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Quicksand - Steve Toltz


Published: 22nd April 2015
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Published: 22nd April 2015
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The literary event of 2015. Steve Toltz follows his extraordinary debut, the Booker-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole, with a novel that's just as edgy, hilarious and compelling: Quicksand, at once unmistakeably Toltzean and unlike anything that's come before.

'Why should I let you write about me?'

'Because you'll inspire people. To count their blessings.'

Aldo has been so relentlessly unlucky – in business, in love, in life – that the universe seems to have taken against him personally. Even Liam, his best friend, describes him as 'a well-known parasite and failure'. Aldo has always faced the future with optimism and despair in equal measure, but this last twist of fate may finally have brought him undone.

There's hope, but not for Aldo.

Liam hasn't been doing much better himself: a failed writer with a rocky marriage and a dangerous job he never wanted. But something good may come out of Aldo's lowest point. Liam may finally have found his inspiration. Together, maybe they can turn bad luck into an art form.

What begins as a document of Aldo's disasters develops into a profound story of love lost, found and betrayed; of freedom and incarceration; of suffering and transcendence; of fate, faith and friendship; of taking risks – in art, work, love and life – and finding inspiration in all the wrong places.

Quicksand is a fearlessly funny, outrageously inventive dark comedy that looks contemporary life unblinkingly in the eye. It confirms Steve Toltz as one of our most original and insightful novelists.

Read Caroline Baum's Review

How scary would it be to have to follow a dazzling debut like A Fraction of the Whole? That sprawling comic novel announced an irreverent new talent and swiftly gained international acclaim culminating in being shortlisted for the Booker.

Then Steve Toltz went off to New York, wrote a play, became a dad and thought 'Now what?' Well the good news is that in Quicksand, his new novel, he plays to his strengths without repeating himself: his gimlet eye for society's hypocrisies, double standards, fads and contradictions remains as sharp as ever.

Once again he adopts an unlikely duo as his central characters. In A Fraction of the Whole it was a father and son, in Quicksand, it's a dysfunctional bromance between Aldo, a disabled entrepreneur and his bestie Liam, a blocked writer-turned-cop. Together they muddle through failed relationships, business ventures, testing their friendship to the limit, teetering on the edge of self-destruction and mutual annihilation. It ain't pretty, this suicidal mateship.

Using relentless wit like a weapon, Toltz skewers the very worst of contemporary values, from pseudo spirituality to creative neuroses. His humour runs the gamut from cheap pun to clever aphorism, interspersed with dazzling set piece rants, a section written as poetry and a prayer manifesto. The result is dense, challenging, provocative virtuosity. Sort of like Howard Jacobson on cocaine.

The axis between art and criminality offers plenty of material for dark comic potential as Toltz contrasts social extremes with graphic, hyper-real scenes set inside a hospital and a prison. No institution is safe from his aim.

Without a doubt, he's a literary flamethrower, one of our boldest risk takers, willing to walk on a very high wire without a safety net: his characters say and do the most politically incorrect things imaginable and somehow, he gets away with it - just. Nothing is off limits. To achieve his aims, Toltz is prepared to shock his readers; many of his laughs are astringently sharp. His satire hurts as he pushes boundaries. He's not always subtle, preferring a sledgehammer to a scalpel. But his blows land with deadly accuracy.

Navigating the world with Liam and Aldo as companions is a high octane, high intensity rollercoaster of absurdist misanthropy, pessimism tempered by edgy redemptive humanity. Toltz is a master of paradox, a highly gifted, subversive, contrarian existentialist, clearly vexed by the course of human endeavour and contemporary life, as the cover's image of a man rolling a giant Sisyphean boulder uphill suggests. My hunch is that he cares deeply about who we are and where we are going and that to dismiss his modern day fable as mere allegorical entertainment confirms our course is set for folly.

About the Author

Steve Toltz was born in Sydney. His first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the 2008 Guardian First Book Award.

