SEPTEMBER 19, 2014
“I DIDN’T WANT TO WRITE polite books because what I wanted to say was not polite,” Christos Tsiolkas said to a packed auditorium earlier this year. His presence on the stage was surprisingly friendly and charming; few of the curse words his readers were expecting to hear fell from his lips. His books are well known, since his debut nearly 20 years ago, for words like “cunt,” “wog,” “fuck,” “skip,” and “cock,” to name just a few. His fourth book, The Slap, propelled him from a respected but midlist author to an outright bestseller and overt provocateur. The story is a bit of a shock: after a parent at a suburban barbecue in Melbourne, Australia, slaps someone else’s child, the characters completely fall apart: they accuse each other, take each other to court, sleep with other people, and end up ruining one another’s lives. The story was, according to the media and even Tsiolkas himself, “the secret life of us without asphyxiating political correctness.” The impolite book went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
Now Tsiolkas returns with a new book that does just as much to challenge our easy acceptance of that same asphyxiation. He’s out to scorch Australia’s middle class again: after the country’s extraordinary successes at the Olympics, both in hosting the 2000 Games in Sydney and in seeing Ian Thorpe (“Thorpedo”) and Matthew Mitcham take the top medals, Tsiolkas could only have interesting things to say about Australia’s love of sports in his new book, Barracuda.
There is a certain joy in encountering the deeply emotional, impulsive qualities of Tsiolkas’s writing — an ethos that could perhaps be characterized as adolescent. But all adolescents become adults. Tsiolkas’s readers would be right to wonder: what happens when a maverick author becomes mainstream? When the shock of being impolite becomes expected?
Christos Tsiolkas became a household name in part because politeness had become stifling in Australia. To the 90 percent of the world living above the equator, the popular image of “down under” is awfully genteel. There is a wholesome, homespun quality to the pictures of Bondi Beach and blondes grilling on their barbies. Even their slang seems somehow charming: “Arvo!” to say “good afternoon”; “Macca’s,” when they want a burger from McDonald’s; “thongs” innocently referring to the flip-flops they wear to the beach.
Australia was founded as a prison for British convicts, whose diseases and conflicts subsequently decimated the indigenous population; this legacy led to our view of it as a Westernized and heavily Caucasian country in the South Pacific. Its image is a striking contrast to, say, the visibly native population of Hawaii. One almost wonders if “the tyranny of distance” — a phrase the brilliant Australian academic Geoffrey Blainey coined — has been the sole motivator for a uniquely Australian culture distinct from its British origins.
To that idea of a homogeneous, fair-skinned, clean Australia, Tsiolkas heaves a weary sigh.
“It’s a country not entirely sure of itself,” he told me over Skype.
He is immediately endearing. His olive skin and his name belie a Greek heritage. (Greek, incidentally, is his first language.) In his hometown of Melbourne, which has seen but not entirely assimilated a wave of immigrants from the Mediterranean, he would be called, sometimes jokingly, often derisively, a wog.
Asking Tsiolkas why Australians tend to look down on “wogs” — which is to say immigrants from Greece and other countries of the Mediterranean — turns into a history lesson. He explains that the White Australia Policy was instituted at the beginning of the 20th century, with the thinly veiled goal of excluding immigrants from every country but Britain and parts of northern Europe. Members of several ethnicities were deported, and those who wished to be admitted had to pass extremely difficult language tests. The policy was only dismantled after World War II and wholly abolished in 1973; a sharp increase in industrialization and economic growth during that same time meant that droves of immigrants came to Australia, particularly from postwar southern Europe. They quickly formed the working class in the industries owned and operated by those who had benefited from the White Australia Policy, thereby exacerbating the class divide. The lines were drawn: on one side were the skips, on the other were the wogs — and everyone else.
Melbourne today is much more multicultural than it once was, and stands to overtake Sydney in size and diversity before 2050, but Tsiolkas is all too aware of how xenophobic Australian society can be. In this context, his books serve as weapons or middle fingers or spotlights — each of them impolitely written out of this polite struggle to name the other, to make the foreign personal, to provoke compassion.
