I have ummed and ahhed for quite some time about so much this week I feel a bit worn out. The news from Orlando has been horrific and I didn’t know if I should write anything and then every time I tried to it felt slightly trite, preachy or just wrong. Yet to say nothing as a member of the LGBT community also felt wrong. I then realised that a book I had been planning on sharing my thoughts on, Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods, unintentionally embodies all my feelings about everything that is going on in the world right now (including the awful murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in the UK today) that feels bonkers, saddening, anger inducing, hypo critic, dark, bigoted and wicked with the world. It looks at them and unflinchingly points out how vile and stupid these views are; how awful people can be and asks us to reflect and learn from that. In doing so it discusses things that are not for the faint hearted and this review will be too, you have been warned.
My mother is best known for giving blow jobs to Pete Best and Paul McCartney in the toilets of the Star-Club in Hamburg one night in the early sixties. She said Best’s penis was thicker, the bigger one, but that McCartney was the more beautiful. ‘Paul’s cock was elegant,’ she liked to say.
I did pre-warn you that Christos Tsiolkas’ writing can be pretty full on, that taken from the story The Hair of the Dog, so you can’t be forgiven for being shocked. Not that you would be that shocked if you have read any of his novels for which this is often part of the course. You can be forgiven for giggling though because, as is the case with many of the stories within Merciless Gods, the can be titillating but there is always a much darker and more daunting stink in the tail of the tale, quite literally.
In the fifteen tales that form Merciless Gods we look at revenge, homophobia, racism, old age, family feuds, love as it blossoms, love turning sour, death, grief, power, weakness and so much more. We also look at how men respond around other men, which I could write about at some length however Tsiolkas’ has his most heightened power when he is talking about injustice, prejudice or bigotry. One of the stories that depicts this most powerfully is in Sticks, Stones; where a mother hears her own son say something horrific to a girl in his school year who has learning disabilities. The shame, disgust and rage that flow within her at her own son and his words surprise her and then almost take control of her.
In fact rage, and what we do with that emotion, is quite common in these stories from moments like that to seemingly insignificant arguments between a couple holidaying in NYC, in the aptly titled Tourists, as they wander around a gallery/museum which lingers and festers into something much greater. Tsiolkas wants to try and understand fear and rage and why they cause people to act in some of the ways they do (which reminds me of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, another fantastic and important book propelled by fury) from the stupid to the utterly contemptible.
The title tale of the collection looks at this in a very clever way. In Merciless Gods a group of friends after a night of solid drinking decide to play a game. Instead of truth or dare this group of friends decide to share their best revenge stories, leading to a dreadful case of competition but also revealing some of the more sinister sides of the people that the others think they know, one becoming so shocking and awful (and described so gleefully) the group can never be the same again. A no holds barred look at how unhealthy revenge and grudges can be, which is also looked at in The Disco at the End of Communism where a brother realises to late he should have forgiven and forgotten much sooner than he did.
‘I’m really sorry for your loss.’
It was the expected phrase, it came from a stranger, but she said it with unforced sincerity and they were the first words since he’d heard of Leo’s death that brought home the finality of the event. His brother was no more. From now on there would only be past.
Before I make this all sound too morbid or relentless (I would recommend reading this collection a tale at a time every so often) there is lightness in here too. Saturn Return is a wonderful story of acceptance and embracing difference between a gay man and his father, the latter who is at the end of his life. See, that sounds really sad but it is so full of hope and beautiful you’ll be weeping for both reasons. That said Tsiolkas isn’t here to bring unadulterated joy to your life, you can get some hope and the occasional giggle (appropriate or not) from the text but there is a statement and a point to me made. You have a tale like Saturn Return and then you go to the opposite end of the spectrum again with Jessica Lange in Frances which looks at the terrible ways in which internal homophobia can eat away at someone who is themselves gay. This also leads to the homophobia in general, several of these tales look at that yet one particular story in this collection embodies it and thoroughly whacks you with the impact of it on both parties.
The story that has stayed with me for quite some time and now seems all the more pertinent is Porn #1, which is the first in three stories which feature porn in some way, often opposing the message in the previous one which I found fascinating. Anyway. In this story, after the death of her estranged son, a mother discovers that he starred in gay porn. This creates a huge set of dilemmas for her. There is the fact she wants to see her son alive again, admittedly in a weird way. There is the fact that she cannot believe that her son would really do this. Then there is the bigger part of it, the internalised homophobia within herself; the stereotypes she has of gay men and how it conflicts with the love of a child she gave birth to. Potent, complicated and thought provoking indeed.
Why does this feel so pertinent with regards to Orlando? No I do not think this has happened since and no I am not saying that any of those sadly lost in such a tragedy had homophobic parents. To me the mother symbolises both society and some thoughts towards LGBT people, after all this was a homophobic attack (as well as an act of terrorism, I don’t want to get into the debate on this one – suffice to say I believe an act of terrorism is anything that creates terror and fear in people which this has) and the root of homophobia is, somewhat ironically, the fear of the unknown or the different. It’s all about the sex bit really and the love bit which incites so much hate and I think this one paragraph looks at this with unflinching brilliance. I hope you would agree?
When she returned to her armchair, the same monotonous exertions were taking place. Her disgust had disappeared. She had expected that she would find the images foul, not necessarily because they were pornographic, but because they depicted sex between men. Yes, the actors had seemed effeminate and ridiculous when they were kissing or performing oral sex on one another. But now that the older man was sodomising the younger one, frowning in concentration as he pounded away at the prostrate body spread over the desk, it seemed all too familiar. It was shockingly normal.
I think I will end on that note. I know I haven’t spoken about all of the fifteen stories; I just wanted to concentrate on some in light of what has been happening. Suffice to say that Merciless Gods is a collection designed to unsettle you with its overall reality in some way in each and every story. Sometimes we need fiction like this. Stories and books that rattle and shake us, shocking us out of our pacificity and make us act. Not to the extremity of inciting hate, which is kind of the butt of the jokes in the story, but to stand up to hatred, embrace what is different and try to understand and welcome it. That is what the power of amazing fiction can do, often all the more so when it is uncomfortable and confronting. Thank goodness then for authors like Christos Tsiolkas who want to shake us out of our reading routines now and again, forcing us to look at what’s going on rather than escaping from it through the power of such concentrated prose.