Book review – Quicksand by Steve Toltz

Book review – Quicksand by Steve Toltz

Before I talk about this kinetic, lunatic, uproarious, tragic and brilliant novel, a health warning. I picked up Quicksand at my favourite indie bookstore Love Books, not because I had heard of the book or author (a Booker shortlister for a few years back, as it turns out), but because the back page book description was so compelling that I simply took a chance, relying on the curatorial excellence of Kate Rogan, the bookshop proprietor. I then took the book on a family holiday, and here is the warning – after I gave it to Kate Sidley (my wife) on the plane, she shortly thereafter started howling so loudly and so without decorum or restraint that I feared the air stewards (glancing at her worriedly) would request a return to the airport to have her removed. You will, I guarantee, be undone with helpless shrieking in many of the unlikely scenes and conversations that scattershot this virtuoso act.

But Quicksand is not really a comedy; one’s frequent laughter is black and horrified. It is a deeply poignant and profound character study of one Aldo Benjamin, a character unlike any whom you have ever met in fiction or life, and will be unlikely ever to forget. The book is told in the first person by Aldo’s best friend Liam, who tries to mine Aldo’s compulsive and exhausting aphorisms and pithy observations and trenchant asides and explosive commentaries on everything and anything in order to find fodder for Liam’s dream of writing a novel (although some devious literary trickery also puts Aldo into the first person for a large swath of the book). These ‘Aldoisms’ burst out of every page like tracer fire, and I found myself saying over and over again – god, that’s genius, god, that’s incandescent, god, that’s hysterical, until I had nearly overdosed with giddy surprise.

The book begins with Aldo in a wheelchair, paraplegic and recently out of jail. The first part of this book is how he got to this point, and the second part plots his and everyone else’s reaction to his circumstances. Aldo is as large a disaster of a human being has you can imagine. Every decision, act, attempt, hope, relationship or initiative that he has ever undertaken has been spectacularly ill-advised, all ending in crashing and cacophonous disaster. From primary school to adulthood, his life has been one long, loud, drawn out failure. I wrote a novel a few years ago about a man beset by misfortune, the story of Job updated to an urban setting. But Toltz takes this to entirely uncharted territory. The reader is left just aghast at Aldo’s spectacular and endless fuck-ups, all by his own misstep and poor judgement. And the deft trick played by the author is that you are relieved that you do not know anyone remotely like this, and yet you are deeply seduced by him, caring greatly about his fate with your heart firmly in your mouth. 

The book pivots vertiginously between riotous, sad, philosophical, erudite and chilling (there is a description of a prison scene that I wish I had I had never read, because I cannot unread it now, and it will reside unwelcomely and repellently in my head forever). There are long blocks of dialogue between Aldo and Liam which leave the reader utterly exhilarated and exhausted. And it never lets up – page after page after chapter after chapter of high-wire writing – sometimes shockingly insightful, sometimes deeply moving, always fresh and unpredictable and beautifully rendered.

I am aware that this review has not really described what the book is about, and that is not really plot-driven. It is more a stomach-churning journey with the hapless but magnetic Aldo as he ruins every last shred of his life, and the desperate attempts of those around him to temper his excesses, to feed off his rare and raw wisdom and to keep him close even as they avoid their eyes from looking at his bloody and continual train wreck. 

There is little I can compare this book to, although the author states his influences – Bellow, Roth, Woody Allen. Toltz tears great new ragged holes in the literature of art, suicide, friendship, sex, violence, psychology, disability and the worst slings and arrows of misfortune. The books is not perfect – there were a few parts  which I felt were overindulgent  (including Aldo’s overly long discussion with a voice in his head), but against the overwhelming pleasures elsewhere, it seems churlish to complain.

Highest recommendation, and a small bet that Quicksand will be all over the next awards season.

Book review – A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

Book Review – A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

The immigrant novel in the US has a long a proud history. Many of these novels were originally written by pre-war European immigrants battling to find purchase in the cacophony and promise of a burgeoning America. More recently the immigrant novel has been combustively re-invigorated by a Babel of new voices – Amy Tam, Gary Shteyngart, Jumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz, among others.

Into this august literary group steps Boris Fishman, with A Replacement Life. The protagonist, Slava Gellman, is stretched uncomfortably between two worlds, his unassimilated Russian-Jewish family in South Brooklyn, and his white-knuckled handhold as a junior writer on a celebrated magazine in Manhattan called Century. Gellman’s background story is quickly revealed –  he has been in the US since he was a child, his parents having slid semi-legally out of Russia as they released their hold on Jews, and allowed a period of relatively free emigration in the late 1970s and 1980s. The author was born in Belarus, and his life followed a similar trajectory,(he worked as a writer for Vanity Fair) – the odor of authenticity is strong, particular in the descriptions people, places and rituals of the Russian-Jewish enclaves of New York.

Into this milieu Fishman introduces a bursting and rich plot device. Slava, as the only English writer (and culturally competent American) in the family, writes a forged German holocaust reparations claim for his aging and pleading grandfather. The claims are reserved for those who had been in concentration camps or conscripted slave labour – his grandfather had comfortably sat out the war in Uzbehkistan. When Slava balks at the lie, his grandfather says – ‘Who do you think you are? Lenin’s Son? We all suffered in our own way.’ Slava is won over. He writes the claim. And then word gets around, and Slava suddenly finds himself writing scores of fraudulent claims for all the old and fading Russian Jews of South Brooklyn. This deception is the ethical core around which the book is built.

There are several deeply and sensitively explored sub-themes that are woven into this story. He has two woman in his life – a born-and-bred urbane Manhattanite and a unassimilated and curvaceous granddaughter of immigrants, and his fraught attraction to both. The backstory of the horrors visited upon his late grandmother during the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto, painted lurid by small hints and partial memories. His grandfather’s thuggishnes in Russia before the war. The competitiveness of the Manhattan magazine publishing world. America’s continuing allure to foreigners even as it staggers and stumbles (one of the immigrants marvels at his ability to buy a 32 inch TV on a doorman’s salary). And the immigrant’s jail – the freedom of America and their inability to grasp it, weighed down by histories that they cannot shed.

There were times when I was reading this book that I heard Saul Bellow echoing clamourously – long unbroken blocks of musing dialogue, knotted and gnarled ethical dilemmas without clear resolutions, characters bursting out of the page, unheroic, flawed, powerless and deceptively exceptional. One of the joys of this book was the rendering of English brokenly executed by fluent Russian speaking characters – you can hear the steppes in their cadences.

This is a book for a certain kind of reader. It is a deep dive in all respects – characters that you have never met, a plot that is unusual and profound, relationships which ring true even in their foreignness. It was slow seduction for me, I suspect it will linger long.