Tsiolkas was 30 years old when he published his first book, Loaded. At a slim 151 pages, it’s a monologue that takes us into the thoughts and struggles of a gay Melburnian in the throes of drugs-, sex-, and adolescent-fueled anger. The entire book spans a single night spent dancing, sharing drugs, and cruising for and fucking the men interested in him. “I’m not a wog,” he insists to himself when a woman asks him. “I’m not sure what I am but I’m not a wog. Not the way she means.” And yet the main character, Ari, very much is an olive-skinned man who has internalized the heteronormative and gendered perspectives of his parents. The book is split into four sections — East, North, West, South — that take place in their respective parts of ’90s-era Melbourne.
The East is “the whitest part of my city, where you’ll see the authentic white Australian.” The North is
unrelentingly flat with ugly little brick boxes where the labouring and unemployed classes roam circular streets […] it is a little village in the mountains of the Mediterranean transported to the bottom of the southern hemisphere […] where the wog is supposed to end up.
The West has “refugees, the migrants, the poor, the insane, the unskilled and the uneducated,” and so the book ends in the one direction Ari considers home: South. It is where he finds “all the wog rejects from the North, the East, the West. Flushed out towards the sea.” As he moves from zone to zone, he becomes increasingly angry, increasingly at unease with how other people perceive him. “It’s not that I can’t decide; I don’t like definitions,” he keeps insisting to himself.
This resistance to labels, to any sort of evident normativity, reaches its crescendo in the book’s final pages:
I’m not Australian, I’m not Greek, I’m not anything. I’m not a worker, I’m not a student, I’m not an artist, I’m not a junkie, I’m not a conversationalist, I’m not an Australian, not a wog, not anything. I’m not left wing, right wing, center, left of center, right of Genghis Khan. I don’t vote, I don’t demonstrate, I don’t do charity. What I am is a runner. Running away from a thousand and one things that people say you have to be or should want to be.
Oddly enough, this catalog of labels serves to highlight Ari’s outsider status, but makes no mention of his homosexuality. That comes up elsewhere, when a woman yells “fucking faggot” at his friend:
Faggot I don’t mind. I like the word. I like queer, I like the Greek word pousti. I hate the word gay. Hate the word homosexual. I like the word wog, can’t stand dago, ethnic or Greek-Australian […] Wog, nigger, gook. Cocksucker. Use them right, the words have guts.
In Loaded, the words very much are loaded — both their sounds and their significance have the ability to alter and hurt their hearers. To a great degree, this is because of Ari’s self-loathing; there is something in him he wishes wasn’t there, and so he feels a need to make himself appealing. “Faggots love sleeping with me, they think they’ve scored a real man. Being a wog is a plus as well. I hate the Greek macho shit […] [but] the tougher the meat the bigger the sale.” If there isn’t quite a sense of logic to how Ari divides up what he is and isn’t, what he likes and doesn’t, it is because his perceptions and feelings are still rooted in a changing reality. He is on drugs, he is fueled by hormones, he is running from zone to zone toward the idea of home.
The entire book mercilessly drags its reader along on Ari’s trip, both physically and on drugs. It feels eerily honest, and in part this is because Ari reflects a great deal of Christos Tsiolkas’s own background and identity: its struggles and its anger are Tsiolkas’s own. It is no secret that Tsiolkas is gay — at this point, he has lived with his partner, Wayne van der Stelt, for nearly 30 years. But he wrote Loaded while their relationship was still young and Australia’s stance on outsiders of all sorts was a rather harsh one.
Accordingly, the path to publication wasn’t easy. Like most writers, Tsiolkas worked a long string of jobs, none of them paying terribly well, and carved out time for writing. He sent the manuscript for Loaded to a small gay and lesbian publishing house, which returned it despite liking his writing: “They found it racist and homophobic.” One member of that publishing collective, Sasha Soldatow, was intrigued by the manuscript and passed it along to Jane Palfreyman, who at the time worked at Random House’s Australia offices. A week later, she called Tsiolkas. “I had just recently returned from Perth, on the other side of the continent,” he tells me. “I remember being so overjoyed […] [and] so disbelieving that I kept repeating, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’ I think in the end Jane laughed and said, ‘Yes, of course I am bloody sure.’ I got off the call and just shrieked.”
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Loaded sold some 30,000 copies — a respectable number in a country of about 18 million people. She continued to publish his work over the succeeding decades; when she moved from Random House to Allen & Unwin two decades later, he made the move with her.
