Review: Julian Novitzon Steve Toltz

Fear of life: Quicksand by Steve Toltz

Second books tend to be difficult, for both writers and readers. It is not surprising that authors often struggle with second works, as their first is usually the result of decades of accumulated experience, their trials and errors in life and in writing. First books tend to encompass themes, subjects and scenarios that their authors may have been reflecting upon in earlier, abandoned writing projects and contain the best lines and most acute observations assembled from many drafts, notes and jottings made in the years prior to publication. They often distil any number of possible texts – successful, unsuccessful, or somewhere in between – down to a single concrete manuscript. Once all of these ideas and possibilities are fixed, finalised and pressed between printed pages, what is left for the second book? Some authors, such as Ralph Ellison and (at least until recently) Harper Lee, have proven famously incapable of completing a follow-up to their acclaimed debuts; while others, such as Donna Tartt or Junot Diaz, only produce a second work after a substantial period of time.

For readers, a second book can often prove to be disappointing, in that much of the appeal of a first book may reside in its unfamiliar voice and perspective. We come to a second book knowing the author but still hoping to be surprised, often judging it not on its own merits, but by how well it recreates the sense of discovery and excitement we felt when reading the first. A second book may be expected to strike a very delicate balance: too much of the same and audiences are likely to be dismissive, too different and they may feel betrayed.

Steve Toltz’s second novel Quicksand is not a radical departure from his remarkable debut A Fraction of the Whole (2008), at least in terms of style, tone and subject matter. It features a similar range of hyper-verbal characters whose conflicts, schemes and misunderstandings build with a snowball-like momentum, smashing through into new frontiers of awfulness and hilarity. This similarity is unsurprising, given that Quicksand began as a 300-page section that was excised from a draft of the first book, according to an interview with Toltz in the Sydney Morning Herald. In Toltz’s words, the excised pages focused on ‘a bad luck character who didn’t seem to fit; he seemed to belong to a different novel altogether’.

This narrative gave rise to the Quicksand’s protagonist, Aldo Benjamin, though to describe him as a ‘bad luck character’ might be something of an understatement. Aldo has the worst luck imaginable. Every movement in his story begins badly before rapidly deteriorating; any temporary change in his fortune heralds an even worse disaster to come. For Aldo, the fire is usually a brief, retrospectively pleasant interlude on his journey between frying pan and the earth’s molten core. Dubbed ‘the king of unforced errors’ by his best friend Liam (an aspiring writer turned reluctant police officer), Aldo suffers the early loss of both his sister and his father; is accused of rape while still a teenaged virgin; bankrupts his mother and then himself through his numerous failed business ventures; has his unborn child die in utero; loses the woman he loves; is humiliated by his failed suicide attempt; loses the other woman that he loves; is paralysed in a car crash; is dubiously convicted of statutory rape; is less dubiously convicted of vehicular manslaughter; endures regular beatings and rape in prison; and then, within 24 hours of his release, is put on trial again, this time for murder. With the exception of a few friends, lovers and a fairly sympathetic sex worker, Aldo is treated with almost instinctual derision and hostility by everyone he encounters: school officials, bar staff, brothel madams, police and criminals alike. Australia seems to have nothing but contempt for a battler who is unable to rack up even the occasional win.

Aldo’s agonising struggle through life sees him start with little and end with nothing, but what precisely will readers get out of this journey? Probably not what they were expecting, to start with. We find it easy to laugh at the suffering of comic characters because it typically results from their personality and perspective; the misfortunes endured by George Costanza or Homer Simpson are funny because they are most often set in motion by their own stupidity, selfishness or vanity. In some ways, Aldo appears to fit with the comic tradition of the perennial loser. He is the guy with the wacky get-rich-quick schemes that never work out, the guy that can always be relied upon to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. But his experiences in the novel go beyond this, as his actions and decisions play only a small part in his fate. As terrible events accumulate in ways that are entirely out of proportion with Aldo’s faults (many of them pushing at the boundaries of what can be comfortably regarded as comic), the novel toys with the idea that Aldo is cosmically marked for misfortune, in that no matter what he does, he will always be destined to suffer.

As readers, we usually expect fictional or non-fictional accounts of suffering to express some kind of greater meaning. If suffering does not result from a character’s comic or tragic flaws, then the expectation is often that there is a reward to be gained from enduring it (like Job getting fresh livestock and more children after his torments), or at the very least that it will offer some kind of lesson, some deeper understanding about life or the world. We obsess over the insights that suffering may offer because we want to believe that there is some compensation to be found for it, at a spiritual, emotional or intellectual level.

