It looks like the jury has returned from their deliberations and Quicksand, Steve Toltz’s second novel and the follow-up to the global bestseller, A Fraction of the Whole (which, it should be said, we liked tremendously), is, at the very least, divisive. There are those who like it, a lot; and there are those who dislike it (or grow to dislike it) a lot too. Those who like it praise its sustained comic enthusiasm; those who dislike it, well, they sit on the other side of its sustained comic enthusiasm (so for sustained, read: pained). One thing we can all agree on, before we embark on this review, whether we’ve all read the book yet or not, is: this is a novel you will either like a ridiculous amount, or it will be a novel that makes you want to kill. Quicksand is unlikely to be met with the sort of shrug that accompanies the reading of about 90% of all books. For this alone, it is noteworthy and commendable. Given that we fall – despite our best intentions – into the category of people for whom this book incites murder, we’ll cling to any straws that offer themselves. I say ‘despite our best intentions’ because we loved A Fraction of the Whole, as we said. And we read Quicksand, for the first couple of hundred pages at least, wanting to love this too; and then, when we realised we were not really getting along with it, or looking forward to picking it up (that we were in fact looking for excuses to do anything but read), we blamed ourselves (it’s not you, it’s us) and travelled the length and breadth of the change curve, all in the hope of not finally arriving at the point we arrived at: which was to admit that, sorry and everything, we just didn’t like Quicksand. And then we waited, having finished the book, obfuscated, procrastinated, put off writing the review because we didn’t want to say what we would say. Better to say nothing. But we can’t put it off any longer. Because as Toltz writes at the end of this long, long 435 page book (we know 435 pages is not necessarily a long book but believe you and me, Toltz makes his 435 pages run in dog years):
“The truth is, you can only be generous with your time up to a point, then you have to leave your friends on icy rocks alone. You have other things to do.”
Quicksand is the story of Aldo Benjamin. It’s also the story of Aldo’s mate, Liam Wilder. Liam is a failed writer who is now a policeman but who fancies his chances of cracking the literary market by writing the biography of his mate. Aldo and Liam have been friends forever. Aldo is the kind of guy given to talking epithetically, one of those people who are eminently quotable. We first meet Aldo and Liam in a bar where Liam is pitching the idea of the book and Aldo is dismissively talking in quotes that Liam excitably writes down in his notebook. So, for example, “I’m nobody’s muse” or
“With medical science improving at roughly the same rate as our environmental situation worsens, the most likely scenario is that the world will become uninhabitable at the precise moment the human race becomes immortal.”
Aldo is one for hare-brained schemes, such as millisecond hands on watches or an app that provides you with “a devastating comeback” in response to a cutting putdown. He’s forever attracting funding, losing money, pissing people off. He has a put upon mother, put upon former lovers, put upon friends. Liam also has a wife and a daughter but we don’t see or hear too much from them in the great scheme of things. Like Citizen Kane or American Pastoral, the book opens with a whistle stop tour through his life (via Aldo himself) and then sort of hops and skips through the major scenes. In lots of ways, Quicksand really is a fraction of the whole – in that it feels like excerpts from a longer book that has been a little rudely edited (but thank the Heavens it isn’t a longer book – although maybe if it was a longer book, if the tone was a little more modulated throughout, it would be a little easier going).
As for the scenes themselves: we are treated to Aldo and Liam’s childhood, his first brushes with the law and his murder trial interspersed with the day that began in the bar and ends on a beach. The pitch of the writing starts to grate for a number of reasons: there is the repetition, there is the endless punning, the jokes about the time he takes to get to the point (which he also did in A Fraction of the Whole – always try to avoid making the same joke twice, Steve), the endless listmaking, and the sense that you are reading a book by a man who loves the sound of his own voice (which is to say, something we learned during the reading of Quicksand, Steve Toltz has a lot in common with his fellow Aussie, Peter Carey). And we haven’t even got to the transcript of the trial which features poems, digression and diversions to the degree that it feels like a mish-mash of drafts that Toltz couldn’t actually reconcile in a satisfactory way, his love of separate bits blinding him to the consequences of stapling them together. The trial sequence would test the patience of a saint.
Which isn’t to say that the whole thing is a royal pain in the arse – there are certainly fractions of this whole that are palatable. The wee turn into Daniel Deronda country at the end of the book (Aldo fancies himself a messiah) and the corresponding search Liam undertakes has a curious resonance that stays with you (as you desperately try to bury all of the things that annoyed you about the book). Toltz remains a man with a powerful way with the old swearword (even if the phrase in question is just ‘What a cock’, it never fails to provoke a chuckle). But it’s the annoyance that stays with you most powerfully. This is one of those circular plotless books (seemingly proud of its plotlessness) in which you learn about events long before they happen such that when they happen you are long by feeling anything about them, which may be the point but if it is the point it’s not necessarily a point I get.
Any Cop?: You would think Quicksand a disappointment after the review above, but it’s too annoying to be a disappointment. This is the reading equivalent of having a two year old with an advanced philosophy degree jab you with a stick on a train from Brighton to Edinburgh.