Palfreyman saw him through seven years of hard work. After mixed reception to his second novel, The Jesus Man, he wrote another sledgehammer of a novel, Dead Europe. “The novel was written at night, set in sombre and haunted spaces,” Tsiolkas wrote much later, and its darkness is pervasive. The book’s title was calculated to shock its skip readers; the first section was titled “Ante-Genesis” as a way of speaking outside the confines of the Bible. Even the first sentence warned readers that they were not in genteel territory: “The first thing I was ever told about the Jews was that every Christmas they would take a Christian toddler, put it screaming in a barrel, run knives between the slats, and drain the child of its blood.” Farther down the same page, the narrator says, “I knew then that it was make-believe,” but the first blow has already been struck. Dead Europe does not intend to show its readers any mercy.
Somehow, in spite of its provocations, in spite of its intentional antagonisms, Dead Europe pulls readers in. It interweaves two parallel stories: one of Isaac, an Australian photographer with Greek parents examining anti-Semitism in the old world of Europe; the other of Lucia and Michaelis — “the most beautiful woman in all of Europe,” and her husband — from before World War II to the novel’s 21st-century present. The two narratives alternate until, in the book’s final pages, they intersect in a horrifying climax reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis.
Dead Europe bares the truth of its title. The Europe it describes is clearly one inspired by the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars, which only ended six years before the book’s publication. “I [originally] conceived it as a work of nonfiction, an attempt to try and understand the convulsions of post-Communist Europe,” Tsiolkas explained by email. “But very quickly I realized that I was not enough of an historian or a philosopher to carry off a non-fiction work.” The freedom of fiction, paradoxically, has given his readers greater insight into reality. Europe’s capitals — Athens, Venice, Paris — may be portrayed as beautiful, but ugliness and decay abruptly rears its head in the novel’s descriptions. In Paris, Isaac and his cousin “waited at a filthy bus shelter that reeked of vomit and piss […] I looked down and saw a seeping mash of shit splashed across the bench.” In Venice, Isaac sees a memorial mural for the Jews killed in the Holocaust: “I closed my eyes and attempted to muster compassion. Or grief. Or shame. Anything, some damn emotion. I felt nothing.” He is accosted by a man, whose wife says: “They tore out my husband’s tongue for marrying an Arab. They blinded me for marrying a Jew.” And Greece itself holds few satisfactions for Isaac: “I was angered by their indifference to the sight of beggars and gypsies on the streets; I detested their sour disapproval of the new immigrants in their country.” When he tries to leave, his cousin gets angry before finally confessing: “Greece is dying […] this is Europe now.”
But that Europe, Tsiolkas maintains, has been dying for a long time. “As a child my father would keep me enthralled by telling me stories of his life in the village, of both the World War but also the Civil War that followed,” Tsiolkas said when I asked him about the novel. “His stories were always full of ghosts and vampires (the village is said to be haunted by a vampire). I started to try and write in that voice I first listened to as a child, a voice that is savage and folkloric and beautiful and cruel all at the same time” — and so a story of “another of the ‘deaths’ in Europe, the death of the peasant class, a class eliminated by first the world wars and then by the collapse of communism” became possible.
In this maelstrom of death, sex stands out. Gay sex is normalized as we watch Isaac flirt with and bed several other men, in spite of having a boyfriend back in Australia. He does have limits: “Only Colin fucks me,” he tells a Greek man after leaving his cousin’s wedding. But as we get deeper into Dead Europe, sex becomes less erotic and more thanatotic. There are hints of vampirism: “I could not climax […] [but when] I imagined blood I felt waves of excitement and my thrashings became delirious.” Much later in the novel, Isaac approaches a woman for sex — an unexpected turn into bisexuality — but the ensuing passage reveals that he is intent on something else: her menstrual blood. When the passage was nominated for The Guardian’s Bad Sex Award, it seemed like a clear frontrunner. But it lost to David Guterson, most likely because Tsiolkas’s unpleasant writing served a purpose rather than simply being bad writing. As a gay writer, his lack of interest in female anatomy is certainly evident. Tsiolkas is not vilifying sex — it would not fill his books so thoroughly if he thought ill of it — but he is trying to force us to understand his protagonist’s new obsessions, which are only distantly related to physical intercourse.
