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  • Written by Steve Toltz
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  • Written by Steve Toltz
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Written by Steve ToltzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Steve Toltz

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On Sale: February 12, 2008
Pages: 576 | ISBN: 978-0-385-52569-5
Published by : Spiegel & Grau Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Meet the Deans

“The fact is, the whole of Australia despises my father more than any other man, just as they adore my uncle more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them . . .”

Heroes or Criminals?
Crackpots or Visionaries?
Families or Enemies?

“. . . Anyway, you know how it is. Every family has a story like this one.”



Most of his life, Jasper Dean couldn’t decide whether to pity, hate, love, or murder his certifiably paranoid father, Martin, a man who overanalyzed anything and everything and imparted his self-garnered wisdom to his only son. But now that Martin is dead, Jasper can fully reflect on the crackpot who raised him in intellectual captivity, and what he realizes is that, for all its lunacy, theirs was a grand adventure.
As he recollects the events that led to his father’s demise, Jasper recounts a boyhood of outrageous schemes and shocking discoveries—about his infamous outlaw uncle Terry, his mysteriously absent European mother, and Martin’s constant losing battle to make a lasting mark on the world he so disdains. It’s a story that takes them from the Australian bush to the cafes of bohemian Paris, from the Thai jungle to strip clubs, asylums, labyrinths, and criminal lairs, and from the highs of first love to the lows of failed ambition. The result is a rollicking rollercoaster ride from obscurity to infamy, and the moving, memorable story of a father and son whose spiritual symmetry transcends all their many shortcomings.
A Fraction of the Whole is an uproarious indictment of the modern world and its mores and the epic debut of the blisteringly funny and talented Steve Toltz.

Excerpt

ONE


You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue. My lesson? I have lost my freedom, and found myself in this strange prison, where the trickiest adjustment, other than getting used to not having anything in my pockets and being treated like a dog that pissed in a sacred temple, is the boredom. I can handle the enthusiastic brutality of the guards, the wasted erections, even the suffocating heat. (Apparently air–conditioning offends society’s notion of punishment—as if just by being a little cool we are getting away with murder.) But what can I do here to kill time? Fall in love? There’s a female guard whose stare of indifference is alluring, but I’ve never been good at chasing women—I always take no for an answer. Sleep all day? When my eyes are closed I see the menacing face that’s haunted me my whole life. Meditate? After everything that’s happened, I know the mind isn’t worth the membrane it’s printed on. There are no distractions here—not enough, anyway—to avoid catastrophic introspection. Neither can I beat back the memories with a stick.

All that remains is to go insane; easy in a theater where the apocalypse is performed every other week. Last night was a particularly stellar show: I had almost fallen asleep when the building started shaking and a hundred angry voices shouted as one. I stiffened. A riot, yet another ill–conceived revolution. It hadn’t been going two minutes when my door was kicked open and a tall figure entered, wearing a smile that seemed merely ornamental.

“Your mattress. I need,” he said.

“What for?” I asked.

“We set fire to all mattress,” he boasted, thumbs up, as if this gesture were the jewel in the crown of human achievement.

“So what am I supposed to sleep on? The floor?”

He shrugged and started speaking in a language I didn’t understand. There were odd–shaped bulges in his neck; clearly something terrible was taking place underneath his skin. The people here are all in a bad way and their clinging misfortunes have physically misshaped them. Mine have too; my face looks like a withered grape, my body the vine.

I waved the prisoner away and continued listening to the routine chaos of the mob. That’s when I had the idea that I could pass the time by writing my story. Of course, I’d have to scribble it secretly crouched behind the door, and only at night, and then hide it in the damp space between the toilet and the wall and hope my jailers aren’t the type to get down on their hands and knees. I’d settled on this plan when the riot finally took the lights out. I sat on my bed and became mesmerized by the glow from burning mattresses illuminating the corridor, only to be interrupted by two grim, unshaven inmates who strode into my cell and stared at me as if I were a mountain view.

“Are you the one who won’t give up his mattress?” the taller of the two growled, looking like he’d woken up with the same hangover three years running.

I said that I was.

“Step aside.”

