Monday, June 1, 2015

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“QUICKSAND” by Steve Toltz  (Hamish-Hamilton, distributed by Penguin-Random House, $NZ40)
Prologue to the review: Curse my memory because I can’t recall where I read this story, but it was in a documentary book about American adolescent problems and drug-addiction. The author related the case of a school which decided to deter adolescents from using hard drugs by getting a young ex-junkie to tell classes about his experiences. That way, the school authorities reasoned, the kids would have somebody with whom they could identify, rather than a boring adult, to tell them about the evils of drugs. Other schools thought this was a good idea and brought in the same young man to speak to their classes. Result? The taking of illicit drugs rose in every single school the ex-junkie visited. It wasn’t because he was dealing drugs. It was because, even though he’d given up the hard stuff and made a few “don’t-do-this-kids” comments, the ex-junkie was witty and charming and a great speaker who could churn out a wisecrack a minute. The real message the kids got, as opposed to the one they were supposed to be getting, was that hard drugs made you witty and a great performer – not to mention making you the centre of attention, which is what all adolescents really crave. Maybe, too, addle-headed free-association can sound like wisdom to the impressionable.
Does this have anything to do with Steve Toltz’s new novel Quicksand, which has virtually nothing to do with drugs? Maybe. Maybe not. You judge when you get to the end of this review.
The review itself: Let me raise the curtain, tell the actors to wear no make-up, ensure the scenery is left in storage, switch off the sound system and lighting effects and have them perform with just the rehearsal lights. Let me pretend that this is a novel without a distinct style of its own. Let me give you the barest of bones of that contentious thing called a “plot” which, in real literature, never exists on its own anyway.
Australian novelist Steve Toltz’s second novel Quicksand (a mere 435 pages long, after his 700-plus-page, much-acclaimed, Booker-shortlisted first novel A Fraction of the Whole) concerns two fellers of contrasting types. Not so much Yin-and-Yang as Hamlet-and-Horatio. Or somewhere in that ballpark. One is the active one who carries most of the story and the other is more-or-less his sounding board.
Aldo Benjamin and Liam Wilder went to the same Aussie high school and were both equally unimpressed by its discipline. Both were angsty teenagers. They used to lie on the roof of the school dunny in recess and share their philosophies. They had something in common in the way of family tragedies. Liam’s sister was run over and killed by an out-of-control cop car. Aldo’s sister was blown up by Bali bombings. Liam’s family were straight types. Aldo’s family were more leafy-suburb hippies, who spent their time intimidating their neighbours into selling their homes, so that they could build up an extended family community in the neighbourhood. The two boys had artistic hopes of some sort – at least they were both influenced by their art teacher Mr Morrell, who produced a book of ego-deflating aphorisms that became Liam’s Bible.
But post-school is not a land of great creativity and not a land of great fulfilment either. Liam tries to be a writer, gets nowhere, and instead becomes a cop, at first because he wants to understand the mentality of the cop who ran down his sister. Aldo is a serial failed entrepreneur, dreaming up a series of very dodgy con-trick-type schemes, then bailing out with angry creditors on his tail. Liam’s marriage to Tess goes nowhere and falls apart. Aldo is truly, madly, deeply in love with his high-school sweetheart Stella, but their marriage goes bung too after they have a still-born child, and he’s left still obsessed with her and irate that she has remarried.
At novel’s beginning (because all the above is backstory) Aldo is for some reason a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, while the cop Liam has decided that he can make a novel out of Aldo’s life. And that is their relationship throughout Quicksilver. Liam – usually the novel’s narrator – observes and comments on Aldo’s mistake-filled, accident-filled rollercoaster of a life. Let me not spike every narrative move of this novel, but let me simply note that Aldo’s life includes being accused of rape as a teenager, thinking up and failing to follow through on schemes to enrich himself, facing trial for killing a baby, later facing another trial for killing a grown woman, having the awful accident that rendered him paraplegic, going to jail, getting repeatedly and systematically raped in jail, being in a coma for months, ingesting many drugs at various times, having cheerless bonking in a cheerlessly-described brothel when he can’t link up with one of the two women with whom he is at various times obsessed…. and talking a lot to God or whatever runs the universe, and somehow managing to become some sort of paraplegic sage or guru to surfies and beach bums in a hidden Aussie cove. Did I mention, by the way, that Aldo’s father committed suicide and Aldo is fascinated by death and frequently thinks of suicide? Indeed when, in the latter half of the novel, his voice takes over the narration, his wild and crazy sex drive and his wild and crazy death wish sound like an endless conversation between Eros and Thanatos.
