltz: A Fraction of the Whole

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.

A Fraction of the Whole

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!


  1. Interesting review: you seem to want to like the book more than you actually do. Given the length, maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome. It would be interesting to see how you remember it in, say, a month’s time, once you’ve got a little distance from it.

  2. Certainly agree that there are “books that need to be long, and short books which go on for a very long time. Moby-Dick needs to be long.” (Love Moby-Dick!)

    So, the first type, I’m ok with. But the second type — if it should be short, and it happens to be long, that it is padded. And I have NOT got the time. I’ll pass on this one John!

  3. Given the length, maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome

    😆 I expect in a month I probably will remember quite a lot about the book, the same way I can with Wolfe and Irving years later – simply because everything is so in-your-face. I doubt it will go up my estimation though.

    I have NOT got the time. I’ll pass on this one John!

    That’s OK Mark – sometimes I want other people to read the books I write about here: but other times, I’m reading them so you don’t have to!

  4. An ambiguous review. Frankly, I could not figure whether you loved it or not. Perhaps it’s a mixed feeling for you. From the quotes, Steve seems to have some insights, but the book is definitely padded. You’ll find many such books in the market. Not worth my time.

  5. You forgot another permutation: short books that need to be longer. Into this category I would put Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. I felt cheated when I read it, because so much of the character’s lives was rushed in the last couple of chapters when they could have quite easily been explored in 200-odd pages!!

  6. I recently re-read Confederacy and didn’t find it as enjoyable as the first time (15 years ago.) So, I might not read this one either.

    Maybe part of the book was meant to be enjoyed and not all of it. The title seems to give a hint about that.

  7. Good point, Isabel – now if only he’d told us which part! (Incidentally, looking at reviews of advance copies of the book on the UK Amazon site, it seems it was printed in three volumes for the three different sections of life story in the book. Perhaps also helps explain the title.)

    I agree, kimbofo – I thought the end of On Chesil Beach was terribly rushed. I think if McEwan is going to adopt this intensely detailed approach which he has done in his last three novels, he can’t have his cake and eat it by then tossing off (pun intended) the ending in a few lines.

    Mrinal, you have my sentiments exactly: I couldn’t work out whether I liked it or not either!

  8. Hm, from this review I’d echo Mark’s comments above. Thanks for taking the hit on this one John.

    Re Something Happened, I thought that amply merited its length, for me that was Heller’s best after Catch 22 (though Good as Gold certainly has its moments).

  9. John, once again I have to thank you for helping me set low expectations. With that and the already lackluster longlist, I was pleasantly surprised by this book and ended up enjoying it quite a bit! I hope I can return the favor (maybe with my review of The Lost Dog)!

  10. You’re welcome Trevor! In fact, compared with some of the titles I’ve read since the longlist was announced, A Fraction of the Whole was quite pleasurable – but still too long. Lacklustre is the word, all right; I’m down to the last three (The Clothes on their Backs, The Lost Dog and The Northern Clemency) and frankly just looking forward to getting the damn thing over with – without, I hope, that affecting my reading of the titles in question!

  11. Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole has today been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008. As indicated above, I had mixed feelings about the book. There were certainly much worse titles on the longlist though (if that doesn’t constitute damning with faint praise, and I think it probably does).

  12. Hello –
    Found your blog through The Mookse and the Gripes, and I’ve been reading through your archives.

    I think Trevor got the better deal – I set high expectations for this book and ended up being severely disappointed.
    Although I stumbled through it relatively well, I thought the humour fell flat after the first hundred pages or so. And when every second sentence contains humour that falls flat, it isn’t easy to plough through a book the size of a tissue-box 😀

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