“It’s just that I was about to have a lie–down,” I protested. Both prisoners let out deep, unsettling laughs that sounded like the tearing of denim. The taller one pushed me aside and yanked the mattress from my bed while the other stood as if frozen and waiting to thaw. There are certain things I’ll risk my neck for, but a lumpy mattress isn’t one of them. Holding it between them, the prisoners paused at the door.

“Coming?” the shorter prisoner asked me.

“What for?”

“It’s your mattress,” he said plainly. “It is your right to be one who sets on fire.”

I groaned. Man and his codes! Even in a lawless inferno, man has to give himself some honor, he’s so desperate to separate himself from the beasts.

“I’ll pass.”

“As you like,” he said, a little disappointed. He muttered something in a foreign tongue to his cohort, who laughed as they left.

It’s always something here—if there isn’t a riot, then someone’s usually trying to escape. The wasted effort helps me see the positives of imprisonment. Unlike those pulling their hair out in good society, here we don’t have to feel ashamed of our day–to–day unhappiness. Here we have someone visible to blame–someone wearing shiny boots. That’s why, on consideration, freedom leaves me cold. Because out there in the real world, freedom means you have to admit authorship, even when your story turns out to be a stinker.

*

Where to begin my story? Negotiating with memories isn't easy: how to choose between those panting to be told, those still ripening, those already shriveling, and those destined to be mangled by language and come out pulverized? One thing's for sure: not writing about my father would take a mental effort that's beyond me. All my non-Dad thoughts feel like transparent strategies to avoid thinking about him. And why should I avoid it anyway? My father punished me for existing, and now it's my turn to punish him for existing. It's only fair.

But the real difficulty is, I feel dwarfed by our lives. They loom disproportionately large. We painted on a broader canvas than we deserved, across three continents, from obscurity to celebrity, from cities to jungles, from rags to designer rags, betrayed by our lovers and our bodies, and humiliated on a national then cosmic scale, with hardly a cuddle to keep us going. We were lazy people on an adventure, flirting with life but too shy to go all the way. So how to begin to recount our hideous odyssey? Keep it simple, Jasper. Remember, people are satisfied-no, thrilled-by the simplification of complex events. And besides, mine's a damn good story and it's true. I don't know why, but that seems to be important to people. Personally, if someone said to me, "I've got this great story to tell you, and every word is an absolute lie!" I'd be on the edge of my seat.

I guess I should just admit it: this will be as much about my father as it is about me. I hate how no one can tell the story of his life without making a star of his enemy, but that's just the way it is. The fact is, the whole of Australia despises my father perhaps more than any other man, just as they adore his brother, my uncle, perhaps more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them, though I don't intend to undermine your love for my uncle or reverse your hatred for my father, especially if it's an expansive hatred. I don't want to spoil things if you use your hate to quicken your awareness of who you love.

I should also say this just to get it out of the way:

My father's body will never be found.

*

Most of my life I never worked out whether to pity, ignore, adore, judge, or murder my father. His mystifying behavior left me wavering right up until the end. He had conflicting ideas about anything and everything, especially my schooling: eight months into kindergarten he decided he didn't want me there anymore because the education system was "stultifying, soul-destroying, archaic, and mundane." I don't know how anyone could call finger painting archaic and mundane. Messy, yes. Soul-destroying, no. He took me out of school with the intention of educating me himself, and instead of letting me finger-paint he read me the letters Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo right before he cut off his ear, and also passages from the book Human, All Too Human so that together we could "rescue Nietzsche from the Nazis." Then Dad got distracted with the time-chewing business of staring into space, and I sat around the house twiddling my thumbs, wishing there was paint on them. After six weeks he plopped me back in kindergarten, and just as it started looking like I might have a normal life after all, suddenly, in the second week of first grade, he walked right into the classroom and yanked me out once again, because he'd been overcome with the fear that he was leaving my impressionable brain "in the folds of Satan's underpants."

This time he meant it, and from our wobbly kitchen table, while flicking cigarette ash into a pile of unwashed dishes, he taught me literature, philosophy, geography, history, and some nameless subject that involved going through the daily newspapers, barking at me about how the media do something he called "whipping up moral panics" and demanding that I tell him why people allowed themselves to be whipped into panicking, morally. Other times he gave classes from his bedroom, among hundreds of secondhand books, pictures of grave-looking dead poets, empty long necks of beer, newspaper clippings, old maps, black stiff banana peels, boxes of unsmoked cigars, and ashtrays full of smoked ones.