In his 2007 essay ‘Wonderbread’, novelist and literary critic Melvin Jules Bukiet decries this tendency:

the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.

This is the ‘dull truth’ that Quicksand appears to embrace. Aldo’s agonies accumulate without relief or reward, and any attempt to imbue them with greater meaning is quickly contested. As ‘AF’ notes in the Saturday Paper, Aldo ‘never becomes a hero’ as a result of all this pain, and neither does he devolve into a villain. Aldo’s punishments simply exist as without reason or justification, to be survived and endured until it is no longer possible. God does show up at one point in the novel to chat with Aldo (much more convivially than He does with Job – no ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ bombast here) and assure him that ‘suffering has meaning and not just to the sufferer’ because our responses to the suffering of others are what defines our ethical position in the world. But both Aldo and the reader ought to remain sceptical. Let’s face it, that is exactly the sort of sentiment about suffering that God would have a vested interest in peddling.

The Sydney Morning Herald interview suggests that Toltz sees Quicksand as a companion piece to A Fraction of the Whole, considering them both ‘spiritual autobiographies’, the first book being about ‘the fear of death’ and the second about ‘the fear of life’. Ed Wright, writing in the Australian, characterises the plot of Quicksand as an ‘anti-bildungsroman’, which would suggest that it follows a reverse trajectory to that of A Fraction of the Whole, which details the formative experiences of Jasper Dean and his father Martin. Rather than helping to shape Aldo’s identity, the events of Quicksand gradually erase it, constraining rather than expanding his horizons, until his probable death offers him his only victory, the suggestion being that his role in engineering it finally allows him to achieve some control and direction over his fate.

In many ways, the structure and narration of Quicksand provide a slightly skewed reflection of its predecessor. Like A Fraction of the Whole, it makes use of dual perspectives and stories within stories, in which the voice of another character overwhelms and supplants that of the nominal narrator. In A Fraction of the Whole, Jasper’s attempts to tell the story of his own life are quickly sidelined in favour of Martin’s account of his own early years. We only return to Jasper’s voice in the second half of the novel. Similarly, in Quicksand the first sections are dominated by Liam’s attempt to narrate Aldo’s misfortunes, but the focus shifts to Aldo’s perspective as he conducts his own defence at his murder trial. Both novels feature dubious older mentors who attempt to record and share their expertise in instructional books. In A Fraction of the Whole this is Harry West, who introduces Martin and his brother Terry to their respective vocations of philosophy and crime; in Quicksand, it is Mr Morrell, high school art teacher to both Aldo and Liam. Furthermore, the narrators in both A Fraction of the Whole and Quicksand keep spinning back to a similar array of subjects with magnificent wit and eloquent savagery: the inevitable and maddening deterioration of the human body and mind; the mechanisms of crime and punishment and the often less-than-reliably-causal relationship between the two; and a baffled obsession with the swarm of micro-hypocrisies that underpin social, cultural and political life in Australia.

Quicksand’s tendency to either directly mirror or invert A Fraction of the Whole make it difficult to assess the novel as a separate entity. Even more than most second books, it feels haunted by its predecessor. To some degree, this closeness is the deliberate design of the author, providing a sense of two works that are in conversation with each other.  A Fraction of the Whole is a novel propelled by the fear of death. It builds momentum across its roughly 700 pages, with the events of the plot – calamitous, tragic, farcical and quite frequently some combination of all three – leading its characters to develop distinct worldviews and trajectories. Quicksand, a novel about the fear of life, explores inertia: Aldo is so helplessly trapped by misfortune he never has room to grow. Martin Dean, in A Fraction of the Whole, escapes the conflagration of his Australian hometown for France, returns with an infant son, suffers a mental breakdown, emerges from his institutionalisation to manage a strip club, convinces a media magnate with a suspicious similarity to Rupert Murdoch to endorse his philosophy aimed at improving human happiness, is universally acclaimed and elected prime minister, is accused of fraud, flees to Thailand, before dying at sea while attempting to re-enter Australia. Aldo never really makes it out of Sydney. Martin’s misfortunes and failures inevitably open up new vistas; Aldo remains stuck, travelling in ever-diminishing circles.

Martin Dean seldom lacks mobility, whether it is geographical, social or economic; what traps him and prevents him from enjoying life is the labyrinthine system of thought that he creates around the fear of death. His certainty that the world can be improved, leads to frustration when his ideas – or just about any idea – inevitably result in more harm than good. By contrast, Aldo’s mobility is increasingly restricted as Quicksand progresses: his various business ventures (motivated by a desperate desire for security) leave him crippled with debt, his suicide attempt results in paralysis, and he is more-or-less unjustly imprisoned before finally ending up in self-imposed exile on a small island near a Sydney beach.

