Thursday 16 October 2008

Smart enough to be funny - A Fraction of the Whole, Man Booker Shortlist 2008

A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz (Hamish Hamilton)

Not too long ago I undertook an intensive screenwriting course as part of a wider creative writing degree. The course itself was informative and useful, although it was striking how little time was spent actually writing. Instead, we spent weeks immersed in drawing up various graphs, diagrams and flow charts relating to plot and character – in my notes I have, in black ink, a genuine drawing of an actual plot arc.

This is probably not as splutteringly outrageous as it sounds: film and television tend to strike us on a visceral, sensual level which itself is managed by a series of different technicians under the creative vision of the director – the job of a screenwriter is to take the plot and characters from one point to the other, in the simplest fashion as the story you want to tell demands. It’s harder than it sounds.

Towards the end of the course, though, I put my compass and protractor to one side to ask a question. ‘How does this relate to writing comedy?’ My lecturer paused for a second, shrugged and said, ‘It doesn’t. The one rule of writing comedy is make it funny. Any cheap sentiment can make you cry, and you hate the writers for manipulating you. Make me laugh, and I don’t fucking care why.’

This is good advice, and the sort of matter-of-fact response that will always count against a creative writing course when trying to justify its existence in cost-benefit terms. But it goes against the grain of how we approach and view humour, for audiences and practitioners alike. Who just wants to be the funny man, the jester or the pratfaller? Shouldn’t there be some kind of deeper truth or higher meaning to jokes?

Sooner or later everyone falls prey to this desire. It was most visible in the recent series of BBC Four dramas showing the tragic lives and tensions which lurked beneath performers like Tony Hancock and shows like Steptoe & Son (with very little of the actual comedy). In comics, it’s become almost a hallmark of a declining career when they announce a desire to get serious and do a bit of Chekhov or (more recently) do some high profile charity work involving finding the ‘real’ humour and warmth in watching others suffer.

Of course, it’s true that a lot of great comedy is produced by depressives and those suffering chaotic inner lives, and the apparently counterintuitive nature of this is compelling. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with performers and writers wanting to branch out into another medium, especially as humour can have such a short shelf life. I’m all for people analysing comedy, and how one joke works in one context and doesn’t in another. But it’s when people get serious about a message to their comedy and the implication that if that message is serious enough it doesn’t need to be funny (as with much of Richard Curtis’ later work) I start to groan. Make me laugh first, guys, and then I might decide if I give a fuck.

This is a rule that Steve Toltz – a screenwriter turned novelist at the age of 36 – seems acutely aware of in his impressive debut. With the novel just over 700 pages, with a plot which spans three continents and covers everything from Nietszche to strip clubs and satires on the publishing and media world, Toltz must be well aware that he is inviting just about every criticism imaginable for a young novelist. But he’s smart enough to be funny, which is what makes A Fraction of the Whole a remarkable achievement.

Which is good, because as a satire it falls down flat. The story concerns two brothers – Martin and Terry Dean – who grow up to be two of Australia’s most famous criminals. Because of the nature of their crimes (the eccentric intellectual Martin inadvertently commits mass fraud while Terry murders unpopular corrupt or discredited sportspeople) become they, respectively, figures of hate and love. The story is told mostly from the point of view of Martin’s son Jasper, although the father spends a large portion of the book narrating the story, to emphasise their closeness (despite the fact they despise each other). But Toltz’s real targets are a rampant, bestial media and a dumbed-down culture hopelessly in the clutches of a handful of super-powerful businessmen. He also has a go at a self-absorbed intellectual elite that seems unwilling to do anything about this, and lacks any idea of how to reassert itself in public life anyway. Fair enough, but you can’t help but feel Toltz didn’t need 700 pages to tell us that.

The size, incidentally, is an obvious thing to criticise, but in all other aspects apart from a satiric angle it is crucial to the success of the novel. A Fraction of the Whole is at its best when celebrating eccentricity and the mad, futile projects that human beings – mostly men – set themselves. From building a house in the middle of a maze, to setting up a co-operative of crime with an accompanying handbook, to charging halfway around the world on a whim, the sheer weight of the text becomes a summation of the absurdity of human invention. It is only when Toltz feels the need to remind us that criminals (rapists, people traffickers etc) are really nasty people deep down, that Australia’s immigration laws are really awful for the tragically long-suffering non-white people, and that Western civilisation is concerned with material wealth and trash culture while poor people are dying (goddamnit!) that it starts to feel like a burden.

But for well over 600 pages, A Fraction of the Whole is a joy to read, and even manages (in the most unlikely fashion) to pull back from the weak politics to produce a touching ending that leaves the story open-ended without feeling like a tease. On the whole Toltz makes you laugh – and maybe he should be happy with that.


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