'Exhilarating . . . A gloriously absorbing, preposterous and funny excursion to the brink of madness and the meaning of life.' Sunday Telegraph

'Comical, philosophical, picaresque, hugely enjoyable.' Sydney Morning Herald

'Wilfully misanthropic and very funny . . . Soars like a rocket.' Los Angeles Times

'There are more lines of genius on one page of Quicksand than in the entirety of many very respectable novels.’ Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed

'Toltz writes with a singular, propulsive energy, with sentences and characters that rise off the page with a force that leaves you almost breathless. There is more heart, and joy and compassion and hard-earned wisdom in Quicksand than seems possible for a single novel; it is life, literature at its fullest.' Dinaw Mengestu, award-winning author of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and All Our Names

'It is very rare for me to laugh on almost every page of a book; it is even rarer for that to be accompanied by exquisite melancholy. Toltz is writing like very few other authors; he seems like an Antipodean Thomas Bernhard in his unsparing, agonizing comedies. I hope it is not seven years before his next novel.’ Scotland on Sunday (UK)

'The funniest novel of the past year . . . Genuinely moving.' The Saturday Times (UK)

'One of the smartest, funniest, angriest novels I have ever read . . . A brilliant piece of fiction, from a novelist who so clearly sees the outsized pleasures and terrors of our troubled time. ' Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England and The Happiest People in the World

'Quicksand crackles with such intensity it made me turn the pages with a harder snap, lean closer, want to gnaw the words. This is a novel of sneak-attack seriousness, so funny it fools you into letting down your guard—then knocks you upside the head with intense intelligence, probing thought, raw pain . . . the greatest thrill comes when it strikes you that you’ve never read anything quite like it before, that you just might have stumbled—startlingly, unsettlingly—on something close to genius in the writing of Steve Toltz.' Josh Weil, author of The Great Glass Sea

'What would happen if some genius were able to unite the high-wattage storytelling exuberance of Kurt Vonnegut, the combustive glee of Walt Whitman, and the reality-smashing despair of Franz Kafka? Impossibly, Steve Toltz has done just that, turning out a new masterpiece that is at once an old-fashioned page-turner, a tragicomic lament for the digital age, and an aching howl at the intractable existential dilemmas of our poor species. Quicksand is the sort of book that refuses to sleep between its covers on your nightstand; it is its own blazing, intricate, hysterically surreal universe, big and brilliant enough to swallow your own.' Stefan Merrill Block, bestselling author of The Story of Forgetting and The Storm at the Door

‘Toltz is a verbal magician and lunatic storyteller. Every page of this novel bursts with ideas and humor and pathos and incisive riffs that perfectly express the grand absurdities of the irrational universe, along with the smaller ones of a very particular friendship. Quicksand is the work of a writer in full command of his many outsized gifts, not least of which is his humanity.' Teddy Wayne, Whiting Award-winning author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine


Two Friends,

Two Agendas

(one hidden)

Down at the foamy shoreline, where small tight waves explode against black rocks, a lifeguard with feet wedged in the wet and vaguely tangerine sand stands shirtless like a magnificent sea- Jesus. An ill-timed journey into a breaker knocks a boy on his little back. A bald man throws a tennis ball for his Labrador and a second, unrelated dog bounds in after it. Through a gauze of mist a brunette—tall, and from where we're sitting seemingly riddled with breasts—kicks water on the sunlit torso of her blond companion.

There are three other drinkers in the place, already tethered to the sunbleached bar. It is eleven a.m. slumped in his cumbersome mechanised wheelchair that squeaks somewhere down by the left back wheel when he's doing pressure lifts, Aldo squints out from sand-whipped windows into the tumour of searing light. He turns to me and says, 'I'm nobody's muse.'

I think: That's a great line right there. I take out my notebook and when he shoots me an outraged look I say, 'That's right, motherfucker. I'm writing it down.'

Aldo wipes the condensation off his beer glass and uses it to moisten his lips.

'I know you're tired of being fodder, but for me to finish this book,' I confess, 'I need at the most your blessing and at the least unrestricted access to your innermost thoughts and feelings—you know, fantasies secreted inside secret fantasies I already know about, that kind of thing.'

'Jesus, Liam. You even take mocking yourself too seriously.'

'I am serious.'

We sort of leer mildly at each other in the mirrored bar.

'This book,' I say, 'will help you laugh at yourself again.'

'I still laugh at myself.'

'Not in proportion to how hilarious you are. Come on, Aldo. Where'd your sense of humour go?'

I know where it went, but on only his second morning out of prison I want to see if he will dare articulate it.

He doesn't—only dams a sudden gush of saliva with his sleeve—and when his face reddens in embarrassment I go rigid myself.

'You know,' I murmur, 'you could sue the state. Failing their duty of care.'

He turns to me abruptly and pretends to startle—our old gag—and explains how justice is either impersonal and indifferent or extremely personal and shamelessly vindictive, and how finding yourself in front of our volatile jury system means submitting your fate to a bunch of people whose omelettes you wouldn't dream of eating for fear they hadn't washed their hands.