Dead Europe opens with a controversial discussion of blood sacrifice; its jacket copy speaks of “blood lust, blood libel, and blood revenge”; its two storylines are unified by bloodlines and blood being spilled. Its vast geographic and historical scope is a striking contrast to the single tracking shot of Loaded; the novel carries the weight of the seven years it took Tsiolkas to write it. “I was outraged by the hypocrisy of Europe on one hand patting itself on the back and saying that it would never allow anti-Semitism to flourish again while at the same time allowing [Muslim migrants and refugees] to become suspect and marginalized,” Tsiolkas explained to me. “It was this outrage that dictated the vehemence and venom in the novel. […] I wanted to shock, I wanted the reader to feel unsafe.” Critics were awed: the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Book Review ran glowing reviews. A year later, the book won the Book of the Year award from The Age. When Macquarie University — publisher of Australia’s leading dictionary of English — and PEN Center collaborated on their Anthology of Australian Literature, Tsiolkas was represented with an excerpt from Dead Europe. He seemed well on the path to canonization as an important minority writer in Australia. In an interview with The Age upon winning the award, he mentioned that his next project would take on “the ramifications among a group of friends of a slap administered to a three-year-old by a non-parent.” He underscored: “It will be more serene.”
He could not have been more wrong. Tsiolkas is deeply political and an activist, but when he rooted his criticisms within the world of Melbourne’s middle-class suburbs and its barbecues, the country erupted. He took a minor, even funny incident from his own life, which he described in The Guardian “a barbecue at my parents’” —
[…] A friend’s young son was playing at my mother’s feet as she was rushing around her small kitchen. She kept telling him to stop, to take care, but he was an energetic three-year old and at one point he opened up a cupboard and upset pots and saucepans all over the kitchen floor. My mother, exasperated, turned around, lifted the boy and gave him the most gentle of smacks on his bum. His reaction astonished us all: he placed his hands on his hips, looked up at my mother and said, “Don’t! No one has the right to touch my body without my permission.” My mother took a step back and then said, “You naughty, I smack you.” Then she lifted the boy up and gave him a hug. Everyone in the kitchen, and that included the boy’s mother, fell about laughing.
and transmuted it into a moment of violence, in the pivotal moment that sets the narrative of The Slap in motion:
[Hector] saw Harry push past all of them and grab at Hugo. He lifted the boy up in the air, and in shock the boy dropped the bat.
‘Let me go,’ Hugo roared.
Harry set him on the ground. The boy’s face had gone dark with fury. He raised his foot and kicked wildly into Harry’s shin. The speed was coursing through Hector’s blood, the hairs on his neck were upright. He saw his cousin’s raised arm, it spliced the air, and then he saw the open palm descend and strike the boy. The slap seemed to echo. It cracked the twilight. The little boy looked up at the man in shock. There was a long silence.
The nearly 500 pages of The Slap radiate outward from this pivotal event. Eight chapters reveal the viewpoints of eight different narrators present at the barbecue: Hector, a father of two and the host of the barbecue; Aisha, his wife who works as a vet; Anouk, her friend and a scriptwriter for a soap opera; Manolis, Hector’s father; Harry, Hector’s cousin and the man who slaps Hugo; Rosie, who is Hugo’s mother and presses charges against Harry; Connie, a young worker at Aisha’s vet office who has an abortive affair with Hector; and Richie, Connie’s friend who holds another secret and gets slapped at the book’s end. “[Akira] Kurosawa’s Rashōmon was a direct influence on the structure,” Tsiolkas wrote to me; the chief difference is that while Kurosawa revisited the exact same story and timeline from multiple perspectives, Tsiolkas moves forward in time with each character through several months from the barbecue and the eponymous slap.
There is an element of Greek tragedy in Tsiolkas’s conceptions of his characters — in the sense that protagonists are rarely wholly pure, and a stain almost always becomes an undoing. In contrast to his earlier novels — Loaded’s Ari was already a self-loathing adolescent; Dead Europe’s Isaac was infected from the outside — each of the main characters of The Slap becomes his or her own undoing. Lust and passion are the active forces here, most visibly in Harry’s heat-of-the-moment slap. And a disturbing trend becomes clear: nearly every character is in an affair or wants to be in an affair. If characters are married, they want to feel free again; if characters are beautiful, they want to live without being controlled; if characters are young, they want to have some control of their own. Everybody drinks, more than they probably should. Characters smoke and say they want to quit smoking, or have already quit and accept another cigarette anyway. But the difference between Greek tragedy and this novel of Greek immigrants and their Australian descendants is that reality does not provide the same neat closure that classical tragedy did. People suffer indignities, but they must endure. Life goes on.
