Steve Tolz – Quicksand

This is an incredible piece of writing brilliance and a wise and often hilarious read.

Liam’s best friend is Aldo Benjamin, a force of nature who has more life packed into his thirty or so years than whole generations of people at a time.

Liam, a wanna-be writer, needs a subject and so Aldo becomes it, with Liam telling Aldo’s story – the failed businesses, time in prison, his drinking, his lost child, accusations of rape, his relationship with lover and wife Stella, his crippling disabilities and illnesses, and his eventual martyrdom and death on a rock as he begins to and eventually gives up setting up a new religion.

There’s no simple plot; rather snapshots of Aldo’s incredible life, told with such energy and a kind of joyful cynicism, if that’s possible.

What’s great about Aldo is he is constantly speaking unlikely or oxymoronic truths about life that read like aphorisms. In fact, knowing that Tolz’s last book was quite philosophical, it was easy at times to see Aldo like a twenty first century entrepreneurial, nihilistic Nietzsche, one raised on reality TV and art and poverty.

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The Rosie Project – Graham Simsion

An amusing take on not fitting in that raises some good questions.

It was a nice surprise that this book is written from the perspective of Don, a high functioning science academic who must likely has Asperger’s syndrome and therefore finds it difficult to empathise with others or feel emotion. He lives with routinised activities (same menu every week), measuring every minute of time and always emphasising the functional over the emotional.

But he also wants a partner, so he embarks on the ‘wife project’ to find a suitable mate. Through a complex questionnaire for prospective candidates and various activities like speed dating, he inadvertently meets Rosie, who was not a recipient of the questionnaire and is not a good ‘match’ but he falls for her. 

The book then tracks the ups and downs of their first few weeks of the them getting to know each other, with him helping her to get a DNA match so she can discover the identity of her father, until he forces himself to conform in order to win her over.

It’s a funny book, nicely written in the style of Don’s brain, and though it’s a bit predictable in the second half it is readable and raises interesting points.

I guess one of the underlying questions in the book is how far we all have to suppress our natural urges in order to conform. Don probably has Aspergers and is therefore a more extreme case, but perhaps we all do it to degrees, consciously or otherwise. 

And a related question, which the book doesn’t answer – but the sequel might – is whether it’s the right thing to do. Should you adapt to fit in? Or not? Don begins to conform in the second half of the book in order to win Rosie over, which certainly makes it a less interesting read as it goes on, but also makes you wonder whether he’s doing the right thing. I’m not sure there’s a simple yes / no answer.

Slow Man – J M Coetzee

Read August 2015
This is a study of age, loneliness and what makes a good life. It tells the simple story of Paul Raiment who has his leg amputated after a cycling accident. Already an ageing man, the accident isolates him and leaves him longing for contact, but too embarrassed to get in touch with his old friends, who are already few and far between.

He falls for Marijana Jovik, his nurse, a Croatian, and foolishly declares his love to her. He eventually offers to pay for her son, Drago, to attend a private school and bails out her older daughter from a minor offence. His declaration of love – entirely unrequited – briefly drives a wedge between the family members but not for long. Her full family life, with both quarrels and love, stand in stark contrast to his solitary life and they come together, with Paul remaining outside, alone and a figure of pity and amusement.

The plot is complicated by the appearance of an ageing novelist, Elizabeth Costello, who camps out at Paul’s house and provides a running commentary on the desperation and loneliness of him as a childless single man.

As a narrative device Costello works well, and adds a level of entertainment that, without her, would have meant for a narrower and sadder book. But nevertheless she is an odd addition – how does she got into it, and where does she come from?

As well as the themes of ageing and the question of what makes a good life (alone and negatively free or embedded in tying but meaningful relationships) is the issue of invention in the novel. There’s a striking point when Paul describes his leg as a loss, as if he is now his old self but minus something, whereas Elizabeth (I think it’s her) says a different way to look at it is that he’s entered a new stage and he’s become something new.

It resonates with the idea that we are always ‘becoming’ found in the philosophy of Foucault or Deleuze. This is echoed in the lives of the Joviks too, who have moved to Australia but their lives, rather than replicating their old ones or starting afresh, instead become something new that emerges and grows from the old and the new together.

Without ever saying it, then, Coetzee manages to write a study in ageing and loneliness that addresses major philosophical questions about how a life changes over time and what makes a good life.

Steve Toltz – A Fraction of the Whole  

afractionofthewhole

Read June 2014

Wow, 700 pages long, an incredible book. It’s a roller coaster like story about Jasper, his Dad and an assortment of family members and friends. The plot is full of murder, arson, crime, philosophising, just-believable scenes and characters, and surprises that few writers could pull off. It’s a gripping story. Throughout it we follow Jasper’s relationship and journey with his Dad, Martin, both of whom are philosophical, socially awkward, verging on sociopathic. They are tied together by love / hate, a shared disbelief at the mundanity of the world and an inability to do anything differently. Jasper is continually haunted by his Dad’s larger than life personality, whilst Martin is constantly haunted by his brother, Terry Dean, a national legend who killed tens of sports stars for corrupt behaviour.

Ultimately, this is a kind of existential novel: it asks questions about how to live, why live, how to be a person, what’s acceptable and what’s not, how constrained people should  by social conventions, whether its better to live a remarkable immoral life or a conventional moral one . . .

One of the big themes is the struggle to find an identity. Jasper and Martin both have big personalities defined in both similarity and opposition to their other. They spend the book agonising, with Jasper in particular at times hating his Dad, at times loving him, at times accepting he’s like him, at times not. It has fantastic psychoanalytical insights. The other big theme is the smallness and largeness of the world. A huge story about big places (Australia and the Asia Pacific) and big ideas (identity, what life’s for, why live), the characters are few: Jasper, Martin, Terry, Carol (Martin’s first love), Eddie (Martin’s best friend / Terry’s spy). It seems to say: there’s so much to the world and, although we feel so overwhelmed by it, we in fact only touch and know a fraction.