Aldo sets his mouth tight as I scribble that line, and add: he says, with the eyes of a croupier doing back-to-back shifts. Down the bar, a man with a long ponytail who looks sunk in his own epic tale of woe gapes at us unapologetically.

Aldo says, 'have you ever had a woman say to you, oh, you sad little man?'

'Not in those exact words.'

He rotates his chair 180 degrees and shouts, 'I recommend it to all women as a way to totally annihilate a person!'

The bartender says, 'Can you two keep it down?'

I ask, 'Who called you a sad little man?'

Aldo is chewing something, maybe a part of his own mouth. I ask, 'Was it Mimi? Was it Stella? Was it Saffron?' He shakes his head. I ask, 'Was it your physiotherapist? Was it your lawyer? Please tell me it wasn't that ear-candling woman.'

Aldo's face is that of a child woken by lightning. He says, 'Why should I let you write about me?'

'Because you'll inspire people. To count their blessings.'

His smile, when it arrives, is already vanishing. 'Hang on,' he says, without inflection, and I know what's coming before it's uttered. 'I've just had an idea—to take to market.'


I settle in and listen to the patter of seagulls' webbed feet on the skylight. Two patrons loud-slurp and emit full-bodied beer-advert 'Ahhhhs.' Halfway out Aldo's mouth, soft bubbling sounds that don't mean anything. 'The look on your face,' he says, 'reminds me of that waiting period between the guilty verdict and the sentencing.'

'Just tell me your idea.'

'You know how we are such optimists even our Armageddons aren't final?'

'What do you mean?'

'It's post-apocalypse this, post-zombie-apocalypse that. People are honestly fretting about what to do after the end-times.'

'Right. So?'

'So you know the slight embarrassment you feel for someone who says they never think about death?'


'You know how it's weird that people will trust any old block of ice in their drinks?'


'You know how people are worried their kid's going to turn to them and say, What did you do to the biosphere, Daddy?'

I laugh. 'True.'

'You know how people used to want to be rock stars, but now they just want rock stars to play at their birthday parties?'


'You know how we now think pornography is free speech?'

'Like, I don't agree with tentacle sex but I'll die for your right to produce it?'

'Right. And we always knew people hated their freedom, but now we know they're also contemptuous of privacy?'


'And you know how there's no replacement cycle too short for today's consumer?'

'Of course.'

'And how now we have the internet you can't say, 'You Ain't seen nothing yet' anymore since everyone's seen everything by the age of twelve?'


'And people are spooked that good and evil no longer struggle but just work different shifts?'


His eyes tour the room and return to me, renewed. 'You know how the phrase 'At least you have your health' now refers to the state of your organs as commodities you can sell in a pinch?'

'Nobody thinks it means that.'

'And how in our lifetimes we'll see the actual end of patience?' his eyes probe my face for signs of impact.

'OK. Yep.'

The ideas bloom and flare, bloom and flare. His fingers drum-roll on the bar and end in a finger-snap. 'You know how people divide the world into white privilege and black oppression, and never mention Asians or Indians who're like, half the planet?'


'You know how a surprisingly huge number of people like fake leather?'


'And how people actually believe the obstacle to happiness is that they don't love themselves enough?'


'And how when someone's coping mechanism fails, they just keep using it anyway?'


'And how businesssapiens are always having power-nightmares?'

'They're having what?'

'Bad dreams during power naps.'

'If you say so.'

Now he looks like a dog who has chewed through his leash and is waiting to pounce.

'You know how people still believe that happy couples don't have affairs?'


'And modern relationships are more like, 'I'll be alone with your thoughts if you'll be alone with mine?''


'You know how while we're enjoying reading dystopian fiction, for half our population this society is dystopia?'


'Wait. You know how our fear of turning into our parents has become the fear of inheriting copies of their genetic mutations?'


'Hold on. You know how nobody who complains about income inequality thinks they personally have too much money?'


'Just wait. You know how when people talk of First World problems they forget to mention Alzheimer's and dementia?'

'Can you —'

'Wait!' a mouthful of beer spills onto his shirt. 'You know how we're still stuck with this prehistoric flight-or-fight mechanism and now our bodies pointlessly secrete cortisol when we're just running for the bus?'


'And how thanks to online comment boards, more people than ever before know what it feels like to be reviled?'

'What's —'

'You know how unrequited love has no real-world applications?'

'What's your idea?!'

'Disposable toilets.'

ISBN: 9781926428680
ISBN-10: 1926428684
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 448
Published: 22nd April 2015
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 23.0 x 15.3  x 3.7
Weight (kg): 23.2