Fraction of the Whole (Toltz)

A Fraction of the Whole
Steve Toltz
Random House
576 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385521734

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Sydney, Australia
Education—B.A., University of Newcastle
Currently—lives in Australia

Toltz attended Knox Grammar School, Killara High School and graduated from the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1994. Prior to his literary career, he lived in Montreal, Vancouver, New York, Barcelona, and Paris, variously working as a cameraman, telemarketer, security guard, private investigator, English teacher, and screenwriter.

A Fraction of the Whole, his first novel, was released in 2008 to widespread critical acclaim. It is a comic novel which tells the history of a family of Australian outcasts. The narration of the novel alternates between Jasper Dean, a philosophical, idealistic boy, who grows up throughout the novel and his father, Martin Dean, a philosopher and shut-in described at the start of the novel as "the most hated man in all of Australia". This is in contrast with Terry Dean, Jasper's uncle, whom Jasper describes as "the most beloved man in all of Australia". The novel spans the entirety of Martin's life and several years after (a range never specified in the text, but starting after World War II and ending in the early 2000s), and is set in Australia, Paris, and Thailand.

The novel has repeatedly been compared favourably to John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces. A Fraction of the Whole was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and the 2008 Guardian First Book Award. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
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

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

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)

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)

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 tha t feels more than a hemisphere away.... So comically dark and inviting that you have no choice but to step into its icy wake.


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)

(Starred review.) At the heart of this sprawling, dizzying debut from a quirky, assured Australian writer are two men: Jasper Dean, a judgmental but forgiving son, and Martin, his brilliant but dysfunctional father. Jasper, in an Australian prison in his early 20s, scribbles out the story of their picaresque adventures, noting cryptically early on that "my father's body will never be found." As he tells it, Jasper has been uneasily bonded to his father through thick and thin, which includes Martin's stint managing a squalid strip club during Jasper's adolescence; an Australian outback home literally hidden within impenetrable mazes; Martin's ill-fated scheme to make every Australian a millionaire; and a feverish odyssey through Thailand's menacing jungles. Toltz's exuberant, looping narrative-thick with his characters' outsized longings and with their crazy arguments-sometimes blows past plot entirely, but comic drive and Toltz's far-out imagination carry the epic story, which puts the two (and Martin's own nemesis, his outlaw brother, Terry) on an irreverent roller-coaster ride from obscurity to infamy. Comparisons to Special Topics in Calamity Physics are likely, but this nutty tour de force has a more tender, more worldly spin.
Publishers Weekly

For those who, if they think of it at all, think of Australia as a bloated island full of Tasmanian devils, baby-devouring dingoes, and convicts, with an iconic opera house thrown in, this eagerly awaited Australian debut novel comes as further confirmation. Here the focus is the dysfunctional Dean family, which boasts the notorious Terry Dean, bank robber, cop killer, and bona fide Australian legend. Under his large and imposing shadow, his brother and his brother's son, Jasper, have both withered into reclusive, crotchety curmudgeons with more than their fair share of eccentric opinions, and Jasper is in rebellion against not only his uncle but his father as well. This is one Oedipus story told, though, with lots of snap and crackle, as well as pop. While there are no new stories, even Down Under, Jasper's progression reads like the trajectory of a gleefully crazed Roman candle across the southern skies in this sprawling, entertaining, decidedly quirky, and at times laugh-out-loud-funny romp reminiscent of John Irving's family sagas or Brocke Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Recommended for all public libraries.
Bob Lunn - Library Journal

(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.

A bloated first novel from Australia. The opening promises suspense. Narrator Jasper Dean is in prison; his father's body, he confides, will never be found. The suggestion of foul play, though, is a misleading tease. Moving back in time, the father, Martin, takes over as narrator; he and Jasper switch roles throughout.... We end, exhausted.... One thing after another in a novel that wallows in excess.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for A Fraction of the Whole?

1. How would you characterize this book? As a philosophical novel? A family saga? A comedy...or tragic comedy?

2. Steve Toltz' novel is long and packed with metaphysical ideas, strange characters, and mad-cap action. Some say its "stuffed" and "bloated." British reviewer James Wood has gone so far as to label it "hysterical realism"—which is both criticism and description. Others find the novel's screwball excesses delightfully rich and exciting. How did you experience A Fraction of the Whole?

3. Are the characters in this book sympathetic...likable? Do you care about them?

4. Describe Jasper Dean. What are his feelings toward his father? How has the father shaped the son—what affect did Martin's escapades have on Jasper? In his diaries, Martin worries his baby son "is me prematurely reincarnated." Is Martin right?

5. Martin proclaims, "I don't believe in anything." Is he right about himself...or not? What do you think of Martin?

6. Why might Toltz have chosen father and son to narrate his novel? What affect does the dual narration have on how we read the book—our understanding of it?

7. What about Anouk? What does she believe in? Why doesn't she like Martin, and yet why does she try to save him throughout the novel. What is her relationship with Jasper?

8. The novel's title is derived from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The moment we meet with anybody, each becomes a fraction." What does the passage mean...and how do both title and quotation relate to the novel?

9. Martin and his brother Terry are intent on solving the riddle of human happiness. Talk about the various schemes each devises—the suggestion box, the giant telescope, and the murder of corrupt sports figures. What does each scheme attempt to achieve? And why do they fail?

10. How would you describe Martin and Terry's relationship? Is Martin living in Terry's shadow?

11. What, or who, are the world's "inexorably tepid souls," and why are they the scourge of this novel?

12. How do you feel about the comment regarding God's treatment of Lot's wife:

Most of the time when God's supposed to be the hero, he comes across as the villain. I mean, look at what he did to Lot's wife....What was her crime? Turning her head? You have to admit this is a God hopelessly locked in time, not free of it; otherwise he might have confounded the ancients by turning her into a flat-screen television or at least a pillar of Velcro.

Do you find the comment offensive, humorous, insightful? How would you address the charges of God as a villain?

13. Talk about the Towering Inferno. What does it teach Jasper?

14. Talk about Jasper's high school perched on the Cliffs of Despondency—obviously a comment on the desperation of life for bullied youngsters. Is the parody effective...or does it miss the mark?

15. Talk about some of the other objects of satire and parody in this novel? What is Toltz lampooning in the 20th and 21st centuries?

16. What is this book about?

17. Have you read other works comparable to A Fraction of the Whole? Perhaps John Irving, John Kennedy Toole, Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez? If so, what do any of these works have in common with Toltz's?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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