Disappointment is a thing we set ourselves up for. I’m certainly guilty of it, particularly in regard to my reading. Often a book will come along and it will sparkle. Every facet of the novel – its plot, its characters, its cover – will mesmerise you, and you will want to plunge yourself into that particular world. Sadly, instances of satisfaction are rare. More likely the book will have been excellent but it won’t have lived up to your expectations.
Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole was one of those books. This was a book that came to me in tantalizing morsels. Before I had even read any sort of blurb or plot summary, I was drawn to the fact that its author was Australian, and that it had been nominated for the ever so prestigious Booker prize. Weeks later, I read:
“From the New South Wales bush to bohemian Paris, from the jungles of Thailand to a leaky boat in the Pacific – through strip clubs, labyrinths, the highs of first love and the lows of failed ambition – A Fraction of the Whole is an unforgettable, scathingly funny and finally very moving tale, announcing a major new voice in Australian writing.”
Oh good, I thought. I’m in for a real treat. My excitement (concerning a single book, that is) grew to unprecedented levels. But first I had to wait – in a flurry of nationalistic pride, dozens of other Australian citizens had reserved the local library’s copy. Why didn’t I just purchase my own copy? Sorry to be picky, but I detest hardcovers. And of course, there was just a slight 50% chance that I would detest it. So I waited. And waited. And waited. I read other book bloggers’ enthused reviews. Even the critical and the cynical were optimistically so. And for a while I completely forgot about the book. Then suddenly, it was in my hands.
Just as people had promised, it was huge, and as soon as I read the opening paragraph, I knew A Fraction of the Whole would be large in much more than size. This book is like Pinball; the plot and characters ricochet around leaving few stones unturned. He explores love, philosophy, death, insanity…Yet I was disappointed.
My reasons for disliking the book are completely irrational and unfair. Simply speaking, the book was much, much darker in tone than I had expected. For some reason (mostly from the cover) I assumed A Fraction of the Whole would be a rollicking, whimsical read; light in tone, and as stupid as it sounds, happy. I suppose it was rollicking and whimsical in many ways, but it was also undeniably dark. The humour was dark; the plot was dark, the themes explored were dark. I didn’t enjoy the book any less because of it It caught me by surprise, and my surprise was interminged with disappointment, and invariably dislike.
That in itself wasn’t enough to make me grumble. After all, I had waited a great deal for this book, and I had heard much about it. I don’t like to think of myself as a quitter (if at first you don’t succeed…) so I kept going. After all, I can’t pretend I wasn’t intrigued by the severely dysfunctional characters.
My real disappointment stemmed from its predictability. Let’s admit it: the book was formulaic to the extreme. I love to grumble against writers who go by some meticulous tick method, through which they attempt to set themselves apart. Was this a deliberate satire of postmodern writing? It ticked all the boxes, almost to the extent where it was parodying itself – unreliable narrator? Tick. Haphazhard structure and narration? Tick (I have to say, though, that the frequent deviations in perspective and form were far from jarring; I found it quite entertaining actually). Existentialist romp? Tick. Ambiguous conclusion? Tick.
What’s more is that the language was contrived and it did feel laboured. I wholeheartedly agree with all the existing criticisms out there. The mind didn’t have a moment’s rest. Every line of the novel had to contain some witty repartee in which Toltz strove to prove how clever he could be with his similes. There were some eloquent things in there that I did genuinely like:
Her mask was a weave of tattered shreds torn from all the beautiful parts of herself
But one would expect that from a book that had been nominated for the Man Booker prize. And if, in a book of that size and scale, Toltz could not manage to spew out at least one decent sentence, I would have cringed. Yet some of them were just awful; overdone and hard to comprehend. I mean what is this?
The interior of the Sydney casino looks as if Vegas had an illegitimate child with Liberaces’ underpants, and that child fell down a staircase and hit its head on the edge of a spade.
How can you possibly understand the writer’s vision when the narration is cluttered and completely obstructed with silly imagery like that?
The one time I got excited whilst reading the book was around page 578 (the last quarter or so), when the Deans escaped to Thailand. I felt for sure some light would be shed onto The Face, or at least on Astrid. I don’t like to digress, but that’s another thing – the face. I don’t think I truly understood the face. Can somebody very kindly explain what Toltz was trying to get at?
Oh, and then when Terry – need I put a spoiler alert? I find that they don’t affect me in the least; not when specific details are being discussed, because it’s hard to remember those things when you haven’t actually read the book. Well, anyway, for those who have read it, in that section of the book, I had an inkling that would happen, but I was still surprised when it did. That was the one time I got excited. The rest, I sped by in an attitude of total indfference.
I probably missed the deeper meaning.
To sum it all up, the major disappointment was that it didn’t meet my expectations. Clearly not a valid criticism. Secondly, though, for a book of its size, it failed to dazzle. The humour fell flat after the first hundred pages or so. And when every second sentence contains humour that falls flat, it isn’t easy to plough through a book. I suppose this is a criticism I throw at most contemporary writers, but A Fraction of the Whole just wasn’t as seamless as it could have been. Final verdict? An impressive book; hard to swallow at times (for all the wrong reasons), but a great page turner nonetheless. Worthy of the Man Booker prize? I don’t think so.
» This was my Alive book for the 9 Books for 2009 project. For this particular category, we were required to read a book by either a dead person, or an author whose work had been nominated for a literary award. I’m “cheating” because I have two Alive or Not books. My Dead book is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.