This was a typical lesson:

"OK, Jasper. Here it is: The world's not falling apart imperceptibly anymore, these days it makes a loud shredding noise! In every city of the world, the smell of hamburgers marches brazenly down the street looking for old friends! In traditional fairy tales, the wicked witch was ugly; in modern ones, she has high cheekbones and silicone implants! People are not mysterious because they never shut up! Belief illuminates the way a blindfold does! Are you listening, Jasper? Sometimes you'll be walking in the city late at night, and a woman walking in front of you will spin her head around and then cross the street simply because some members of your gender rape women and molest children!"

Each class was equally bewildering, covering a diverse range of topics. He tried to encourage me to engage him in Socratic dialogues, but he wound up doing both parts himself. When there was a blackout during an electrical storm, Dad would light a candle and hold it under his chin to show me how the human face becomes a mask of evil with the right kind of lighting. He taught me that if I had to meet someone for an appointment, I must refuse to follow the "stupid human habit" of arbitrarily choosing a time based on fifteen-minute intervals. "Never meet people at 7:45 or 6:30, Jasper, but pick times like 7:12 and 8:03!" If the phone rang, he'd pick it up and not say anything-then, when the other person said hello, he would put on a wobbly, high-pitched voice and say, "Dad not home." Even as a child I knew that a grown man impersonating his six-year-old son to hide from the world was grotesque, but many years later I found myself doing the same thing, only I'd pretend to be him. "My son isn't home. What is this regarding?" I'd boom. Dad would nod in approval. More than anything, he approved of hiding.

These lessons continued into the outside world too, where Dad tried to teach me the art of bartering, even though we weren't living in that type of society. I remember him taking me by the hand to buy the newspaper, screaming at the baffled vendor, "No wars! No market crashes! No killers on the loose! What are you charging so much for? Nothing's happened!"

I also remember him sitting me on a plastic yellow chair and cutting my hair; to him, it was one of those things in life that was so unlike brain surgery he refused to believe that if a man had a pair of hands and a pair of scissors he couldn't cut hair. "I'm not wasting money on a barber, Jasper. What's to know? Obviously, you stop at the scalp." My father the philosopher-he couldn't even give a simple haircut without reflecting on the meaning of it. "Hair, the symbol of virility and vitality, although some very flaccid people have long hair and many vibrant baldies walk the earth. Why do we cut it anyway? What have we got against it?" he'd say, and let fly at the hair with wild, spontaneous swipes. Dad cut his own hair too, often without use of a mirror. "It doesn't have to win any prizes," he'd say, "it just has to be shorter." We were father and son with such demented, uneven hair-embodiments of one of Dad's favorite ideas that I only truly understood much later: there's freedom in looking crazy.

At nightfall, the day's lessons were capped with a bedtime story of his own invention. Yuck! They were always dark and creepy tales, and each had a protagonist that was clearly a surrogate me. Here's a typical one: Once upon a time there was a little boy named Kasper. Kasper's friends all had the same ideas about a fat kid who lived down the street. They hated him. Kasper wanted to remain friends with the group, so he started hating the fat kid too. Then one morning Kasper woke up to find his brain had begun to putrefy until eventually it ran out his bottom in painful anal secretions. Poor Kasper! He really had a tough time of it. In that series of bedtime stories, he was shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, dipped in boiling seas, dragged over fields of shattered glass, had his fingernails ripped out, his organs devoured by cannibals; he vanished, exploded, imploded, and often succumbed to violent spasms and hearing loss. The moral was always the same: if you follow public opinion without thinking for yourself, you will die a sudden and horrific death. For ages I was terrified of agreeing with anyone about anything, even the time.

