Thursday, 7 April 2016
Quicksand, by Steve Toltz
Quicksand is a sort of tragically comic (or comedically tragic) saga about the sort of friendship that is for better or worse. Through a long and thorough examination of failure, the creative soul and the sheer endurance of the human spirit we witness Aldo Benjamin and Liam Wilder as they deadpan their way through a lifelong phase of unproductive blockage, unfulfilled potential and misadventure.
The basic frame of the book is Liam, a failed novelist and accidental police officer has resolved to chronicle the life and times of his old school friend Aldo Benjamin. The first person to be tried and convicted under a new trafficking/rape law, Aldo is recently out of prison and now in a wheelchair thanks to his last suicide attempt. Aldo is the world's most persistently bad entrepreneur with a long list of Dragon's-Den reject business ventures to his name. He's a walking catalogue of bad decisions, mistakes, defaulted promises and an individual so monumentally unlucky, he diagnoses himself as immortal just to deprive himself of the option successful suicide.
Lurching from one misdemeanour to another disaster, Liam has often resolved to cut ties with Aldo, only to find himself repeatedly reunited with his friend. Using his influence as a police officer to get Aldo out of countless scrapes, Liam decides to turn the millstone around his neck into a muse- Much of the plot (or series of incidents?) is formed through Liam's attempts to novelise his friend's life. There's a fairly large section (that does go on for quite a while) where it transpires that Aldo is on trial for the murder of his lover and eventual carer, Mimi. During his immense monologue to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, he also delivers a somewhat epic poem, detailed descriptions of various ill-fated escapades and trials, and a verbal transcript of a conversation with God. Context is very important to Aldo, as he goes on to link the loss of a baby, several confusing sexual encounters, life at an artist's residence and a wrongful accusation of virginal rape into his detailed history.
The novel really highlights the absurdity of modern life though. If Aldo is something of a far-fetched character, the elements that comprise him are quite recognisable. The get-rich-quick for no effort mentality is very recognisable, as is the idea that if it wasn't for bad luck, some people would have no luck at all. There's an irony to his character and behaviour that all at once seems impossible, but absurdly like it's just bizarre enough to be true. That a person could attempt to commit suicide, survive and accidentally kill someone else in the process. An obviously invented religion. That a someone can be convicted of something that wasn't even a crime three weeks ago. The manner in which Liam drifts into his job (Police academy training for novel research left him with the qualifications to be a Police Officer and he needed the money) is also familiar, the portrayal of artists as pathologically pretentious drama queens, the self centred detachment of the two characters is interesting and at times hilarious. Society's obsession with self help books and achieving individuality by religiously following the rules.
I was reminded throughout of Martin Amis' writing style, and the charismatic oaf of a character that it's hard to tell whether admiration, pity or repulsion has the upper hand in the reader's reactions. It's a book that requires stamina from the reader, and for the most part, you just need to go with all the figurative language and the everlasting wackyness of the characters. It's not the world's most coherent or fluid novel, but it's funny, entertaining and it's certainly got its own style. Its blackly comic style and grim episodes won't be to everybody's taste, but I found it to be a surprising, engrossing novel, unusually structured, yes, and overburdened with language in places, but playful and dexterous in others- I laughed the whole way through and cringed through the rest. I'd definitely seek to read Steve Toltz's other earlier novel after reading Quicksand.