Book 74: A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

fractionUh, I…hmm.

I’m not quite sure where to begin with this review of A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz. Should I just tell you about the absolutely unhinged protagonists Martin Dean and his son Jasper ? Or do I ease you into this tour de force about a man and his son who nearly ruin the lives of everyone they meet? Or do I tell you that it’s a 576-page study on the human condition, and your inner psychologist will squeal with delight over the honesty of the characters?

The story of Martin and Jasper begins with tales of Martin’s odd, sickly childhood, and his younger brother’s fall into criminal life. Martin becomes caught up in the illegal behavior, but escapes imprisonment himself (most helpfully by escaping the country when his town and the prison that is holding his brother are consumed in a brush fire). He forms the oddest connections in Paris, including the mysterious woman who would give him his son, and a man he didn’t really like, but who would bail him out of every sticky situation he entered. Suffice it to say that Martin’s proselytizing drove everyone around him to the brink of self-destruction.

I didn’t like Martin. He was selfish and awkward and enjoyed being both. His words made me sigh, and his actions made me wince. He wrote of his childhood with his criminal brother, Terry:

As a child he ran screaming that high-pitched noise that children scream. He loved reaching for poisonous substances (an infant’s instinct for suicide is razor sharp) , and he had an uncanny ability to cry just as our parents were falling asleep. By all accounts, he was just another baby. I was the remarkable one, if only for my inabilities.

Jasper, on the other hand, was a more likable narrator, if for no other reason than he wasn’t Martin. Don’t get me wrong, he ruminated on a philosophical topic for so long that I wanted to scream and hit someone, but at that very second I would fill my lungs and lift my hand, he would conclude his thought and come back to Earth, down from the cliff at the corner of curious and genius (which is not a fun crossroads to be standing on with someone like Jasper).

Jasper had great lines throughout the book, including this gem:

Regrets came up and asked me if I’d like to own them. Declined them for the most part but took a few just so I wouldn’t leave this relationship empty-handed.

In an attempt to explain his love for The Towering Inferno (tall girl with red hair) to his father:

If you could save the person from ever having another splinter in her finger, you’d run around the world laminating all the wood with a fine, transparent surface, just to save her from a splinter. That’s love.

This book was recommended to me by my fiance’s cousin, and truth be told I only read it because I thought it would be a conversation starter for us in the future. (Trying to impress the future in-laws is always a good reason!) While I found the characters infuriating, I am glad I read the book. It encouraged me to find better reasons for my opinion on certain topics, just like having a intelligent conversation with an atheist sometimes makes me a stronger Christian.

I’m telling you…books like this are the main reason I read books. I am constantly learning and refining myself, and, love them or hate them, these characters pushed me to do both.

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