A Fraction of the Whole

By: Steve Toltz
Subject Matter: Fathers and sons; Family
Rating: 5/5

A Fraction of the Whole


Still 5/5.

A Fraction of the Whole is one of the books that inspired this blog. I read it when it originally came out and fell in love.

For years, I have been recommending this book to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who asks me for a recommendation of any kind. But I got to the point where I could only vaguely remember the plot line and felt like it was maybe time to give it a re-read.

(PS – I apologize in advance for the large amounts of quotes in this review. I try to keep them short as a general rule, but every page of this book is quotable. This is, after all, the book that gave me the tagline of this blog, as well as a few other quotes.)

I am unsure which parts of this book stuck so strongly in my brain. I do not know if it is the utterly complex philosophy, the unwillingness to view the world with rose colored glasses, the refreshing realism, the blurred lines between sanity and insanity, the misanthropy, the whacked out family situation, or maybe just the exotic settings. I know I had never read a book quite like it.

Steve Toltz does nothing if he does not take you on a ride.

Quite probably, reading this book was the first time I ever realized my abhorrence and hatred of the 24-hour news cycle. No one had ever quite given me the words before:

“I believe that a person’s thoughts often manifest into actual events – that we think things into existence. Right? Well, think about this: one of the illnesses that has become an epidemic in the Western world is an addiction to news. Newspapers, Internet news, twenty-four-hour news channels. And what is news? News is history in the making. So the addiction to news is the addiction to the outcome of history. …

In the past couple of decades, news has been produced as entertainment. So people’s addiction to news is the addiction to its function as entertainment. If you combine the power of thought with this addiction to entertaining news, then the part of the hundreds of millions of people, the viewing public, that wishes peace on earth is overshadowed by the part of them that wants the next chapter in the story. Every person who turns on the news and finds there’re no developments is disappointed. They’re checking the news two or three times a day – they want drama, and drama means not only death but death by the thousands, so in the secret parts of himself, every news-addicted person is hoping for greater calamity, more bodies, more spectacular wars, more hideous enemy attacks, and these wishes are going out every day into the world. Don’t you see? Right now, more than at any other time in history, the universal wish is a black one.”

It gave me words to understand the natural world, made it okay to love the world just for being, to express this in non-Romantic language:

For the first time I felt the truth that the sky begins a quarter of an inch from the ground. In the mornings the bush smelled like the best underarm deodorant you ever smelled, and I quickly got used to the mysterious movements of the trees, which heaved rhythmically like a man chloroformed. From time to time the night sky seemed uneven, closer in points, then smoothed out, like a tablecloth bunched up, then suddenly pulled taut. I’d wake up to see low-lying clouds balanced precariously on the tops of trees. Sometimes the wind was so gentle it seemed to come from a child’s nostril, while other times it was so strong all the trees seemed held tenuously to the earth by roots as weak as doubled-over sticky tape.

The main characters, Jasper and Martin Dean, are not lovable. They are not pitiable or sympathetic. They are harsh and irritating and they will spin your mind in circles. For 500+ pages.

But this book plays tricks on perception and the reality of the world you think you know. Martin literally builds a labyrinth for him and Jasper to live inside of. A labyrinth. (This is one of those scenes that glares so vividly in my brain.) There is travel and surprises and the strange coincidences of life. Jasper and Martin are in a constant battle of opposites, but opposites who understand each other as fully as it is possible for two people to understand each other.

But the primary focus is quite possibly the preoccupation with death, and the many ways it manifests itself – consciously and subconsciously – in our day to day lives. Martin is obsessed with this idea, and so is Toltz. And so will you be, if you give this one a read.

Wondering what the title is all about? Well, don’t worry. It comes smack in the middle of the book (a literary technique that makes the English major in me shiver with delight). I will not spoil it, but it’s a goodie.

Toltz makes you laugh out loud (“No wonder key existentialists were French. It’s natural to be horrified at existence when you have to pay 4 dollars for coffee.”). He makes you think about things you don’t want to think about. He takes complex ideas and makes them simultaneously simpler and more complicated.

I am still not sure what about this book struck such a chord with me, but I’m glad it did.

It’s not for everyone. It’s not an easy read, or a quick one. It spins you around and spits you up with a little more cynicism in your world view, but weirdly enough, also a little more comfort.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.




If you’re a fan, here are some suggestions:

(for complicated philosophy and psychology)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac

(for more by Toltz)

Quicksand by Steve Toltz

(for contemporary satire)

Pastoralia by George Saunders


Coming up:

The Epic of Gilgamesh compiled by Andrew George

The Inn at Rose Harbor by Debbie Macomber

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

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