Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Steve Toltz, A fraction of the whole

What to say about a book that only a fraction of the six Minervans who attended this week's meeting had finished, except that despite this fact we had a fine discussion? Steve Toltz's A fraction of the whole is somewhat of a "loose baggy monster" that defeats some while engaging others. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, and longlisted (but didn't make the cut) for the Miles Franklin this year. It did, however, win the inaugural People's Choice Award at this year's New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards. This is not a bad track record for debut novel by a writer in his early 30s.

What then is it about? It's hard to say except that the plot concerns the life of a father - a weird and wonderful one - as told by his son. It spans Australia, France and Thailand, not to mention several weeks at sea in a people-smuggler's boat. It is told in first person, mainly by the son, Jasper, but with sections told in, Martin's, the father's voice. These sections include the father's bedtime story of his life to the age of 22, his unfinished autobiography covering another section of his life, and parts of his journal. This is not really what it is ABOUT though and we spent some time discussing that - without coming to any major conclusions. We did, however, talk a little about the things he mocks, such as education and middle class Australian goals, and a little about his criticism of Western societies' lack of compassion. One member wondered whether there was a bit of the yin-yang to Martin and his brother Terry, and there could be some mileage in taking that discussion a little further.

We also talked about its style - and had a bit of fun picking out funny bits. You can find a "funny bit" on almost every page. It has some crisp dialogue and great descriptions, though some felt it could have done with a bit of an edit! Several felt it was a "young" book and thought its youthful breathless tone was a little reminiscent of D.B.C. Pierre's award-winning first novel, Vernon God Little. Unlike this book though, we found it harder at times to know exactly where Toltz stands on some of the issues he covers (though at other times it was pretty clear). We also thought that it was perhaps the most male book we'd read for a while - the last being Tim Winton's Breath.

There is a lot to think about and talk about in this book. Perhaps other members will add here some of the issues that particularly interested them.

(Book cover: Courtesy Allen & Unwin Website)


  1. This book is a bit like a comic opera. It is way over the top in many of Marty's exploits -- from the typing up of the The Criminal handbook and getting it published to his making millionaires of Australians and marrying one of the recipients never thinking that Eddie may be involved in mismanagement. He seems so simple yet claims to be a philosopher. And all his rantings about death -- so tedious.
    Very clever book with 'novel' ideas but slightly crazy. I have yet to finish it so maybe my opinions may improve.

  2. Nice catch Sylvia. Comic opera is a good way of looking at it I reckon. It certainly has a crazy OTT element to it. Someone else I know related it a little to Tristram Shandy. Long time since I read that but I can see her point. Anyhow, I look forward to your further comments when you've finished it.


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