Gregory Baird's Reviews > A Fraction of the Whole

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
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Apr 24, 2008

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bookshelves: 2008-booklist, arc, fiction-literature, family, quirky, parenthood
Read in April, 2008

“My soul is ambitious and mercenary in its desire to know itself.”

Steve Toltz’s sprawling debut novel is the saga of Martin and Jasper Dean, a father and son whose complex relationship keeps them inextricably linked while simultaneously creating impassable rifts between them. They love and hate each other in equal measure for all of their differences, but mostly because of their inherent similarities. Jasper’s greatest fear is that he will turn into his father, a miserly philosopher who has “thought himself into a corner.” Martin, meanwhile, is seemingly incapable of being satisfied with anything due to his contradictory nature. He’s a megalomaniac too lazy to hold on to a dream, a philosopher too annoyed by his fellow human beings to attempt to enlighten them, a sometime humanitarian whose attempts at giving are marred by an ingrained selfishness, and much more. This is their story.

At the outset we meet Jasper, who has been mysteriously imprisoned following the death of his father. From his prison cell Jasper takes us through the story of his life and, via very lengthy asides, the life stories of his father, his uncle Terry (revered as Australia’s greatest outlaw), and Caroline Potts (the love of both Martin and Terry’s lives). Toltz shows remarkable dedication throughout, and his philosophical musings, at their best, are reminiscent of one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut. At a whopping 530 pages, “A Fraction of the Whole” is a hefty, audacious debut that, for the most part works. Sadly, that page count proves to be too much for Toltz to adequately carry. Originally an 800 page opus that was edited down to this size, clearly the greatest challenge to Toltz as a writer is his own ambition. I loved this book to about page 400, and then began to grow weary of it at an alarming speed. I practically had to drag myself through the last fifty pages to see what happened to Martin Dean in the end, and how Jasper ended up in that prison. It isn’t easy to maintain suspense for such a lengthy journey, and unfortunately Toltz isn’t up to the task. And it’s a darned shame, too. “A Fraction of the Whole” is jolly good fun before it gets so waterlogged with details and plotlines.

Perhaps Toltz was trying to take on David Foster Wallace’s modern epic “Infinite Jest” by writing his own grandiose novel heavy on the philosophy, but he clearly over-reached in his debut effort. Perhaps he will scale things down in his next novel, but I don’t know – like his protagonists, he certainly doesn’t seem capable of thinking small. So I would recommend another quirky writer who understands that brevity is the soul of wit: the aforementioned Kurt Vonnegut. “Mother Night” is my personal favorite, but be sure to check out “Deadeye Dick” and “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater” as well.

Grade: C+
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