But while Aldo’s movements are restricted, his mind is fertile and roaming. This is most clearly demonstrated in the apologia he delivers at his murder trial, which wheels off into digressive stories and reflections. Thinking does not lead to misery for Aldo in the way it does for Martin, because he has more or less given up on the idea that his internal consciousness (his plans, his intentions, or even his understanding of his actions) can have any impact on the external world. Martin is searching for some kind of order; Aldo, with his succession of accidents and unanswered prayers, is forced to accept the prevalence of chaos. His only success comes with completely abandoning hope. ‘This is the opposite of bravery,’ he says in the last chapter of the novel. ‘It is the end of fear.’

Aldo’s increasingly abject state attracts the attention of a variety of artists over the course of the novel – most notably his friend Liam, who is a writer; his wife Stella, who composes (terrible) songs about him; and his other lover Mimi, who uses him as a subject for her photography. By the end of Quicksand, he has attracted an unwanted cult following of ‘Aldoists’, who are fascinated by his unending failures and cluster around him to

paint, sketch, draw … raid his trash for found objects … rehearse their prolix artistic statements and carefully tailored nonsense for grant applications …

These efforts can be seen as a part of the inevitable attempt to find value or meaning in suffering. When Aldo asks Liam why he should allow him to write about his life, Liam responds:

Because you’ll inspire people. To count their blessings.

Aldo is unjustly assailed by many individuals and institutions in the novel, but he is only truly exploited by artists, because they are the only ones to whom his remarkable history and capacity for suffering have any value.

Aldo’s status as a reluctant muse is a part of Quicksand’s examination of what motivates the creation of art. Like so much else in Toltz’s work, this motivation ultimately boils down to fear. One of the final lines quoted from Mr. Morrell’s instructional book is:

we make art because being alive is a hostage situation in which our abductors are silent and we cannot even intuit their demands.

Morrell’s ultimate thesis is that we create art for the same reason we do anything, which is ‘fear of the alternative’. But what is ‘the alternative’ precisely? Is it a fear of death or life? With the exception of Aldo, all of the important characters in Quicksand (Liam, Stella, Mimi, Mr. Morrell) derive their sense of identity from some kind of artistic practice. But they are also trapped within these identities, unable or unwilling to accept their lives for what they are. They are stuck in dead-end careers and relationships, in patterns of self-delusion and abuse. Only Aldo, who has ‘exhausted fear’, can see the confines of his prison. His resignation becomes a kind of defiance. Not only does he acknowledge and accept his inability to change himself and his circumstances; he also rejects the self-justifying aspirations of art, the idea that it can transform the arbitrary senselessness of life into something more meaningful.

It occurs to me that I am not making Quicksand sound like it is all that much fun, which is not entirely fair. However bleak the subject matter, Steve Toltz is incapable of turning out an uninteresting sentence. There is a comic force to his writing, a relentless accumulation of detail, absurdity and ruthless observation, that is unlike almost anything I have seen in contemporary Australian literature, with the possible exception of Peter Carey. As Chris Flynn writes in the Australian Book Review:

That there is more humour in a single Toltz book than the rest of the year’s Australian fiction combined perhaps speaks more to literature’s determination to affect a serious demeanour in order to be taken seriously, but it is worth celebrating the author’s wit, and bravura.

I suspect that the relatively brief history of local literature and the constant uncertainty of its position in a wider cultural context has led to a certain wariness when it comes to humour in Australian and New Zealand writing. Perhaps it takes a more confident and established literary tradition to accept that being funny is not the same as being trivial, and to acknowledge, as Robertson Davies once put it, that ‘humourists are often very serious people’.  It is therefore not surprising that most reviews are comparing Toltz’s work to that of international, usually American, authors: John Kennedy Toole, Chuck Palahniuk, Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace. A stylistic similarity to Philip Roth is noted in both the Australian and the Saturday Paper reviews of Quicksand, and Toltz’s writing is certainly reminiscent of the playful and profane experiments of Roth’s long middle period between Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and Sabbath’s Theater (1995) – which is now fading from memory as he becomes more comfortably revered for his later works as a very-serious chronicler of American history and an even-more-serious chronicler of the aging American body. Both writers take a similar delight in dialogue, in the rolling, escalating, gleefully inventive rants of their characters. As the Saturday Paper notes, Toltz ‘sounds like no one in his local tradition’. Toltz himself makes a playful dig at this in Quicksand, when Aldo states:

I don’t understand why all the film and literature of this country has to have as its main character a silent or laconic type. That’s not like real life. My experience of people is they never shut up!

