27 September, 2010

'A Fraction of the Whole' - Steve Toltz

It's a big book. It's one of those hardcovers you can't help but heave rather than lift off the counter. But thank goodness it's big, because it is so darn good.

In this novel, Toltz has combined humour and insight with rare skill. His writing style is Franzenesque, with bizarre developments such as a character building a house in a labyrinth, or deciding to make everyone in Australia a millionaire. My response to the book reminded me of how I felt about David Sedaris, with his similar combination of provocative philosophy and laughs.

A big distinction for Toltz, however, is that he's Australian. Like Richard Flanagan in The Unknown Terrorist, he unashamedly uses Australia as his landscape and backdrop. Events from Australian history are dropped knowingly into the story, without self-conscious explanation.

The book oscillates between the points of view of father and son Martin and Jasper Dean. Their lives are irrevocably affected by Terry Dean, Martin's brother and Jasper's uncle. The setting ranges from country town, to Sydney, to Paris, to Thailand, but the control of language and scene never changes.

Toltz knows how to build a sentence, and perhaps even more importantly, he knows when to start a new one. His style is both punchy and fluid, immensely readable, making the book's many-hundred-page extent manageable. His themes in this book touch on family and ambition, and revolve around legacy, of what we want to make for ourselves while alive and how we want that remembered once we're dead.

Much of the early part of the book is set around a prison, offering opportunity for plenty of great characterisation ('He scratched at his tattoo. It wouldn't come off.'). Nestled among the humour and hysterics, however, are aphorisms to live by: 'Choosing between the available options is not the same as thinking for yourself'.

A Fraction the Whole was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008, and it is certainly deserving of accolade and attention.

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