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A Plea For Madness

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Wednesday, Jan 21, 2009

Six months after it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, I’ve finally managed to read Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole.  When I first came across it, I had no particular interest, suspecting it of being overlong and a little pretentious.  Over time, I began to question my snap judgement and I’m thoroughly glad I did.


A Fraction of the Whole is big, it’s true, but not excessively.  Despite involving two separate narrators and spanning forty-something years and three continents, it maintains a remarkable cohesion.  That’s probably because narrators Jasper and Martin Dean, the father-and-son duo at the novel’s centre, are far more alike than either would like to recognise.


Attempting to draw but one theme out of the book (and it’s stuffed full of the things) is a challenge, but it’s probably the power of inheritance and the difficulty of escaping its influence.  Sure, that’s two themes, but they’re closely related. 


Jasper commences the novel as a young man, imprisoned for reasons unknown.  At a loose end, he begins to reflect on the curious legacy of his father Martin and Uncle Terry, Australia’s most hated and most admired man respectively.  We’re not initially told how this eccentric rural family managed such notoriety, but it all comes out in Toltz’s discursive and rambling narrative.  If Jasper is a little bit prompter as an autobiographer than Tristram Shandy in reaching the event of his birth, it’s still a long way into the book.  There’s a lot of family history to cover.


The picture that emerges is of an intelligent boy completely denied a chance of normality by a brilliant but unhinged father.  Martin Dean’s equally strange childhood has left him conflicted by powerful urges—a tendency to megalomania and an overwhelming cynicism about the entirety of human endeavour.  Jasper is really just trying to stay out of trouble.


Toltz’s creations are brilliant.  They are true to life, unpredictable and likeable in spite of their visible failings.  Subtly, Toltz is nudging us towards the question “Is normality all it’s cracked up to be?”


The dysfunctional Deans’ abnormality often looks like good fun.  They create publishing scandals, build mazes, join the criminal underworld, break hearts and have their hearts broken in return.  There are precious few “ordinary” people in A Fraction of the Whole and they’re not nearly as fascinating.


While creating a portrait of a family, Toltz almost accidentally assesses a half-century of Australian history.  There’s our love of outlaws and “larrikins”, our obsession with sport and our tendency to cut down achievers or “tall poppies”.  There’s also our uneasy place in the world—both our fear of cultural inferiority and our fear of refugees in leaky boats.  It’s a lot to cram in, but Toltz manages it easily.


For all my scepticism about literary awards, there’s often good reason for their selections.  A Fraction of the Whole is an amazing achievement.  Spending time with the Deans and their skewed view of the world will make your life a little bit richer.

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