Excerpt from A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Fraction of the Whole

by Steve Toltz

A Fraction of the Whole
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2008, 544 pages
    Oct 2008, 576 pages

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Amy Reading

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Print Excerpt

“What for?”

“It’s your mattress,” he said plainly. “It is your right to be one who sets on fire.”

I groaned. Man and his codes! Even in a lawless inferno, man has to give himself some honor, he’s so desperate to separate himself from the beasts.

“I’ll pass.”

“As you like,” he said, a little disappointed. He muttered something in a foreign tongue to his cohort, who laughed as they left.

It’s always something here—if there isn’t a riot, then someone’s usually trying to escape. The wasted effort helps me see the positives of imprisonment. Unlike those pulling their hair out in good society, here we don’t have to feel ashamed of our day–to–day unhappiness. Here we have someone visible to blame–someone wearing shiny boots. That’s why, on consideration, freedom leaves me cold. Because out there in the real world, freedom means you have to admit authorship, even when your story turns out to be a stinker.


Where to begin my story? Negotiating with memories isn't easy: how to choose between those panting to be told, those still ripening, those already shriveling, and those destined to be mangled by language and come out pulverized? One thing's for sure: not writing about my father would take a mental effort that's beyond me. All my non-Dad thoughts feel like transparent strategies to avoid thinking about him. And why should I avoid it anyway? My father punished me for existing, and now it's my turn to punish him for existing. It's only fair.

But the real difficulty is, I feel dwarfed by our lives. They loom disproportionately large. We painted on a broader canvas than we deserved, across three continents, from obscurity to celebrity, from cities to jungles, from rags to designer rags, betrayed by our lovers and our bodies, and humiliated on a national then cosmic scale, with hardly a cuddle to keep us going. We were lazy people on an adventure, flirting with life but too shy to go all the way. So how to begin to recount our hideous odyssey? Keep it simple, Jasper. Remember, people are satisfied-no, thrilled-by the simplification of complex events. And besides, mine's a damn good story and it's true. I don't know why, but that seems to be important to people. Personally, if someone said to me, "I've got this great story to tell you, and every word is an absolute lie!" I'd be on the edge of my seat.

I guess I should just admit it: this will be as much about my father as it is about me. I hate how no one can tell the story of his life without making a star of his enemy, but that's just the way it is. The fact is, the whole of Australia despises my father perhaps more than any other man, just as they adore his brother, my uncle, perhaps more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them, though I don't intend to undermine your love for my uncle or reverse your hatred for my father, especially if it's an expansive hatred. I don't want to spoil things if you use your hate to quicken your awareness of who you love.

I should also say this just to get it out of the way:

My father's body will never be found.


Most of my life I never worked out whether to pity, ignore, adore, judge, or murder my father. His mystifying behavior left me wavering right up until the end. He had conflicting ideas about anything and everything, especially my schooling: eight months into kindergarten he decided he didn't want me there anymore because the education system was "stultifying, soul-destroying, archaic, and mundane." I don't know how anyone could call finger painting archaic and mundane. Messy, yes. Soul-destroying, no. He took me out of school with the intention of educating me himself, and instead of letting me finger-paint he read me the letters Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo right before he cut off his ear, and also passages from the book Human, All Too Human so that together we could "rescue Nietzsche from the Nazis." Then Dad got distracted with the time-chewing business of staring into space, and I sat around the house twiddling my thumbs, wishing there was paint on them. After six weeks he plopped me back in kindergarten, and just as it started looking like I might have a normal life after all, suddenly, in the second week of first grade, he walked right into the classroom and yanked me out once again, because he'd been overcome with the fear that he was leaving my impressionable brain "in the folds of Satan's underpants."

Excerpted from A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz Copyright © 2008 by Steve Toltz. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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