And all the time he is somebody’s muse – not somebody who himself creates but somebody who fires up other people to think they can create. Stella, his first sweetheart and sometime wife, writes protests songs for him. Mimi, the second woman in his life, thinks she can make arty photographs out of him. [In a Listener review, one New Zealand novelist has already complained that Toltz’s women characters are too passive. Maybe so.] Then there is listening, note-taking, interrogating Liam hoping to make a novel out of him.
Let me not be too verbose, gentle reader. For all the twists, turns, surprises, jolts, upsets and reversals of the story (and I haven’t told you the half of them), this free-wheeling, picaresque, often improvisatory, bustling, laugh-a-minute, horror-a-minute novel is quite straightforward to interpret. Or perhaps interpret wrongly.
It’s about the processes of writing and creation themselves, and how in a way they always lead to failure. Liam’s desire to turn Aldo’s life into art is the novelist knowing that the life which bustles on the page is never his own life. At certain points, Aldo and Liam discuss explicitly how Liam will depict Aldo, and how Liam will massage events to give them a different tenor. So there’s that meta-narrative thing going on here. The novel we are reading is the product of the narrator who is the product of the author who…. you get it. And we are aware that the things that make Aldo funny and compelling and sympathetic on the page are the very things that would make him an obnoxious sociopath in real life. (Read the scene where he offers what amounts to a curse at a Buddhist wedding. Read his self-absorbed burst of spite and contempt at a family funeral). Literature turns the tawdry or disgusting into the interesting and compelling. Another built-in reflection on the nature of literature, which this novel yields.
At the same time, it’s an internal psychodrama. Aldo and Liam are like two halves of the same youngish male’s psyche. Here I go a little Kafkaesque in my interpretation. [Kafka provides one of the novel’s epigraphs and is referenced a couple of times in the text]. As I will explain soon on this blog, I’ve always thought of Kafka’s The Trial as a drama played out inside the brain of its protagonist Josef K. as he hits his thirties and wonders how he has spent his life. In Quicksand, Aldo and Liam are in their thirties and so at that same self-questioning, self-reproving age. Liam, self-censoring, observing and reflecting, is like the Superego to Aldo’s Id, who is into self-pity and self-gratifying sex and risk-taking taunting of death. Again, much of this novel reminds me of the film Fight Club, where the simultaneous repression and aggression of the young male mind were seen in two characters who, in the film’s denouement, turned out to be one and the same character. Much of the second half of Quicksand is Aldo’s first-person self-defence before a judge in a court of law – the ideal place for a novelist to situate a self-accusatory internal psychodrama.
So you have the “plot” of Quicksand and my inadequate interpretation of it.
And what a miserable, dead and sorry thing I have made of it by summarising it thus.
The fact is, this novel lives more by style than anything. In Aldo’s monologues and conversations with Liam we are delivered about ten skewed aphorisms per page – zingers of which any comedy writer would be proud. You laugh and laugh even as the story gets outrageous and sordid. When, hospitalised in the second part of the novel, Aldo breaks into pages of free verse, we are given poetry of an order that would be the pride of most anthologies. Then there are those long “list” sentences in which, refusing to be terse and photographic, Steve Toltz delivers detail upon detail upon detail wrapped in surreal or horrific metaphors. Yes, this is an Australian novel written by an Australian and specifically set in and around Sydney, but the pepped-up tone of voice is the voice of much post-Beat American writing.
Of course I read it compulsively in a very short time. I couldn’t drag myself away from its verbal inventiveness and its mixture of wit and cruelty and its sick way of getting laughs out of the worst of modern ills and its clear understanding of the “God-sized hole” in modern human consciousness. And then…. And then….
            Epilogue to review: Do you remember that Prologue to this review? Now what’s all that stuff about an ex-junkie public speaker got to do with this novel? It’s just this vibe I have, dude. Look, it’s witty and it’s funny and it bounces along to the point where you’re getting something like the best-honed effort of an intellectual stand-up comic of the sick school. And then, when you put it down, you think “Whoa! Was I dazzled by the brilliant verbiage when it was selling me bullshit? I mean, isn’t this just a writer burbling on with impossible characters in a great big farce? Am I one of those kids thinking a witty ex-junkie is talking profundity when he just improvising?” I dunno. Some thought like that did strike me, but then maybe I’m hitting it over the fence.
            Footnote: Just a couple of things I’ve gleaned from an interview Steve Toltz did with the Guardian. First, he admitted that the core of this novel consisted of about 300 pages he cut from his earlier novel, because he couldn’t integrate the character concerned into his earlier plot. Second, he said that at least some of the pains Aldo suffers are drawn from his own time in hospital after an accident. But third, and to me most distressingly, he said that his preferred mode of writing is to “riff” on things. (Aargh! I hate the modish misuse of that jazz term “riff” when tired scribblers don’t know better terms for improvisation.) This gives me the idea that much of Quicksand really is simple free-association and burbling.
But what larks, Pip!

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