There are more than 500 pages in Steve Toltz' first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, and yet one can turn to nearly any of them and find something worth reading aloud. It has the weight and complexity of a life's masterpiece, but reads as if it was written in a stream of consciousness style. But what consciousness!
The novel begins during a prison riot, leading quickly to the declaration, "my father's body will never be found." It then quickly rewinds to describe three generations of Deans, beginning with Jasper Dean's grandparents as recounted in the first person by Jasper's father Martin. The book is at least as much by and about Martin Dean as it is Jasper, though Martin is clearly dead as the book begins (and his body will never be found). This is not even the most outrageous thing about A Fraction of the Whole!
A Fraction of the Whole is based primarily in Australia, but ventures to France and Thailand after Australia becomes unwelcoming for the Deans. The cleverness of the main characters comes through as clever writing, though the stories they relate are sometimes disturbing. Martin and Jasper Dean are unpleasant people, difficult and abrasive, with peculiar ideas about how civilized societies work and how they are broken, and yet Toltz writes them sympathetically. Outlandish schemes such as Martin's plan to make every Australian a millionaire, or Martin and Jasper building a house in the middle of a labyrinth, or Martin compiling a Handbook of Crime — none of them seem as far-fetched when explained by Martin Dean, coming as they do out of his determination to leave his mark on what he sees as a broken world. None of them work as well as our protagonists think they should, either. Even a childhood scheme of a town suggestion box has unintended consequences that haunt Martin Dean throughout his life.
Martin is at once witty and a simpleton, and Jasper fares little better. Jasper's uncle Terry may be the most enigmatic character of all — which is saying quite a bit with more than 500 pages of mysterious characters — but he ends up trapped in solitary confinement within the first 200 pages as a brushfire burns through the small prison town. Other characters drift across the story, back and forth and in and out. There is Caroline Potts, the woman who forms a love triangle with Martin and Terry Dean. There is Jasper's mysterious European mother, Astrid. There is Eddie who shows up in Paris and starts taking pictures with no explanation, then follows Martin throughout his entire life, helping out here and there. There is Anouk, who begins and ends so differently it is hard to believe she's the same person. There is the Towering Inferno, who shows Jasper what love is — and what it isn't. There are befuddled prison guards and smugglers, angry Thai villagers, criminals working in the dead of night, schoolteachers and classmates (though Martin and Jasper are both put into school and pulled out randomly over the years), an out of work newscaster, and even the richest men in Australia. Each of them a fraction of the whole story, each story a fraction of a whole person, each person a fraction of a whole society, and each page a fraction of the whole book.
The book haunted me for several days. I found myself wondering how the Deans would view this situation, or that news story. How might they respond? I tried to think like a Dean, as useless as their thinking turned out to be.
I will wait with some interest to see if Steve Toltz can capture lightning in a bottle twice. His first book could be his best, a feat never to be repeated. That would make it a masterwork. It could be just the first in a series of mammoth volumes, each peeling back layers of the society in which we live, showing us absurdity from the inside, skewering us from the viewpoints of a series of odd characters. I hope there is more where A Fraction of the Whole came from, because even with more than 500 pages, I found myself wanting to keep reading, to know more of life from within the skewed minds of the Deans.Powered by Sidelines