‘The Anna Karenina Principle: Living In and Through Steve Toltz’s “Quicksand”’, by Sophia Softky


Photo by Jes Mugley. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Licence.

The first time I read Quicksand by Steve Toltz, I was sad. The second time, six months later, I was fucking wretched.

Quicksand is about the life of a biblically unfortunate man named Aldo and his friend-cum-biographer, Liam. I was still living in Melbourne during the inaugural reading of Toltz’s novel. I’d read it during the 45-minute tram ride each Friday to The Lifted Brow’s offices, between making tea for the city’s “Businessapiens” (Aldo’s word) at a yoga studio where I worked as a receptionist, and while huddled on my bed in my moth-infested sharehouse. Reading was a way to keep myself from stewing in constant anxiety over how to spend my money (food or rent?) and whether I could conjure up a fresh Australian visa through sheer force of will. I had staked everything on building a life in Melbourne, as far away–geographically, culturally, metaphysically–from the memory of my ‘life before’ in California as possible, but everything was quickly slipping out of control. Entropy was winning.

After my first reading of Quicksand, as my life began to unravel, I would think often about the book, usually when I drank alone in my draughty share-house kitchen, eating a Nutella doughnut in bed or crying quietly in the bath. In slow motion I lost an adored partner, and, with him, the hope of a visa. The same one I moved ten thousand miles for in the first place. The same one who can’t even do me the courtesy of being an arsehole. Friends, adopted families, opportunities, a whole life I thought I’d be living in Melbourne for years or forever, all suddenly out of reach. Plan A was shot to hell and there was no plan B.

I’d never read something that so accurately captured that particular sensation of floundering on once-solid ground

I thought about Quicksand so much during this period of my life because I’d never read something that so accurately captured that particular sensation of floundering on once-solid ground, where the only movement is downward and inward, never upward, outward or onward.

I pick up Quicksand again half a year later. I have done nothing for weeks but shuffle around my parent’s house in our airless, suburban California hometown, contemplating my utter lack of money, job, life prospects, talent and more than two friends within a ten thousand mile radius. I am stuck. Everything I’d been afraid of has come to pass and life has shrunk–I have shrunk–from a web of possibility to a single immovable point. I start the book over again partly as an offline distraction—I can’t bear the steady blitz of Instagram posts showing my friends and ex-partner enjoying their Australian summer without me—and partly to take comfort in at least imagining a life more pathetic than mine.

Aldo’s life, as told by Liam, reads like the Biblical story of Job updated by Foucault: he fears physical suffering and imprisonment far more than death, so naturally he is brutalised by a series of family tragedies, illnesses, entrepreneurial failures, humiliations, devastating injuries, incarcerations and thwarted suicide attempts, none of which serve any redemptive purpose.

Liam, his best friend, is an unlikely cop and failed writer whose novels suffer “from a lack of empathy and an almost autistic understanding of what makes people tick”. Neither of them has ever succeeded at their dreams: making money (Aldo), or making art (Liam). Of his failing marriage, Liam writes: “My future lay behind me. I was thirty years old and had been unspooling for more than a decade and was in the perpetual doldrums about my not-for-profit days and nights, envious of Tess’s actor friends who had already abandoned their dreams and ‘grown’ and ‘changed’ while I watched myself metamorphose annually into the same thing I was the year before … It was like we’d boarded the same train but I’d wound up on an uncoupled carriage, stationary on the tracks.”

Reading that strikes me to the core. I may have crippling student debt and a serious genetic predisposition to big-guns personality disorders in place of Aldo’s wrongful convictions or Liam’s crumbling family, but I share their fear. The intense fear of never being a ‘real’ writer, living a worthwhile life or being properly loved. The fear of being stationary on the tracks.

Everybody suffers, but we all suffer alone.

The relationship between Liam and Aldo, as well as their respective partners, also underlines for me how the cruellest aspect of hardship is its solipsistic inward pull. Each character in Quicksand, even minor ones, face uniquely traumatic circumstances, from miscarriage to debt, which only alienate them from each other rather than serving as bonds of commiseration. Everybody suffers, but we all suffer alone. I am uncomfortably reminded of how, during those last awful months in Melbourne, I could be aware of how other people around me were hurting in similar ways (the friend struggling with bipolar disorder, another recovering from an abusive relationship, and my own partner struggling with the guilt of singlehandedly re-routing my life), yet I was unable to reach past my own pain to connect with them.