It is remarkable that Tsiolkas chooses not only to focus on the 30-somethings (and 40-somethings) at the barbecue, but also to bring in the viewpoints of Hector’s father Manolis and two teenagers present at the barbecue. In so doing, he expands his perspective from his own age group — he was 43 years old when the novel was finally published — toward the younger generation that will succeed, that will struggle with the same problems that his own generation has, and toward the older generation, which has surprising reason to castigate the younger generation. By pulling back into the past and into the old rituals and rhythms of prewar Greece, Manolis provides a different perspective that was very much lacking in Tsiolkas’s earlier novels. Dead Europe and Loaded were rebellions against the past, against a heritage that had become suffocating. And in The Slap, this heritage weighs down on its characters — Hector and Aisha, for example, argue over whether or not to accept a family vacation back to Greece — but ultimately its moral codes and its strong emphases on family and loyalty provide a template that The Slap’s characters sorely miss. The past may not be such a foreign country, but they do things differently there. And the present? It’s not a very pretty place. Which only leaves the future, which in Connie’s and Richie’s hands seems cautiously promising. There are no easy answers offered by these two teenagers, but there is reason to have hope.
Tsiolkas has always been a provocateur, but The Slap struck a nerve with its readers in a way that his previous books hadn’t. Perhaps it was because the book took place in a territory familiar to them all — the backyard barbie — or perhaps it was because it so casually and openly probed issues of racism, of respect and propriety and xenophobia on every level that had heretofore been swept under the rug. The White Australia Policy had been dead and buried for decades by the time The Slap came out, but its aftereffects lingered. “What had got them into the situation was that a stranger, an animal, had hurt their child,” Hugo’s father thinks to himself; he equates Harry’s foreign heritage with his animalistic actions. In another part of the book, Harry doesn’t even have the courtesy to keep his thoughts to himself: “Your child deserved it,” he says to Hugo’s parents. “But I don’t blame him. I blame his bogan parents.” The word has little currency outside Australia, but within its borders, “bogan” cuts to the core: it is as judgmental there as “redneck” might be in the United States. The book’s explosive ending offers little balm to its inflamed readers; everybody moves forward, but nobody is much better in the aftermath of a single afternoon.
Even after the moderate success of Loaded and Dead Europe, Tsiolkas had still been working different jobs; his eight years working at a veterinary clinic directly informed his character Aisha’s work in The Slap. But after the breakout success of the novel, he suddenly found himself in the enviable position of being able to live off his books. “It was a strange and new experience,” he told me. “There’s a very different outlook you have on life once you have some degree of financial security.” Even more so as The Slap became a hotly watched miniseries on ABC (which stands for Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not American Broadcasting Company) and was published in other countries around the world. Colm Tóibín co-opted the UK rights for his small publishing house and found himself with a runaway bestseller on his hands. The book sold even more copies as it was longlisted for the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom — more copies, in fact, than any of the other longlisted titles that year.
His American editor was every bit as enthusiastic. “Christos was one of the first authors I got to publish myself at Penguin,” Alexis Washam said. “He’d been racking up awards, and somehow nobody else had made a bid on him.” She waxed poetic about how charming and kind he was. But, I wondered, would a book about wogs and bogans resonate with an American audience? In England, at least, they say “wogs” too (although it emphasizes even darker skin tones there). She had the answer already:
He’s writing about emotions and struggles that I feel are extremely universal. The particular words might change from country to country — from state to state, even — but on the whole, Christos is such an empathetic writer that he’s able to find something that readers halfway around the world can relate to without any trouble.
The loyalty that Manolis champions in his chapter of The Slap is a trait that Tsiolkas shares. As well as following Palfreyman from one Australian publishing house to another (and dedicating The Slap to her, declaring her “sui generis”), he followed Washam to a new imprint of Random House named Hogarth. It was dedicated to provocative fiction from around the globe — in other words, he had followed Washam to a perfect home for his work.
Success had been an unexpected but wonderful thing for him. It was a vindication of his decision not to write polite books. But it was also paralyzing, to some degree. The allure to repeat what worked can prove too strong. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours was followed by the awfully similar Specimen Days; Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was not improved by Closing Time. And, to take an example much closer to Tsiolkas’s vantage point, the shocking originality and violence of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero and American Psycho still eclipse the repetitive and metafictional tricks of his later books, from Lunar Park to Imperial Bedrooms. But somehow Tsiolkas was able to take his fears and transmute them into a book that goes in a wholly new yet satisfying direction for him.
