The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt

A stark but affecting existential Western about the need for – and struggle to find – meaning.

Eli and Charlie Sisters are, it turns out, pretty notorious mercenaries in nineteenth century mid-West America. They are commissioned to search out an inventor who had somehow created a mix of chemicals that makes gold clear in the bottom of lakes, providing an easy way to get rich in the time of gold-rush.

The plot charts their slow pursuit of the inventor – Warm – as they befriend, meet or kill a host of other people on the way: lawyers, prostitutes, farmers, Native Americans, other cowboys. They eventually catch up with Warm and his friend Morris, but it turns out that, although the invention might be effective, it is also pretty lethal.

The big theme of the book is about finding a meaning in life. It’s narrated by Eli, who is a thoughtful soul stuck in the mercenary business. He largely wants out, to leave the death behind, but this is what he is, what he does. His brother Charlie is less reflective and altogether meaner, and it’s hard for Eli to break away from his brother when in many ways the relationship with his brother in in fact all he has of value or meaning.

The pursuit of gold appears to give meaning to the lives of so many characters, but often it appears to be self-defeating – acquiring gold often results in being robbed or killed, and the chemical agent that can help find gold is itself toxic. Charlie and Eli are brilliantly philosophical about material gain. A number of times they make enough money to retire only to lose it somehow, yet they just live with the loss and move on. Perhaps the point is that the journey and what they do en route is what provides meaning, not the gold, the end, itself?

And what I like about the book too are the little things. Eli is wonderfully conflicted, he has different moods, he is aware that he thinks different things at the same time; his mind is tricky, and real. He is multiple. Despite being murderers you can’t help liking Eli and Charlie and somehow rooting for them, for their success. And there are some excellent scenes – a Western style shoot-out with a nervous but affronted lawyer stands out as a lovely addition.

It drags sometimes, and the lack of substantial women characters in the book – although it may well reflect Eli’s attitudes – feels like a limitation, but nevertheless The Sisters Brothers is an excellent existential Western.

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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.