The antihero of Steve Toltz’s second novel “Quicksand” is a man named Aldo Benjamin whose life is filled with one horrendous mishap following another. He instigates a series of ill-conceived business ideas which leave him impoverished, at various points in his life he’s accused of multiple serious crimes and he’s plagued by horrific health problems which leave him seriously debilitated. The novel begins with Aldo’s lifelong friend Liam explaining how he wants to capture this unfortunate man’s life in a meaningful literary work. This put me in mind of one of the greatest biographies I’ve ever read. The writer Stefan Zweig (whose own fiction has received a resurgence in the past several years) wrote a passionate and mesmerising biography of Honore de Balzac. Zweig was very much a man of high artistic ideals, but Balzac was a man that produced a bounty of inspired literature while seemingly only driven by a desire to become wealthy and establish a place in high society. Balzac attempted a series of get-rich quick schemes and returned to writing as a default to pay off his ever-mounting debts. There is something about a figure of evident genius who is hopelessly impaired by his own misdirected passion which makes him incredibly endearing. Liam observes that “the only people worth watching are those who have reached rock bottom and bounced off it, because they always bounce off into very strange orbits.” This is true of Aldo who is an inspired and original character.
For all the calamity that surrounds him, Aldo has unusual insight making statements which caught me off guard with his uncanny ability for cutting through the matrix of life and humorously overturning assumptions. He has a lot to say about sex and love. At one point “it occurred to me then that love is a decision, and the intensity of that love is more closely related to stubbornness than to genuine or spontaneous feeling.” Aldo hints at how our own desires for what we want can blind us to the person we actually have before us. He engages in long-term intense relationships with two different women, Stella and Mimi, at separate points in his life. These women are fascinating and complex themselves which is so refreshing to read in a narrative that is dominated by such a “male searching for meaning” voice. “Quicksand” also doesn’t shy away from giving a new perspective on difficult subjects such as rape and violence towards women. When his relationships fail Aldo frequents a particular house of prostitution to satisfy his urges and which he feels is safer (both emotionally and health-risk-wise) because he surmises that “Sex with people you like, or are infatuated with, or love, average citizens, that’s where the real danger is.” With his horrendous bad luck, this turns out not to be the case and he finds himself entangled in a morally and legally complex situation on one of his trips.
Aldo also makes grand statements about civilization and how our anxiety over our discontents can be filtered into disaster movies, but gives it an existentialist twist: “All those disaster movies have it wrong. I don’t think strangers do bond together in times of crisis, I think they resent each other’s unfamiliarity as the plane goes down and then burn together in awkward silence.” It’s a terrifying prospect to think that in that moment of greatest crisis our feelings of empathy would be superseded by standard self-centred emotions and social discomfort. Later when contemplating the end of civilization he envisions a gradual falling apart: “i don’t know anything other than that the greatest misconception about the apocalypse is that it is a sudden, brief event. it is not. it is slow. Grindingly slow. it goes for generations.” Aldo embodies a nihilistic perspective that oblivion is preferable to the continuation of life because he has experienced more disappointment and pain than the average person. The novel poignantly captures the terror of being struck down with a debilitating condition: “I hated being estranged from my own body, trapped in enemy territory.” His body becomes an antagonist. It’s with sour feeling that he observes how people respond to his illness. Because “Everyone looks on the bright side for you” Aldo is determined to only look on the dark side. Yet the narrative isn’t as bleak as you’d expect, but contains a lot of Woody Allen-like humour about the human condition such as “I can’t understand why masturbation is called self-abuse. It’s the only nice thing I’ve done for myself all week!”
One of the fascinating things about this novel is its complex portrayal of a difficult friendship. Aldo and Liam have been friends most of their lives. Liam is a police constable and therefore called upon by Aldo to help him out of many different legal scraps. Hilariously, Liam only became an officer because he went to police academy as research for a novel. He abandoned the novel so decided he might as well become an officer. The relationship between the two men changes over the course of time and their bond shows itself to be robust whilst surprising events occur during the novel. The unique challenges each man faces form a special kind of bond as Liam observes: “We were friends who now had one extra thing in common: We were both at the end of our rope.” It’s difficult to portray a gradually evolving friendship in a novel. While it comes together at the end, Liam is almost completely lost in the second part of the novel where the narrative is completely handed over to Aldo who gives an extended testimony at one of his more serious legal trials. For me, this is one of the weaker points of the novel particularly when Aldo converses with a totally anonymous voice which feels more like the author making thoughtful statements rather than something which would naturally come out of a character during the course of their journey. It’s still engaging but it detracts somewhat from the emotionally engaging elements of the plot. This is an issue which occurred towards the end of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” as well. The author’s compelling intelligence seems to take precedence over the pleasures of story. But, in both cases, I don’t think this detracts from the fact that these are extraordinary novels.
It’s admirable the way “Quicksand” eloquently describes many of the discontents we share through a compelling and forcefully original voice. The well-formed critiques of civilization and modern life are framed in such a way that you wonder why these things aren’t being asked all the time. Aldo has all the audacity and humorous force of thought equal to some of literature’s most unusual and memorable characters such as Ignatius J. Reilly of “A Confederacy of Dunces” or Jerome Corcoran in “What I Lived For.” It’s a book which reaches for profundity and quite often achieves it. I’m certain that “Quicksand” is a novel that will stick with me.