He did this by directly tackling his blessing and curse: success. “I wanted to really look at the effect of success on a human being — and especially when you don’t succeed,” he said over Skype. “I already knew I cared about Australia and wanted to look at it through another lens. We really are passionate about sports here. So that makes it very attractive to examine success and failure through the lens of rugby or cricket or —” he nodded “— swimming.”
The original Australian cover of Barracuda is seemingly innocuous. It is tinged teal, and shows a teenage swimmer in the water, his face half in and half out of the liquid. It is a moment I have seen hundreds and thousands of times as a lifeguard: the moment during a freestyle stroke when the swimmer turns his head and takes a quick breath before his arm comes back down into the water, and his head sweeps downward as well. The contrast is a bit harsh; the eyes and mouth are darker than I would expect in a daylight-filled swimming pool.
“It’s actually a surprisingly dark book,” Washam observed when I asked her about Barracuda. I nodded in momentary puzzlement: Loaded had been dark in its rage against political correctness; Dead Europe had been dark in its indictment against the past and its demons; and The Slap had been dark in its observations of the middle class’s corruptions. But my puzzlement was because Barracuda was dark in a different way. It looked at where one person had gone astray — but then it did something different from Tsiolkas’s other books. He did not leave his characters ruined. In the years after The Slap, Tsiolkas stayed in touch with the crime writer Angela Savage. He ultimately dedicated Barracuda to her because she observed: “You know, Christos, humanism is really important to you, the question of how to be good, but you haven’t dealt with it upfront in your writing.” Empathy has never been absent from Tsiolkas’s writing — even Harry, the perpetrator of The Slap, gains some sympathy in the chapter he narrates — but he has often remained an observer, and chosen to explore descents and collapses. To write about a return to order, about reparations, was a new direction for him.
Barracuda was a challenge for him in many ways. Not only did he write about a character who would be redeemed, but he did so in a decidedly nonlinear way. He nodded with a wry chuckle when I drew a comparison to the narrative structure of Memento. “I used white cards as if I were plotting a movie,” he said in a conversation with his friend, and indeed there is something cinematic in the jump cuts he makes between different time periods and events.
The entire book centers around Danny Kelly, whose life is traced out in two main narrative strands. In the first, set in Melbourne’s working-class neighborhoods, the main character is a teenaged Danny, or, as his Greek family nicknames him, Dino, and he is sent off to a posh school — all-blond, white-smiled beneficiaries of the White Australia Policy — that he immediately and derisively calls Cunts College. In the second narrative, it is many decades later in Scotland and the first-person narrator goes by Dan. The two timelines leapfrog past each other throughout the two sections: the first called “Breathing In,” the second “Breathing Out”; keeping track of who does what, when, becomes an increasingly heavy mental burden until, in the final 100 pages, everything starts to fully align and the story comes into focus.
It comes as no surprise that Danny is gay, but as with Loaded and Dead Europe, there is no coming-out narrative. There is a struggle to accept one’s own sexual proclivities in the face of oppressive social norms, but it is less pronounced here. (Sex, though, takes center stage as it has in every one of Tsiolkas’s novels. So many acts are explicitly described, often humorously, that one almost wishes English had a larger slang vocabulary for the penis.) The real provocation here is Danny’s presence as a wog at a largely skip school; it was so expected by Tsiolkas’s readers that one satirical piece in The Guardian not-so-mockingly said, “Everyone gasped at Christos’s boldness in challenging the racism in Australian society so directly.” And yet it shapes Danny Kelly’s early experience. When he succeeds, it is against the expectations of the other swimmers. When he hears his teammates shouting out a nickname, he wonders, “Was this an insult? Had it all been planned?” — before realizing that he has somehow garnered their respect, and earned the nickname Barracuda. In this moment of the book, Tsiolkas’s ability to craft shining prose comes to the fore:
He was kicking. Barracuda. Breathing in. Fierce. The water parted for him. Barracuda. Breathing out. Fast. The water shifted for him. He breathed in. Barracuda. The water obeyed him. Dangerous. He breathed out.
We know early in the novel that the grown-up Dan Kelly, living in Scotland with his partner, has spent time in jail and barely goes into water nowadays. One of the many mysteries propelling us through Barracuda is what exactly Danny Kelly did. He won just about every race, he outpaced all his classmates at Cunts College, and yet he never competed in the Sydney Olympics. Danny Kelly, both in his younger and his older iterations, is a character so thoroughly described as to command sympathy. And because success was an omnipresent question as Tsiolkas worked through numerous drafts of Barracuda, the stain that undoes him is appropriately Greek in origin: hubris.