Around the same time I revisit Quicksand I plunge into Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life, on the recommendation of someone who tells me delicately that it will “suit my frame of mind” – that frame of mind being the pulverising sort of depression that leads to full-blown panic attacks in the grim nightclubs I had hoped would distract me, which in turn leads to literally never leaving the house. As I read both books in my childhood bedroom—a chapter of one, a few pages of the other—I have a vague feeling of cosmic harmony. For all their obvious differences, both texts are concerned with the ‘damaged life’: one with a social sphere irreparably mutilated by capitalism, and the other with the million and one ways, large and small, that individual humans can be tampered with by love, abuse, illness, sheer bad luck, and capitalism.

I think I am so attracted to Quicksand because it seems to me like an inventory of all the ways it is possible for human beings to de damaged, fail, suffer, and die. It is a book-length illustration of what one might call the ‘Anna Karenina principle’: each shitty human life is shitty in its own way. Whole pages at a time are dedicated to one character or another, usually Aldo, soliloquising about what is wrong with the world (“You know how it’s weird that people will trust any old block of ice in their drinks? … You know how while we’re enjoying reading dystopian fiction, for half our population this society is dystopia? … You know how unrequited love has no real-world applications?”) or who is wrong within it (“Pseudosapiens, Businessapiens, Thinklings, Saddults and the Clinically Frustrated”). In fact, entire chapters exist simply as an excuse for Toltz to toss around gleefully dark soundbites that are only tangentially related to the plot.

Misery – it’s just science!

The overall impression is of a world that is really and truly not set up for human happiness. Even before human callousness comes into play, Aldo and everyone he knows are victimized by a chaotic, hostile universe, continually struggling to maintain their balance against the winds of random misfortune. As my father, the physicist, would put it, conventionally favourable human outcomes require low entropy, but because all of nature trends towards increasing entropy, unfavourable outcomes (shitty lives) are far more common. Misery – it’s just science! As I read, I wonder where being a garden variety Saddult (or Saddolescent?) fits on the entropy scale. It seems standard, but I don’t know if this makes me feel better or worse.

Quicksand is also a surprisingly true-to-life sketch of that twenty-first century problem, how to be. Aldo is a tragic victim of the success industry, whose fixation on striking it big via self-help and amateur psychology books only results in massive financial debt and the alienation of everyone he loves. Liam obsessively studies a self-published book (also in aphorism form, Toltz-style) by his high school art teacher as an “alternative I Ching … looking for a lit path through darkness” and yet fails to produce a single piece of decent writing. Neither of them has any idea how to be, and since they aren’t particularly good people either, their struggles are totally ignoble and yet sensitively portrayed. Not having any idea personally of how to be, how many times have I wished I could cocoon myself in a blanket-burrito and sleep for year, only waking up when my life is magically in order? Where is my lit path through darkness?

The thing about intense depression is that it has a knack for producing an emotional version of what Agamben calls “bare life”, lacking thought, ambition or a concept of futurity. Aldo literalises this by, after one misfortune too many, literally retreating alone to a rock in the middle of the ocean to concentrate on becoming “a voiceless faceless thoughtless drifting eye cruising through space and time before disappearing in a violent white flash”. My version: when, after two endless months back in California, my old Melbourne friends Skype me to ask how I’m doing, the most upbeat and honest thing I can bring myself to tell them is that “I’m still hydrating my flesh prison.”

And yet.

As much as I think about dying, I don’t. I am committed to wallowing, as though giving up will somehow stop the world from turning and absolve me from the responsibility to keep throwing shit at the wall until something sticks, but somehow the sun continues to rise each morning and I find myself obligated to go through the motions of living until I feel better in spite of myself. My own failure to become a voiceless faceless thoughtless drifting eye cruising through space and time annoys me. It seems wildly unfair that even giving up on myself so totally fails to produce even a shrug from the Universe. I’m still here, whether I like it or not.

I do eventually leave the house. I even get a job and plan a move to a new city. Life becomes slightly more than bare, slightly less entropic. At some point I realise that while I may still be stuck in the mire, spinning my wheels, I am finally getting some traction.

Sometimes, hydrating your flesh prison is enough.

I read the final chapter in a café downtown (progress!), and it occurs to me that sometimes, hydrating your flesh prison is enough. Sometimes resilience can look like doing nothing at all. And so, though Quicksand hasn’t taught me how to be or at least, how not to be sad, when I finish the book for the second time the sincere conclusion to this smirking story strikes me more than I’d care to admit. I am actually shocked by the lump in my throat as I read the last line, again: “Each day you wake up alive, you are the victor; go claim your spoils.”

Sophia Softky is a writer and journalist who primarily publishes work regarding politics, popular culture, technology and philosophy. She is a former editorial intern at The Lifted Brow.