Books

A Plea For Madness

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.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Music

Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.

Music

Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.

Music

The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.

Music

Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.

Film

In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?

Music

Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.

Music

Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.