“Constable, you know an Aldo Benjamin?”
Liam Wilder is a failed novelist turned job-hating cop who all too often is called to the rescue of his old high-school mate Aldo, a failed entrepreneur who has been absurdly unlucky in love and life. As Quicksand begins, the two are in a beachside bar and Liam is jotting in his notepad the rapid-fire, funny, insightful and bizarre thoughts that Aldo expresses as he warms to stating his latest idea for a new product to bring to the market.
Liam has decided that if he wants to give writing one last shot, he needs to write what he knows, and Aldo has become his muse. So begins this tale within a tale, set in modern-day Sydney.
Much anticipated by the literary world, Quicksand is the second novel of Steve Toltz, whose first work, A Fraction of the Whole, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the prestigious award for contemporary fiction given to writers from the British Commonwealth and Ireland.
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A work of dark satire, the novel had critics comparing Toltz to writers such as Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace and Joseph Heller. In an interview with Toltz in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 2, 2015, Toltz revealed that this second book had its origins in the original manuscript for the first: The 1,000-page book was cut to 700, taking out about 300 pages that focused on a bad-luck character who then became Quicksand’s Aldo Benjamin.
In the interview Toltz also noted: “A Fraction of the Whole was a book for me about the fear of death. As soon as I finished I wanted the next book to be about the fear of life.”
And indeed, the tragicomic Aldo is a wonderful vehicle for this idea. His life is an inexorable downward spiral toward his two greatest fears: prison and the hospital. As we learn from the get-go, life has left him bruised, battered and paralyzed. Even his attempts at suicide have gone wrong. The poor guy seems destined to live.
Toltz structures his book into three parts. The first is in Liam’s voice, giving the readers a broad overview of a rocky friendship that begins when the boys meet in high school and discover they both had an older sister who died: “Aldo and I confessed in a delicious mania of grief how each of us had at one point wished his sister dead, and how this perverse magical thinking was driving us both quietly insane.”
The second part is in Aldo’s voice, as it is his testimony when he’s tried for murdering his lover, an artist named Mimi. This part is an often gut-wrenching account that includes excruciating scenes of his time in the hospital and his rape in prison (“This was a psychiatric emergency. I sank and didn’t resurface. Goodbye, self, we’ll meet back and reintegrate later.”)
The third part takes readers to Aldo’s final, brilliant get-rich scheme on Magic Beach.
Toltz digs deep, exploring themes of male friendship, God and religion, life and death, and art and the artist
The book’s structure works beautifully to showcase the development of Aldo’s character, looking at him through time from many vantage points. Toltz digs deep, exploring themes of male friendship, God and religion, life and death, and art and the artist.
One of the book’s secondary but vital characters is Mr. Angus Morrell, Aldo and Liam’s former English teacher whose book Artist Within, Artist Without serves as Liam’s “veritable bible” and who also resurfaces to play a significant part in Aldo’s adult life. In his book, Morrell gives advice on the role of a muse: “Muses inspire but also violate — innocently like the kissing bandit; or horrifyingly, like the granny rapist,” and the idea of a muse is central to this book: Aldo is Liam’s muse, as he is his ex-wife/songwriter Stella’s muse and girlfriend Mimi’s muse.
His dire misfortune is the bedrock of creativity for the artists in his life.
What the book doesn’t have is a page-turning plot. Those who love a sprightly paced narrative, like me, may feel, as I did, that the book stalls in its midsection. There were points in my reading where I put the book down and didn’t return to it with anticipation. The writing is clever and divinely word-conscious, but the story itself seems a bit overwrought. I just didn’t feel at times that Aldo’s tale was quite worthy of the 359 pages I’d need to invest in it.
But stick with it I did, and in the end, I was glad I did. Toltz is a talented writer and his use of various narrative techniques is thoughtful, creative and well worth examining for those who love literary fiction. But most of all, it’s his character Aldo who makes the book a more than worthwhile read — he’s a character so absurd, so extreme, and so ultimately original in his clinical frustration that you understand why Liam dropped everything when Aldo needed him.
You know an Aldo Benjamin? If not, you should meet him.
by Steve Toltz
Simon & Schuster, $26