A Fraction of the Whole, By Steve Toltz
Sunday 26 July 2009
Henry James described the novel as a loose, baggy monster – and they don't come much looser, baggier or more monstrous than this.
The book opens in the prison cell of Jasper Dean, who informs the reader: "My father's body will never be found." The narrative is then taken up by the memoirs of Jasper's eccentric philosophising father, who spent four years of his infant life in a deep coma, during which he experienced a series of visions, including "all the worms dissected by curious children and eminent scientists" and "all the Buddhists bitten by spiders they wouldn't kill". His memoir goes on to tell the story of his celebrity criminal brother, Terry Dean, Australia's most famous serial murderer.
And this is just the start – the story takes place over three generations and three continents; there are deaths, births, love affairs, explosions, fires, crazy coincidences, unexpected reappearances, and a scheme to make everyone in Australia a millionaire. Read how a suggestion box destroyed the social fabric of a town, or take advice from the useful guide The Criminal Handbook ("If you can only drive an automatic, don't steal manuals"; "Motiveless crimes – why?"). There are references to Nietzsche, Einstein, Darwin, Heinrich Böll.
Toltz's writing fizzes with energy; sentences never quite go where you expect them to. Sample: "...when she bent over to pick up a towel from the floor, I noticed how the back of her jeans curved away from her body, like an evil grin".
My only reservation about this novel is that it is rather too long. By page 711, I was distinctly glad that the exploits and insights of the Dean clan had come to an end, and the wilful perversity of the style had started to cloy well before that. If it had ended 200 pages earlier, I might have given it five stars.
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