Kasper never triumphed in any significant way. Sure, he won little battles now and then and was rewarded (two gold coins, a kiss, the approval of his father), but never, not once, did he win the war. Now I realize it was because Dad's philosophy had won him few personal victories in life: not love, not peace, not success, not happiness. Dad's mind couldn't imagine a lasting peace or a meaningful victory; it wasn't in his experience. That's why Kasper was doomed from the outset. He didn't stand a chance, poor bastard.

*

One of the most memorable classes began when Dad entered my bedroom with an olive-green shoebox under his arm, and said "Today's lesson is about you."

He took me to the park opposite our apartment building, one of those sad, neglected city parks that looked as if it had been the location of a war between children and junkies and the children got their arses kicked. Dead grass, broken slides, a couple of rubber swings drifting in the wind on tangled, rusty chains.


From the Hardcover edition.
Steve Toltz

About Steve Toltz

Steve Toltz - A Fraction of the Whole

Photo © Prudence Upton

Steve Toltz was born in Sydney and has lived in Montreal, Vancouver, New York, Barcelona, and Paris, working as a cameraman, telemarketer, security guard, private investigator, English teacher, and screenwriter. A Fraction of the Whole is his first novel.
Praise

Praise

SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2008

A Fraction of the Whole is that rarest of long books–utterly worth it…The story starts in a prison riot and ends on a plane, and there is not one forgettable episode in between…It reads like Mark Twain with access to an intercontinental Airbus…This book moves; it bucks and rocks in a world that feels more than a hemisphere away…So comically dark and inviting that you have no choice but to step into its icy wake.” —Esquire

“Rollicking…laugh-out-loud funny.” —Entertainment Weekly

“A rich father-and-son story packed with incident, humor, and characters reminiscent of the styles of Charles Dickens and John Irving…Occasionally, a big, sprawling first novel fights its way into print with a flourish, at which point its ambition and the eccentricities of its ‘firstness’ can become its best marketing tools. Such is the case with A Fraction of the Whole, a book that is willfully misanthropic and very funny…like Irving, Toltz makes minor characters leap off the page…He’s a superb, disturbing phrasemaker…this long novel, which lives or dies in the brilliance of its writing, has a subtle, compelling structure…A Fraction of the Whole soars like a rocket.” —Los Angeles Times

“Combines the hilarious high-low reference points of early Martin Amis with the annihilating punk inventiveness of Chuck Palahniuk.” —Best Life

“One of the best books I’ve ever read. A Fraction of the Whole is better than The Corrections, and Toltz did it in one book while it took Franzen two to get The Corrections out into the world. Granted, you have your whole life to write your first novel, but my God, A Fraction of the Whole does things that most writers can’t do in a lifetime… A wildly addictive exploration into a man’s soul, a profoundly moving experience almost religious in its execution and possibly one of the sharpest and irresistibly humorous post-modern adventures I’ve had the pleasure to read… Steve Toltz has written a masterpiece, a smashing debut that will long be remembered as a colossal example of just how good fiction can be. He keeps you wired to the page from the jump and he defies gravity all the way to the end.” —Ain’t It Cool News

“First novels these days too seldom dare to raise their voices above an elegant whisper or an ironic murmur. Not so A Fraction of the Whole, a riotously funny first novel that is harder to ignore than a crate of puppies, twice as playful and just about as messy. This is not a book to be read so much as an experience to be wallowed in. Mr. Toltz’s merry chaos–a mix of metaphysical inquiry, ribald jokes, freakish occurrences and verbal dynamite booming across the page–deserves a place next to A Confederacy of Dunces in a category that might be called the undergraduate ecstatic. A Fraction of the Whole is a sort of Voltaire-meets-Vonnegut tale.” —Wall Street Journal

“Madcap, exhausting, and true in the way the best lies always are.” —New York Observer

“Wild…an odyssey that’s inspired, sorta stoned, tender, and very funny. Sometimes all at the same time. Toltz’s invention is as breathtaking as the speed of his narrative in a book that seems to have had all the boring parts snipped…There is wit on every page…Jorge Luis Borges is obviously an influence on Toltz. There is also a bit of John Irving and Tom Robbins here in the wacky characters and narrative drive. A Fraction of the Whole even has a touch of the weary philosophizing of Vonnegut, too. In its structure–and especially in its ending–there is even a pinch of Tristram Shandy. Very good company, all.” —Chicago Sun-Times