In the Sydney Morning Herald interview, Toltz states that he doesn’t really believe that people are capable of a great deal of change once their natures are set. There is ‘a consistency of desire’ that will usually continue to operate, regardless of any change in circumstances (and he gives the fascinating example of how he was affected – or not affected – by a temporary paralysis while he was working on A Fraction of the Whole in Paris). But in A Fraction of the Whole, we at least get to see how the desires of the characters originate and how their world views are shaped through key experiences and relationships. Martin Dean is a bizarre and occasionally infuriating character, but he commands attention and sympathy because we are shown how his peculiar system of thought has developed from a childhood marked by illness and isolation, his close observation of a small Australian town, his encounters with Harry West, and his brother Terry’s trajectory from sportsman to criminal to Australia’s most beloved murderer. Understanding this makes it easier to become involved in his increasingly desperate and absurd attempts to plant the seeds of his thought in the unfertile soil of Australian culture, which generally despises its thinkers and adores its sportsmen and murderers (Terry Dean, as a murderer of corrupt sportsmen, represents an unprecedented gold standard of Australian achievement).

In Quicksand, the natures and personalities of the characters seem to emerge from nowhere in particular. Liam’s desire to be a successful writer defines him, but we never get to see where this desire comes from (at least not until close to the novel’s end, where a hand-wave of an explanation is presented in a brief exchange with Aldo). Similarly, we are told that Aldo’s string of failed business ventures are motivated by a desire for security after the trauma of the false rape accusation in high school and the realisation that he could never work for another person, but we get no real insight into the reasoning that leads to this conclusion.

The treatment of the mentor figures in the two novels – Harry West and Mr. Morrell – is another case in point. In A Fraction of the Whole, we see very clearly the impact that West has on the lives of Terry and Martin. He provides Terry with practical instruction in criminality and is a kind of kindred spirit for Martin, in that he is also committed to serious thought, observation and improvement, although specifically within the field of crime. His fate in the novel parallels Martin’s, in that he is trapped within his own thinking and inevitably eclipsed and erased by Terry. There is no place for Harry West within the pantheon of famous criminals that he aspires to join, because if a criminal is thoughtful and far-sighted then it naturally follows that they will never be famous.

With Mr. Morrell in Quicksand, however, we are simply told that he is important to Aldo and Liam, just as we are told that he is a natural teacher without ever seeing him do much teaching. His observations about art are quoted frequently (for the most part they are witty and eloquent re-phrasings of the usual romantic clichés about creativity: use your pain or someone else’s; theory is bad, instinct is good; true artists create because they cannot do otherwise, etc.). But because we don’t get to see precisely how he has come to exert so much influence over Quicksand’s central characters, it is difficult to understand why they treat his ideas with such reverence.

The resolutions of the two novels provide another odd point of comparison. They both end, in a sense, with their protagonists dying at sea: Martin as he attempts to re-enter Australia,  Aldo as he seeks an exit. In A Fraction of the Whole, the sadness that accompanies Martin’s demise feels earned, despite his absurdities and outsized adventures. We have closely followed his relationship with his son and can understand how and why Jasper will miss him. In Quicksand, however, despite a beautifully written final scene describing Liam’s mourning, Aldo’s death lacks the weight it is clearly intended to have, because the early formation of their bond feels like it has been summarised rather than fully explored.

A Fraction of the Whole takes the time to show the reader how Martin Dean’s system of thought evolved – and how Jasper’s may be evolving – as a result of their experiences. Aldo, on the other hand, does not ‘think so much as secrete thought’. He certainly has ideas and insights, but where they come from is often unclear. How does he arrive at his brilliant, hilarious and invariably disastrous business schemes? He just does: he jumps into them having given no previous indication of being inventive or daring. How does he become so charismatic that he can convince so many people to invest in him? He just does, despite having previously evidenced no particular magnetism or appeal to anyone save Liam or Stella. While Aldo’s perspective can be exhilarating to inhabit, the lack of a clear sense of development makes it difficult to see him as a distinct character in his own right, rather than as a medium for the author’s wild and varied comic riffing. This becomes apparent as Quicksand reaches its final pages and starts to wind up for a swing at real emotion that largely fails to land.

It is possible to perceive a sense of impatience underlying the structure of Quicksand. Where A Fraction of the Whole was prepared to take its time with delivery and occasionally draw a very long bow before hitting its target, Quicksand often rushes through the set-up to get straight to the punchline, and then moves on to the next incident without stopping. Reviewers have noted its superfluity of ideas. Chris Flynn observed that:

Quicksand has a thousand dazzling moments of throwaway brilliance … The pace is relentless.

