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Book Review: A Fraction Of The Whole by Steve Toltz

posted on 27 February 2009 | posted in Books

Book Review: A Fraction Of The Whole by Steve Toltz This is a very seductive book: no matter what page you flip to, you can get immersed in the narrative. This is what tempted me to buy it - I thought, gee this is gonna be a masterpiece!

I was wrong.

Although 70 pages in, I was still convinced this book was something special. The story starts with Martin Dean's childhood and the traumas that shaped it. He fell into a mysterious coma for 4 years as a child, awoke to find he had a brother. And so the story encompasses his brother, Terry Dean. Terry's keen on sports, until he's stabbed in the leg and I'm not going to do this, the story is way too winding to even bother with a synposis. It's 711 pages of STORY.

So what's good?

It's very readable. It is a fictional autobiography / biography of sorts, so the book is narrated in first person almost all of the time (if not second person with son describing father or vice versa). There are some great one-liners in there, one of my favourites:-

Terry gave a conspiratorial nod to a waiter, who in turn gave it to the chef through an open window into the kitchen. The chef then passed the nod onto a man out of our line of vision, who for all we knew passed it on to twenty more men who lined a spiral staircase leading to the mezzanine of hell.

Another good thing : the book is very unsentimental; the characters are very much reluctant to express emotion, which adds to the humour.

What's bad?

The book feels like a first draft. There's a lot of half ideas, half-jokes, near-epiphanies. It feels like Toltz has written much of it "on the hoof". For example when the story took the Deans to Thailand (my current place of abode), they stayed in a guesthouse on "Khe Sahn Road", not the famous Khao San Road (I think Toltz got "Khe Sahn" from Cold Chisel's song about Vietnam!). Then Jasper is "whisked down the street" to Patpong. It seems like an off-the-cuff description of what would have been about a 30 minute journey on motorcycle taxi (or possibly longer by tuk-tuk / taxi) as Patpong is on the other side of Bangkok. Then when they're taken to Eddie's village in northern Thailand, suddenly no geographical names are mentioned. It just seemed inconsistant and poorly researched.

The story is utterly absurd. I get the idea of farce, and I realise the story is a farce, but piling up coincidences and absurdities continually throughout 700 pages makes you stop caring about the story line. The whole plot is far too malleable for you to really bother about what's going to happen next, because ANYTHING could happen next. The coincidences disappointed me, as they often do in books. I'm left thinking "oh yeah?". The reply to my cynicism is normally "relax, the book is a farce!" but too many coincidences spoil the enjoyment.

When the plot twists and suddenly makes sense at certain points in the story, the payoff was minimal. I was already jaded by the randomness of the plot to care. All the events of the book felt like plot devices, and sure enough they all were - that felt kind of clunky because you knew when something happened, it happened for the specific reason of delivering some dénouement a few pages on.

Maybe my harsh criticism is because I felt the book was a let down given my high expectations. I really enjoyed Toltz's style of writing, but the story got in the way. I went from caring about the characters in the first 70 pages to slowly giving up on the story as it got more and more absurd.