Hold on tight because you are about to ride a juggernaut of words, where things will go by very quickly and you better pay attention…The real pleasure in reading this book is the pace and the language. What Toltz has done masterfully is have his way with every aspect of modern life. He racks ‘em up and knocks ‘em down with a laser wit, a fine turn of phrase and a devastatingly funny outlook on everything human.” —Seattle Times

An exuberantly funny debut novel that you should just go away and read…There is plenty to laugh at in A Fraction of the Whole–and also, goodness knows, there is plenty of plot and the narrative pace of a puppy with attention deficit disorder. But it also has a heart…A grand achievement and the debut of a great comic talent.” —Sunday Times (UK)

“Sparkling comic writing…It gives off the unmistakable whiff of a book that might just contain the secret of life.” —Independent (UK)

“This absurdly incident-laden, feverish, farcical life story bears the watermark of long gestation. What’s more, it stands above the vast majority of debut novels because it seems so marvelously sure of itself and what it should be…Toltz’s fizzing, acid, funny prose is capable of a kind of broken, lyrical beauty…Amid the dizzying whirl of events, Toltz never loses sight of a deep current that runs throughout his story…It’s a spiritual search that allows a conclusion that finds an affecting depth of feeling. Yes, A Fraction of the Whole is a wildly looping rollercoaster. But there’s much more to it than meaningless exhilaration.” —Independent on Sunday (UK)
“With tinges of magical realism and buckets of misanthropic humor it's a clever and funny debut.” —Observer (UK)
“Very light on its feet, skipping from anecdote, to rant, to reflection, like a stone skimming across a pond…There’s a section about a labyrinth that you could imagine Borges writing, another about a lottery gone wrong that made me think of Vonnegut, and a strange, lovely account of childhood illness that had echoes of Garcia Marquez. In some ways it plays like a modern Arabian Nights…The inevitability of disaster is heartbreaking…Brilliant.” —Guardian (UK)

“Quirky, satirical, and absolutely delirious…A Fraction of the Whole is one of the most hilarious, original literary romps in years with sizzle on each and every page. Hold on tight and enjoy the ride.” —Tucson Citizen


“A sprawling, dizzying debut…Comic drive and Steve Toltz’s far-out imagination carry the epic story . . . a nutty tour de force.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review

“What satirical fun is found on the madcap pages of this rough-and-tumble tale…This hilarious, sneaky smart first novel is as big and rangy as Australia . . . Toltz salts it all with uproarious ruminations on freedom, the soul, love, death, and the meaning of life. This is one rampaging and irresistible debut.” –Booklist, starred review

“The perfect vacation read for just about everyone…This book allows you to romp along with the characters on an epic journey with two crazy Australian brothers who you fall madly in love with despite their wild, degenerate lives…packed with so many rich characters, setting descriptions, philosophy and fun you need something to aid digestion after each reading…Steve Toltz is hilarious, smart, with a fantastic imagination…His novel is a rollicking worldwide adventure…Take time to enjoy this one; you won’t be disappointed.” —The Daily Planet, Telluride, CO

A Fraction of the Whole belongs to a neglected subgenre: serious fiction that refuses to take itself seriously. A ballsy, beautifully idiosyncratic epic, it asks dizzying primal questions about mortality, belief, and the shadowy, unmapped alleyways of human thought–and Toltz manages his metaphysics like a master surfer riding a colossal wave…It’s a madcap, propulsive story…The energy of the writing is brilliantly infectious…The novel’s heart is as big as its intellect…It feels like an added bonus that, for all its hilarious misanthropy, A Fraction of the Whole testifies to the power of even the most reluctant love.” —Sunday Business Post (Ireland)

“Packed with plots, sub-plots, sub-sub-plots, tangents, flashbacks, diversions, philosophical wanderings and spectacular set pieces…Fuelled by brilliant ideas and driven by an original, bracing, and very funny voice.” --The Age (Australia)

Reads like the trajectory of a gleefully crazed Roman candle…a sprawling, entertaining, decidedly quirky, and at times laugh-out-loud funny romp reminiscent of John Irving’s family sagas.” —Library Journal

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