Ed Wright, in the Australian, was more critical:

A key problem is a lack of modulation. There are enough jokes here to supply several comic novels. So many in fact that it is hard not to gloss over many of them. The effect then, perhaps unreasonably, becomes one of the humour being forced.

It may seem churlish to rebuke a contemporary Australian novel for having an over-abundance of ideas when so many are content to get by with just one or two, but a lot of potentially intriguing material gets lost in the pile-up of scenarios. We are introduced to Aldo’s extended semi-criminal family, for example, as they are gradually taking over a street in a Sydney suburb; Stella’s scientologist uncle makes a fantastically eccentric appearance when he genially stares down their attempt to intimidate him into selling his home. But these characters more or less disappear from the novel within a few pages. Aldo’s mother Lelia is said to have grown up on a small Pacific island that has now sunk beneath the waves, but this vanished home never really takes on any significance. Mimi’s magnificently insane ex-boyfriend Elliot appears to briefly torment Aldo in prison, and then vanishes just as quickly; his belief that he is the reincarnation of a range of Christian mystics from various historical periods is barely touched upon. Even the most potentially significant point of connection between Aldo and Liam – the fact that they both lost sisters when they were young – feels underdeveloped. The impact of these deaths is discussed with great intensity for a few pages then slides out of focus. Because we see so little of Aldo and Liam’s early family lives in Quicksand, the memories of the two young women feels less important to the novel and characters than it should.

The Saturday Paper’s reviewer anticipates and rejects this kind of critique, arguing that it ‘bypasses the nature of Toltz’s achievement’, suggesting that the speed and volatility with which material is introduced and discarded makes for a ‘high-octane read’. My feeling, however, is that these rapid movements between ideas demonstrate a kind of restlessness, a frustration with the confines of the story, and a sense that the author is attempting to use his dazzlingly quick-witted prose to compensate for the inertia that afflicts his characters, particularly Aldo. Aldo does not make or own his fate in the way that Martin Dean does, because Martin’s misfortunes often arise from his particular way of thinking, while Aldo’s are largely heaped upon him regardless of his intentions or actions. No matter what idea or perspective he adopts, Aldo will always be trapped by his lucklessness, and without the possibility of growth or transformation there are not many directions to take the character, other than gradual retreat from the narrative and life itself. This frustration is alluded to towards the end of the novel when Liam complains:

It’s been hard, Aldo. Really hard. I mean, I’ve been working around the clock to get down an accurate cross-section of your traumas, but it’s difficult to make an underdeveloped person into a real character.

So Quicksand is most certainly a difficult second book. Fear of life proves to be as big a trap for the author as it is for the characters. While Quicksand is by no means an unrewarding novel, the comparisons that are inevitably evoked as a consequence of its closeness to Toltz’s first book do not work in its favour. I appreciate the ways in which he tries to transform the novel into something more than an outgrowth of A Fraction of the Whole by variously reflecting, contrasting and contesting the themes and narrative of that earlier novel, but the stylistic and structural similarities just made me miss the Deans – Jasper, Martin and Terry. Like Eddie, Martin’s sort-of friend in A Fraction of the Whole, I found it surprisingly difficult to let them go. As Eddie says to Jasper:

Watching your lives was like watching an accident in slow motion, I could not look away … I’d be making love to my wife and thinking ‘What are they up to now? What trouble are they in?’ … What do you think will happen when your father dies? It’s you that will take up his heritage of doing crazy, unbelievable things.

It is certainly interesting to examine the fear of death and the fear of life as motivating forces in two parallel novels, but the inevitable conclusion is that the fear of death results in a much more satisfying narrative, in that there is at least something for characters to run away from and they are defined through their temporary acts of resistance, both physical and psychological. Until death cuts them off they are free to do all the crazy, unbelievable things they like. Fear of life, on the other hand, creates a sense that the characters have nowhere to go, nowhere to flee, right up to the point where their story becomes no story at all.


Melvin Jules Bukiet, ‘Wonderbread,’ American Scholar (1 September 2007).
Pip Cummings, ‘Steve Toltz returns with another fraction of the whole in his new novel, Quicksand,’ Sydney Morning Herald (2 May 2015).
Robertson Davies (1991), Reading and Writing, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values
Chris Flynn, ‘Cherry on Top,’ Australian Book Review,  no.371 (May 2015).
‘Quicksand: Steve Toltz,’ Saturday Paper (25 April 2015).
Ed Wright, ‘Stretching a friendship,’ Australian (2 May 2015).