It has been illuminating to watch Christos Tsiolkas’s protagonists grow up alongside him, from Loaded’s teenaged Ari and Dead Europe’s 35-year-old Isaac to the late-30s milieu of The Slap and now an equally old man interspersed with memories of his younger self. But there are also adolescents in every one of Tsiolkas’s books, sometimes as main characters and sometimes as embodiments of what the protagonists wish for. Why is the embodiment of adolescence so recurrent?
It certainly would chime with a fundamentally adolescent quality to Tsiolkas’s perspective on the world, one where rationale and restraint are short-circuited by impulsivity and inquisitiveness. Which is not to say that Tsiolkas is in any way immature. His concerns and interests are so deeply rooted in the politics and justice — as his feature-length essay for The Monthly on Australia’s disdain for asylum-seekers indicates — but his choice to channel these frustrations through the conduits of adolescence makes his writing far more appealing to readers who might struggle through Patrick White or Christina Stead. Class matters, and race matters, and sexuality very much matters — but people, more than anything, matter.
If Tsiolkas’s thematic concerns and his expressions are fundamentally adolescent, in the same way now as in his first book nearly 30 years ago, does that mean he has somehow stayed ageless while his works of art have aged — a living, Australian Dorian Gray setting to paper all the sex that Oscar Wilde suppressed from his novella? It is an appealing idea, but Tsiolkas is much more complex and multifaceted than Wilde’s allegorical persona. He may be an adolescent in some ways, but he tempers this energy and emotion with the steady eye and hand of an artist and an adult. None of his teenagers are wholly alone; each one is deeply embedded within a family unit, and his novels after Loaded contrast teenagers to the adults and the world around them, in which they become increasingly contextualized — and even minimized. Tsiolkas may say that he wants to write impolite books, but he knows how to be impolite politely.
“What drives you to care so much about these characters? How do you find the empathy?” I asked Tsiolkas over Skype. It was the end of a very long conversation, and he put his face in his hands for a minute before giving me his trademark toothy grin. Then he answered: “Why wouldn’t I find that empathy?”
In Barracuda, especially, that empathy comes out in full force. Hubris may be Danny Kelly’s downfall — an ego overinflated by the moniker “Barracuda.” But redemption is possible. When success quickly transforms into failure, it humanizes Danny Kelly and forces him to burrow into his own mind and identity. He no longer has the luxury of differentiating himself from everyone else; this trick has now turned against him. And as Danny starts to become Dan, to become this man deeply engaged with the people around him and their own complicated lives, we glimpse how Tsiolkas was able to do that himself, even without having to fail. With The Slap, he knew he could no longer thrive on being a provocateur in his books, on simply writing what was not polite. Even in his most passionate moments, he has been deeply faithful to those who have stood by him: to his partner Wayne, to Sasha Soldatow — who championed Loaded and co-wrote Jump Cuts with him — to Jane Palfreyman and Alexis Washam among his editors in every country, to his original Australian readers. This faithfulness, it would seem, has served him well. It has in many ways been more valuable than his recent success.
Near the end of Barracuda, its protagonist wonders: “was he — Danny Kelly, Psycho Kelly, Danny the Greek, Dino, Dan, Barracuda — was he a good man? He needed to answer that first, and then all else would fall into place.” Being a good man is distinct from being successful. It requires a different way of evaluating oneself. It comes as no surprise, then, that this shift in thinking provides Barracuda’s emotional trajectory — from success to goodness, from competition to compassion, from exteriority to interiority.
It is a trajectory Christos Tsiolkas has made himself as he has become an elder statesman of Australian literature. From the surprisingly warm sales of Loaded to the violent controversy of The Slap, from the aggressive portrait of a Melburnian adolescent to an empathetic gaze upon Australian sport and competition — in so many ways, Tsiolkas has continually challenged himself, expanded upon his previous efforts, and made a body of work that succeeds both in drawing in new readers and giving voice to what is not polite. He has not so much changed as he has deepened. His latest novels bear the same passions as his earliest, but they resonate with a literary force that could hardly be called adolescent. And now he packs auditoriums with fans who smile as he articulates that passion: “What I wanted to say was not polite.” Even in becoming mainstream, he has remained a maverick — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.