The male anti-hero is a popular character type recently. Mad Men, for instance, gave us Don Draper, a deceitful womaniser who was also tragically insecure, a man of the world as pitiful as a child. In this “post-feminist” age, the male anti-hero shows that men can still behave badly on the proviso they have a troubled history, making them victims rather than perpetrators.
The anti-hero and the dynamic of victim/perpetrator are central to Liam Pieper’s first novel, The Toymaker. The main protagonist, Adam Kulakov, is a family man who indulges in affairs, including with a schoolgirl described as “a voluptuous dark-haired milk-treat”. He is also the egotistical manager of a successful toy manufacturing company. However, his sins are offset by the fact that he suffered from neglectful parents, who compounded their disservice to him by dying early.
Adding to this backstory, Adam’s grandfather Arkady is a Holocaust survivor, who handcrafted toys for children at Auschwitz. Upon migrating to Australia after the war, he founded the company that Adam runs. “Let me tell you a story about my grandfather,” Adam cynically repeats, spruiking the company he has inherited.
The novel, which has Adam watching Mad Men, is parodic in its treatment of its contemporary characters, who often border on caricature. Adam’s neglected wife, for instance, goes “schlepping from lunch to gym in her Lululemon widow’s weeds”. However, the flashbacks set in Auschwitz are vastly different in tone, and the contrast is jarring.
The novel signals an interest in the “grey area”, a phrase employed by a character involved in a blackmailing scam. The teenager with whom Adam has an affair is a stereotypically precocious Lolita. The toy company builds its wealth by exploiting Third World labour. There is also the “grey zone” of the Holocaust, when Jewish victims became coerced perpetrators in the camps – Arkady played a role in the Sonderkommando.
But if you’re looking for a profound consideration of the Holocaust, such as Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, you won’t find it here. The characters, lacking all interest in redemption, are also a significant deterrent to investment. The novel offers “thrills” in illicit sex scenes, deprivations summarily described and plot surprises. And there is a critique of the casual evils of the modern world. But the author risks trading on the horrors of Auschwitz, much as the anti-hero Adam does. KN
Hamish Hamilton, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 2, 2016 as "Liam Pieper, The Toymaker ". Subscribe here.