Daily Archives: May 10, 2009

‘A Fraction of the Whole’ by Steve Toltz


2008, 709 p.

Am I getting old?  I think I must be.  The younger people in my life, whose reading tastes I trust, really enjoyed this book.   So, obviously, did many other reviewers and long-listers for literary prizes.  But I don’t know- I just found it rather wearing.

It’s a long book- over 700 pages, which is a hefty commitment in anyone’s language . The book has large, implausible plot swings, and stories nest within other stories, each as sprawling as the one that preceded it.  It’s loud, it’s exuberant, it’s confident, it’s young.  The voice  is that of an educated, self-conscious, ironic young male, and while I found it mildly amusing, I couldn’t say that I laughed out loud.

I just felt as if it had been done before.  It’s not the first book to have stories within stories, nor will it be the last.  It didn’t have the sustained, carefully constructed tone of Barth’s The Sotweed Factor or the intricacy and humour of Sterne’s  The Life of Tristam Shandy.  I can see the similarities with both Dickens and John Irving mentioned in the blurbs on the back cover, in terms of larger-than-life characters and riotous plots.  All of these books are long and convoluted- no doubt one of the pleasures and perils of the genre.

I’m glad that it was short-listed for the Booker and long-listed for the Miles Franklin, but I don’t think that it deserves to win either award.  It’s a swaggering, raucous book, and I wonder how (if?) he’ll follow it with a second novel.  Good on him.  But I think I’ll turn the volume down, pull up my knee-rug and read something a little more polished and restrained.