I finished reading this book late last night and I am still overwhelmed by it. It was unputdownable for the last 200-odd pages, and food for considerable thought long after the light was turned off. Definitely a contender for any intelligently-judged awards that are going around.
It’s a wild ride. Words tumble over themselves in torrents as narrators Aldo and Liam hurtle through a kind of brotherhood forged in grief for their dead sisters. They have nothing else in common at all except their wit:
Until I met him, almost all my male friendships were based on homoerotic wrestling or the lighthearted undermining of each other’s confidence, but for Aldo and me, our connection was of like minds on pointless adventures, whether that be taunting bouncers outside nightclubs, riding shopping trolleys down suicidally steep declines, or attending first-home auctions to force up the bids of nervous young couples. In those days, Aldo and I had such great conversations that every sunset seemed like the end of an era. We were young and there were no unpleasant surprises waiting for us in bathroom mirrors. We did things we wouldn’t feel guilty about for literally years. Nobody was on a diet. (p. 91)
Wickedly funny one-liners surge through a surf of black humour crashing through the reader’s mind as the plot unfolds: it’s very dark. Very dark indeed. Too lively to be called a ‘meditation’ on suffering and resilience, the novel is more of a forensic dissection of how the absurdities of modern life can conspire to inflict misery on undeserving victims. The novel doesn’t answer the existential question that threads right through the novel: what is the point of suffering? But it excoriates the reader with what that question might mean for its main character. The Biblical Job had nothing much to complain about, by comparison…
Aldo is a failed small-time entrepreneur, crippled both literally and figuratively by his endless bad luck. A wholly unsuccessful marketer of bad ideas and useless innovations, he is a catalogue of disasters, ultimately realising his two greatest fears: incarceration in prison, and imprisonment in hospital. While Aldo mocks his own misery with witty one-liners such as ‘if there’s a foot-sized crack in a thousand-kilometre pavement, my foot will find it’, Toltz’s black humour is relentless in depicting the misery of paraplegia and the brutality of prison. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
Liam, an opportunistic but good-hearted would-be author who mines his friend’s misfortune for the book he’s been trying to write all his life, is sucked into the quicksands of Aldo’s life. Liam’s worked hard at not getting qualified for anything, because he believes his teacher’s advice that a job to fall back on becomes the job that prevents a writer from writing. Alas, undergoing police training as research for a book inadvertently gives him a job he doesn’t want, but it turns out to be helpful to Aldo. In a running gag, Liam is constantly summoned to the station by world-weary colleagues to deal with Aldo’s latest catastrophe. Aldo has a doctor on call too – to deal with assaults by outraged creditors, a cake-fork in the jugular at a Buddhist wedding, repeated suicide attempts, oh, and cancer too. (LOL He seems to have escaped an STD despite his visits to a brothel called the Enigma Variations, but then, I might have missed it.)
What Aldo doesn’t have is a lawyer on tap. And he needs one, from his first brush with the law as a teenage virgin accused of rape, to charges of infanticide, manslaughter, sex slavery, and murder. The old saying ‘He who represents himself has a fool for a client’ was never so true as it is for Aldo and juries convict him out of sheer exhaustion from the barrage of postmodern literary devices he deploys in his own defence (poetry, a Socratic dialogue with God, a barrister’s address and more) . Toltz piles absurdity on absurdity and nothing is too serious for a joke in this sprawling pseudo-memoir. (It’s 400-odd pages long, but it’s easy to read).
A burlesque of minor characters includes Morrell, the art teacher at Zetland High whose book of banal aphorisms Artist Within, Artist Without becomes Liam’s bible to quote at whim; and Aldo’s women: the singer-songwriter Stella who likewise uses Aldo as a tragic muse; Mimi whose insanely jealous boyfriend Elliot just happens to be in the same prison as Aldo; and Leila, his hapless mother who dies in penury after lending him money for another of his crazy schemes.
Like the failed entrepreneurs of the 1980s, Aldo is indefatigable:
I always knew my insolvent friend was about to remount the entrepreneurial horse when he started talking about untapped markets. The ageing population! Women over forty struggling to conceive! Couples with mismatched libidos! Honeymooners with creeping malaise! Insomniacs with global dread! Shoppers with ecoparalysis! Corporate bandits ashamed of their bodies! Upscale couples one set of genitals away from being totally interchangeable! Under-tens with overweening narcissism! Baby boomers in terminal decline! Rich space tourists! Face-transplant recipients! Speakers of all 6909 living languages! That was Aldo, always trying to solve a dilemma. How does one delineate between hope and false hope? How can one tap into the nauseating pandemic of public marriage proposals? How do you sell a product to anticonsumerists? Where should one go to manufacture clothes for obese toddlers and newborns in the ninety-seventh weight percentile? (p. 32)
Everything in this novel is about excess, but the tone avoids hectoring because it’s always undercut by its own deadpan humour. Aldo persuades Liam to have a party at his place while his parents are away, so that he can invite Stella…
… ‘What if nobody comes?’ I said in a near-whisper, and then, thinking of the epic party hurricanes that had legendarily decimated teenagers’ homes, added, ‘Or too many?’
‘Jesus, Liam, no one’s asking you to go swimming with sharks during your menstrual cycle,’ Aldo said. ‘A little get-together. That’s all.’
The sight of my ruined house was compelling. The skylight smashed from below. The broken banister, suspended. Downstairs, every window shattered. A human-shaped hole in the plasterboard. The floor a minefield of glass and shredded gyprock. My uncle’s urn on its side, emptied of its contents. Graffitied walls. Tiled kitchen floor sticky with beer, red wine collected in the grout. Cat wearing my old McDonald’s hairnet. Whatever carpet or curtains or couches remained carried the stench of cigarettes woven into the fabric. The front gate was all hinges and no gate, the pink driveway had been torn up, the Hills Hoist was wrestled to the ground, the lemon tree set on fire, the letterbox kicked over, flowerbeds trampled flat. There was nothing left to protect. I remember promising my mother I would do the dishes. (p. 103)
More painful humour undercuts the blackest of scenes as Aldo contemplates the cycle of the brutality of gaol punctuated by hospital treatments for cancer :
One night, the silence thickening around me, I lay on the floor of my tiny cell, regretting the past, hating the present, dreading the future, thinking that since I suffered the hell of anticipating a rapist unbuttoning his pants or a doctor tapping a syringe, and since it was invariably followed by an IV hookup or an actual rape, this meant I had pre-traumatic stress disorder, then trauma, then post-traumatic stress disorder, often simultaneously. Then I thought: If thinking is only a poor form of dreaming, and dreaming a poor form of pure being, and pure being a poor form of nonexistence, then nonexistence is a poor form of never-having-existed-at-all. Frankly, I was pissed off that to vanish and dissolve by an act of will, to liquefy in my sleep and disintegrate body and soul, to be uncreated and unborn – decreated – like Simone Well writes about, was beyond my ability. All the time, inmates’ voices from adjoining cells filled my own:
– Who took my lucky shiv?
– She was raped and murdered? That’s mission creep.
– Guard! I shouted. Ever consider soundproofing these walls? You can do it with egg cartons? (p. 361)
Narcissism fills this novel. Artists and writers want to use Aldo for inspiration; doctors want to keep him alive; women want to love him to nourish their own self-worth. But the Apocalypse, as Aldo says, is not a sudden, brief event … It goes on for generations. This hard-won realisation gives him his one successful enterprise, marketing himself as a user-friendly god for the 21st century…
I am still thinking about whether there is redemption for anybody by the end. I like a book that does that…
Author: Steve Toltz
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2015
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia
Fishpond: Quicksand and good bookstores everywhere.