Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

You wouldn’t want a father like Marty Dean. If there is a blackout during a thunder storm he will hold a candle under his chin to show his young son Jasper “how the human face becomes a mask of evil with the right kind of lighting.”

The bedtime stories he tells are “dark and creepy tales, and each had a protagonist that was clearly a surrogate me.”

But by far his scariest story is that of Jasper’s own family. “These are the building blocks of your identity,” Jasper is told. “Polish. Jewish. Persecuted. Refugee. These are just some of the vegetables with which we make a Jasper broth.”

The broth is a rich one, and so is A Fraction of the Whole. Toltz weaves from the story of Jasper, Marty, and his notorious criminal brother Terry, a fantastical tale full of wit and malevolence. In it, a steady stream of one-liners set up a foreground chirrup against a backdrop of weirdness, fantasy and dark comedy.

The plotting is outlandish.

Terry turns serial killer to wreak revenge against corruption in Australian sport. He shoots the wilfully underperforming captain of the Australian cricket team in the stomach, then turns his gun on cheating bookies, a bent jockey, a boxer who takes a dive in the ring, and coaches who administer performance-enhancing. Quickly, sport is cleaned up, everyone plays by the rules, and Terry becomes a national hero.

Matty is plunged into a coma from the ages of four to eight, after which “Sometimes in the middle of the night when I was sound asleep I was woken by a violent shaking. It was my mother, wanting to make sure I hadn’t fallen into another coma.”

That doesn’t stop her trying to poison her son to death. The poison leaves him reeling, evoking “A feeling like walking into the middle of a Harold Pinter play and being asked immediately by a tribunal to explain it or be executed.”

In the small-town Australia of A Fraction of the Whole, mundane actions invariably have extraordinary consequences.

Anonymously, Matty places a suggestion box for townspeople to nominate improvements they would like to see made.

At first the suggestions – such as that the town’s one, severely arthritic barber retire because “this town has more bad, uneven, and downright mysterious haircuts than any town in the world” – are harmless. But malevolence creeps in. A campaign begins against Terry, who ends up confined in the asylum on the hill. To draw the poison the box is destroyed in an explosion, which happens to blind the father of Terry’s first great love.

Through it all come the one-liners.

An army recruiting officer asks: “Tell me what makes good army material?”
And gets the reply: “Light cotton?”

Here’s another: “I have nothing against children, I just wouldn’t trust one not to giggle if I accidentally stepped on a land mine.”

A Fraction of the Whole will have you laughing just when you know you shouldn’t.

Friday, 11 April 2008

A Vengeful Longing by R N Morris

There is a killer on the loose in St Petersburg. Its name is cholera, and its accomplices are poverty, slothful bureaucracy and a sanitation system so inadequate that the city is left to stew in its own waste.

The city stinks: nowhere more so than in the office of investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich overlooking the excrement-filled Yekaterininsky Canal. Driven to distraction by the swarms of flies, he resorts to lacing bowls of honey with kvas. Once intoxicated, the flies are at his mercy. Murderers, however, prove harder to snare.

R N Morris has breathed new life into the character created by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment and who deduces - despite a singular lack of evidence - that Raskolnikov is the killer he seeks, then leads him to a voluntary confession.

In this, the second of Morris’s Porfiry novels, change is in the air. Investigating magistrates are newly created, as is trial by jury and, as one who Porfiry investigates says disapprovingly, “this emphasis on evidence”. There are the first rumblings of revolt, too. A revolutionary cell may lurk behind the facade of Ballet, the exclusive chocolatier’s; a bomb explodes in a police station.

Porfiry is an engaging companion. With him we are “drawn into the secret heart of St Petersburg” as he seeks the perpetrator of a series of murders in which each victim appears to be dispatched in a way particularly appropriate to their failings and guilty secrets.

He takes us out of the grand, stone-built half of the city, across the wide Neva and into the lowest dives where the poor huddle in darkened cellars; up to their ankles in raw sewage, waiting to die.

As he closes on his killer, Petrovich realises that the crimes, and conditions in the city where they are committed, cannot be separated. “Everything is connected” he concludes. The filth seeps into even the grandest buildings, spreading its malign influence: “a metaphor for something peculiarly Russian.”

Corruption is everywhere. “Who could sleep at night in the summer in St Petersburg, without first exhausting themselves on the streets, wandering the embankments, pacing squares as wide as the days in search of the promise of a passing scent of danger.”

Of course, the killer must be caught, and Morris’s Porfiry shows all the brilliance and cunning of Dostoyevsky’s, but the sense of a far wider wrong hangs over the portrayal of St Petersburg.

As Porfiry’s assistant Vinrinsky says: “Shall I tell you what is a crime...? That people in this city are dying of the cholera when the cause of the disease has been understood for over 10 years.”

(Faber and Faber, £12.99)

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Memory Room by Christopher Koch

“What is a spy?” asks Vincent Austin. “Are they born or made?”

The question may not sound particularly promising, but the answer Christopher Koch presents in this compelling portrait of two very singular people is intriguing. For, while espionage may be the book’s stage, spying is simply the backdrop against which a much more profound and rich personal drama is played out.

Vincent says he is a born spy; devoted to secrecy in its purest form: to secrecy for its own sake. Erika Lange shares his fascination.

The two have an extraordinary bond, forged as children and rooted in loneliness. He is orphaned; her mother is dead and her father often lost to her in drink. Together they create a safe, sustaining and secret fantasy world.

They are both fascinated by Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s discovery of a little door behind a curtain that opens with a golden key and leads to a beautiful garden. “Somewhere, we both knew, there was still such a doorway to be found: not one in a fairy tale, but one that led to the world’s ultimate secrets.”

Their relationship – which is life-long yet platonic - cannot be penetrated. It is “two of us at secrecy’s core, like twin kernels in a shell.”

As adults, Vincent becomes a spy, and the ultimate secrets he seeks to crack involve the world’s great closed societies: the enemies of individuality. Erika becomes a journalist, and her beauty brings her television stardom.

She is a femme fatale, the mystery of her fascination with secrecy hidden deep in her past and her imagination.

As Vincent and Erika career through life, damaging, and sometimes destroying, those who come into contact with them, their secret bond holds.

Until, that is, a conflict develops that causes one to betray the other, and Vincent realises there are far greater secrets in the world than those he has been pursuing: “I need more rewarding mysteries now ... more substantial secrets than those yielded up by espionage.”

He realises that it is the life of the spirit that contains the great secrets. Yet, in pursuing these, he is at a loss: “I am a typical 20th century man,” he says. “The decline of the main Christian churches (either clownish, apologetic parodies of their former selves, or mundane vehicles for social reform) has left us to wonder aimlessly, shopping for beliefs.

“Pity a man ... whose spirit can never rise to seek the invisible!”

Which suggests that the real, and unexpected, answer to the question what is a spy is this: a man searching for the secret of faith.

(Jonathan Cape, £17.99, pp432)