A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz

The ego that ate Australia
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The Independent Culture

A 700-page debut novel will always generate a certain amount of attention. The special appeal of the Big Book is that it is going to achieve something greater than the sum of its many parts. To do all that with your first book shows ambition of potentially megalomaniac proportions. And megalomania is the defining characteristic of Steve Toltz's book, set largely in his native Australia ("our demented country"). It is the story of one man, a sufferer from that very disease, Martin Dean, as told by his son, Jasper.

Martin is a failed genius, a genius of failure. He is torn between the demands of his own misanthropic philosophy – that he must reject the world and its idiotic inhabitants – and the grim desire that those people should sit up and take notice of him. His life is full of grand projects that inevitably backfire: a suggestion box in his childhood home town; a textbook for young criminals; a plan, endorsed by a Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul, to make every Australian a millionaire.

Martin is haunted by the figure of his half-brother, Terry, who went from being Australia's top criminal to its mythical anti-hero when he died in a fire. Martin eventually joins his brother in his country's affections, but even then he can't resist playing the nihilist-demagogue. "THERE HAS YET TO BE A GREAT DEMOCRATIC NATION BECAUSE THERE HAS YET TO BE A GREAT BUNCH OF PEOPLE!" he proclaims, live on television.

The lunacy of trying to portray such an extraordinary person in the round is compounded, though maybe excused, by the fact that the object and subject are so close. Jasper is writing the book we are reading (with hefty chunks lifted from Martin's journals) in an attempt to understand his father. But the man fills the viewfinder.

There is no perspective, no sense of how seriously we are supposed to take it all. A Fraction of the Whole contains some awful dud patches, and some sparkling comic writing. It bounces with sarcastic aphorisms and invincible gags – many of which reveal themselves, a moment or two after reading, to be arrant nonsense.

Whatever its faults, Toltz's book is destined to sit on many a student shelf, pored over and passed around by the impressionable young. It gives off the unmistakable whiff of a book that might just contain the secret of life. But, being so big, you'll have to work all the harder to find it.