Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Steve Toltz's Quicksand

What we read over summer

We started the meeting by sharing the books we'd read (and enjoyed) over summer:
  • Emma Ayres' Cadence (memoir, via audiobook)
  • Charles Dickens' Dombey and son (a classic)
  • Anthony Doerr's All the light we cannot see (Pulitzer Prize winner)
  • Robert Drewe's The book of the beach (short stories with beach themes)
  • Audrey Hawkridge's Jane and her gentlemen (the men in Jane Austen's life and books)
  • Gail Jones' Guide to Berlin (particularly excellent if you know Berlin a little)
  • Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal summer (environmentalists and farmers in the Appalachians)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed earth (short stories about Bangladeshis in the USA)
  • Stephen Orr 's The hands (Australian multigenerational farm story)
  • Magda Szubanski's Reckoning (memoir)
  • Jenny Uglow's A gambling man: Charles II and the Restoration (biography)


Steve Toltz's second novel Quicksand is one of those books that divided Minervans. Indeed, a few members gave up on the book, deciding life was too short to devote to it. Others really enjoyed it, though most agreed its extensive use of lists (which we believe is a literary technique called asyndeton), in particular, did try us at times. At around 440 pages it is significantly shorter than Toltz's 700+ page debut novel, A fraction of the whole, which we read back in 2009.

Quicksand is the story of anti-hero, Aldo Benjamin, told partly by his schoolfriend, Liam Wilder, and partly by himself. Meeting at high school, Aldo and Liam remain friends from then until the book closes when they are in their early to mid 40s. The novel focuses on the ups and downs - mostly downs - of Aldo's life as he tries to make his way against what he sees as the tide of fate or bad luck. The novel starts when they are in their early 40s and Aldo, a paraplegic in a wheelchair, has just been released from prison. We don't know how long he's been in a wheelchair or how it came to be, and we don't know why he was in prison. These come out in the course of the novel which flashes back to their schooldays and then moves between the past and present to tell the story. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Liam is trying to restart his  writing career, with Aldo as his subject, much to Aldo's resigned disgust: "I'm nobody's muse", he says. Ironically, though, not only is he Liam's muse but he also becomes one for his musician wife, Stella. 

Aldo gets into all sorts of strife in the novel, but is regularly bailed out by friends (including Liam, Dr Castles, his old school teacher, and so on) and lovers (including Stella and Mimi). One member asked why people keep rescuing him. Is there something in it for them?

What is it about?

Overall, we (including those who abandoned it) agreed that it is an original, witty, dark novel about the human condition or "why are we here". Steve Toltz, one member told us, describes it this way"A Fraction of the Whole was a book, for me, about the fear of death ... As soon as I finished, I wanted the next book to be about the fear of life." She'd also read that while he was writing A fraction of the whole Toltz had experienced a spinal haemorrhage which had left him paralysed for some time. This enabled him to write knowledgeably about Aldo's wheelchair life as a paraplegic, though Toltz says that the book is not autobiographical. We hoped not, because it is rather brutal in places!

In addition to Toltz's self-proclaimed overall theme being "the fear of life", several other themes and motifs run through the book. The biggest one is the idea of suicide, which ties in exactly with "fear of life". Aldo attempts suicide multiple times in the novel, but somehow, despite the travails of his life, finds himself attracted to the idea of immortality. Other themes and ideas we found include friendship (particularly male friendship); fate or bad luck; the nature of "art" (in its broad meaning, including writing and music), artists and making art; entrepreneurialism; religion and the nature of God.

We talked a little about religion in the novel - Aldo's agnosticism, the new religion he creates (ironically, his only successful venture) with a personalised God, the idea that his months of living on a rock at Magic Beach in the sea suggests Christ's time in the wilderness - and concluded that the book is in part about finding meaning in life, about how we bumble along in the dark, inventing meaning for ourselves.

And then there's the writing ...

The biggest challenge some found with the book was its denseness. We discussed our changed 21st century attention spans and how we are less attuned to the big rambling novels of the 19th century. But even those who found its length and detail off-putting did find aspects to enjoy. We all enjoyed the humour. Some may have found more humour than others, but we all found some! Everyone enjoyed, for example, Aldo's (failed) business ideas - like the device that was supposed to detect the presence of peanuts in food, or clothing for obese toddlers, or maternity clothes for goths ("a demographic with an 85% abortion rate")! You get the drift? It is a satirical novel, poking fun at, skewering in fact, our 21st century pretensions, concerns, and tribulations.

One member enjoyed the made-up words like "businesssapiens". And those of us who got to it laughed at the "Fussy corpse" picture book for children. The comedy is dark, but it's there.

However, there are gruelling and brutal scenes too, such as (without giving away spoilers) the still-birth of a child, and a prison rape scene.

Toltz mixes up the style. Most of the novel is told first person by Liam, but there are first person sections by Aldo, such as his long statement in court at his trial. There are also sections of play-like dialogue (such as between Aldo and the Voice), and of poetry. One member decided that Toltz is a little hyperactive.

We also discussed the characters, and whether any were sympathetic. Some felt all the main characters were, in the sense that they are ordinary, flawed people trying to make the best of their lives, but we also considered that, being the satire it is, engaging with characters is not necessarily the main expectation.

And, for those of us who made it to the last line, we loved its optimism after all the cynicism and "clinical frustration" that preceded it. It made everyone smile - even those who first heard it on the night!