MUST HAVE

Val Emmich: The Book I Can't Live Without

Novelist Val Emmich says Steve Toltz’s debut novel taught him just how much damn fun reading fiction could be. It was also, he says, a helluva good story.

I’ve always been a downer, but in my twenties I was truly unbearable. At 29, on a trip to Los Angeles, I visited a bookstore in search of a novel that would quell my loneliness. I found a thick bright-lettered hardcover called A Fraction of the Whole by debut author Steve Toltz. The flap copy described a protagonist who wasn’t sure whether to love or kill his father. I read this and handed over my money.

I’m pleased to report that I got what I paid for. The book made me feel better. But not in the way I expected.

The novel is chiefly concerned with twenty-something Jasper Dean and his father, Martin Dean, the most hated man in Australia. Other than that, the story is hard to convey. It’s sprawling and absurd and philosophical and heartbreaking. But what threw me most when I first read it, and why it’s stayed with me all these years later, was that reading it was so much damn fun.

Back in 2008, when I found the book, I never read for fun. I read to connect, learn, escape, unwind, and impress others. I read, most of all, to feel less alone. Fun, if I ever had it, was drinking with friends, having sex, playing video games, and jamming with my band. Did people actually have fun reading?

Yes! A Fraction of the Whole showed me that fun could indeed be had and reminded me that when I first fell in love with books I pretty much read only for fun. What happened to me? When had I turned so dour?

The novel is laugh-out-loud funny, but its humor amounts to a fraction of the whole of its fun quotient. For starters, it’s loaded with plot, the so-called enemy of serious literature. Stuff happens in this book. Big stuff. Betrayal, fraud, and as teased, patricide. Key characters are killed off by arson, suicide, and poison. A maid becomes the richest woman in the world. A lifelong convict publishes a handbook on crime. The action shifts from Australia to Paris to Thailand growing ever more farfetched and convoluted. I marvel at the gall of Toltz to even attempt such a yarn. I wish I’d done it first.

The narrative is relayed in first person by Jasper and Martin, two sorry fellows trying to make more of their lives but coming up embarrassingly short. Spending time in their exhaustive (and exhausting) minds is where the proper fun is had. The scope of their thoughts, mainly Martin’s, is what gives the novel its true breadth. Passages on death, immortality, God, depression, and madness are followed up with farcical one-liners that undercut the gravity of what we’ve just read. The conflicted mania of it all brings about a kind of euphoria. Martin’s description of how his mother must have felt reading to him every night when he was in his four-year coma (a five-page subplot that might elsewhere compose an entire novel) mirrors my experience of the book: “The agonizing delight of the reader who hears for the first time all the ramblings of the soul, and recognizes them as her own.”

That’s another reason I read: to recognize myself. Not just the introspective part, but the silly side as well. Not just the me I am, but the me I was and the me I’ve yet to become. It’s all here in just over five hundred pages.

I originally grabbed the book because of its promised father-son conflict. My father has a few things in common with Martin Dean. He had a painful childhood. He’s an atheist with a bit of a Christ complex. Intelligent and well read. Empathetic. Depressed. But what really rings true is the overwhelming presence Martin has in Jasper’s life. How large he looms. Jasper’s main aspiration is not to turn into his father. That was mine too. Like Jasper, I haven’t totally succeeded. But I’ve also learned that it’s hardly a failure.

After Martin’s death, Jasper appreciates his pain-in-the-ass father for the unique creature he was. Still, he regrets that his father “never achieved unlonely aloneness.” In reading Toltz’s novel, I’m happy to say I have.

Author ID:

Dubbed a "Renaissance Man" by the New York Post, Val Emmich is a writer, singer-songwriter, and actor. He has had recurring roles on Vinyl and Ugly Betty as well as a memorable guest role as Liz Lemon's coffee-boy fling, Jamie, on 30 Rock. Emmich lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife and their two children. The Reminders is his first novel.