Category Archives: Christos Tsiolkas

Merciless Gods – Christos Tsiolkas

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.

9781782397274

Atlantic Books, 2015, paperback, short stories, 330 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

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.

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2016, Christos Tsiolkas, Review, Short Stories

Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

Often it can be that the best books are those which are so well written and immersive that even though you think you might not like the book for its subject matter you enjoy it regardless, sometimes even wanting to know all about the subject matter that might have at some point made you roll your eyes. Christos Tsiolkas’ fifth book Barracuda is one such book. I am not really interested in sports and the idea of a book about any sport even swimming, despite having an almost-niece who is training to future Olympic swimming standards, turns me off. Yet for all 500 plus pages of Barracuda I was completely hooked and compelled along, so much so I ended up reading it in three or four sittings.

Atlantic Books, 2014, trade paperback, 528 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

An initial description of Barracuda could simply be that it is a tale of an adolescent, Danny Kelly, who becomes one of the best swimmers in Australia (winning every race going and destined for the Sydney Olympics 2000) until suddenly he doesn’t. Once no longer the best so follows a very public fall from grace and the breakdown of Danny and who he believes he is which changes his life completely and Barracuda follows how he accepts this, or not as the case maybe. Failure isn’t an option until it becomes a reality. Yet Barracuda is so much more than that. It is a book about acceptance, pressure, class and I think at its heart belonging within your country, your family but most of all belonging within yourself.

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.

Tsiolkas does four pretty bloody marvellous things which make this such a compelling novel as we read on.  Firstly, he has created an incredibly interesting, complex and often unlikeable but very readable character in Danny Kelly and as importantly those around him and their relationships with him. Secondly he has constructed a book with a mystery at its heart, as we know early on that Danny has been to jail and left Australia for Scotland, which we are tantalised by and dreading and feel the need to work out the nature of. (Unlike several blogs/broadsheet reviews I am not going to give away this mystery/event.) This is added to by the structure of the book, which flits about between a narrative from the past and a narrative further in the future (pre-awful event and post-awful event if you will), and the visceral prose which are the third master stroke. The fourth is that this is also a novel exposes the, often rather ugly, underbelly of a country and the walks of life who inhabit it be they poor; like the Kelly’s, or rich; like the people who also inhabit Cunt’s College where Danny has been given a scholarship to for his gift. It is really rather epic in its scope, though as I mentioned the 500 pages rush by.

As I mentioned I found Danny incredibly fascinating and disturbing to read, yet as you read on you may not empathise with Danny but you do get an understanding of him and the fact really he is a lost person in society, almost literally a fish out of water. He comes from a working class immigrant background, yet he is thrown into the world of the ‘golden boys and girls’ and their social circle and families. Alienating himself from his friends but also his family and the sacrifices they have to make for his training. Along with all this he is also coming to terms with his sexuality as his competitive nature with Martin Taylor also becomes an obsession and something of a crush. I should here say I admired the fact that there is no big ‘coming out scene’ or anything so obvious, in fact it is never really commented on once he has a partner or even a factor then, it simply isn’t the be all and end all of Danny’s life it is just another aspect for him to sort out which I liked the reality of.

What this all creates is a lack of belonging, someone who really is lost in almost all aspects of their world. A scary place to be for anyone let alone someone going through adolescence where let’s face it no one really feels like they belong in their own body. Interestingly body obsession (too much fat, too much hair) starts to take over Danny, not only in himself but how he feels about those around him The only place Dan Kelly feels any sense of belonging is in the water, yet we understand that Danny’s belief is if you are the best, the fastest, the strongest you don’t need to belong, you are perfection and everyone should want to belong to you, bow down to you or in some cases be scared of you. If you don’t, watch out.

In the change-rooms, no one would look at him. But no one dared to mock him, no one dared say anything to him. He could just hear the murmurings behind him and around him, sensed the whispers first take form in Luke’s astonished and admiring stare. He could hear the words, Jesus, that Danny Kelly they whispered, That Danny Kelly. He’s a psycho.

With all these themes, questions and thoughts Barracuda is not the easiest of reads. I don’t mean that the writing is too lofty, literary or complex, some of the language is just rather confronting, with racial and homophobic slang throughout. The structure of the book, with its sense of mystery, also throws you occasionally as though it alternates between past and almost present there is no direct chronology; you have to put everything together at the end. Those factors along with the graphic nature of some of the scenes and unlikeable nature of the characters (which are often all too realistic) may also put some readers off but I am not sure those are the readers that Tsiolkas is after really. I think he wants to write a book which challenges readers and rewards them hugely once they have finished, contemplated and thought about it all.

 In fact books and their power and importance and how they should challenge us is also a theme in the book in a way. When Danny discovers literature, and a love of sorts, in prison he discovers Greene and ‘He understood the writer’s characters, sympathised with their weakness and cowardice, responded most to their refusal to find excuses for their failures.’ For me this is really what Christos Tsiolkas does with Barracuda. He takes a character who isn’t always likeable or reliable and who may be from the wrong side of the tracks, which most people like to hide away, and exposes them for the benefit of anyone who reads on, compellingly with warts and all. I admire Tsiolkas hugely for this novel and would highly recommend anyone who likes a read that provokes questions and disturbs – after all the best fiction should do that shouldn’t it and I think Barracuda is contemporary fiction at its finest.

For more insight into the book (if that review wasn’t long enough, ha, though I still don’t think I have done it justice) you can hear Christos and myself in conversation about Barracuda here. Who else has read it and what did you make of it? I am annoyed I didn’t review The Slap after I read it a few years ago, which other books of Tsiolkas’ would you recommend? What are your thoughts on confronting books and unlikeable, yet realistic, characters?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2014, Christos Tsiolkas, Review

Loaded – Christos Tsiolkas

Ever since having read ‘The Slap’ last year (a total of two and a half times), for The Green Carnation Prize which it was long listed for – it was also listed for some prize called the Booker in the same year, I have been meaning to read more of Tsiolkas’ novels. I was rather chuffed when the new re-issued Vintage edition popped through my letter box a month or so ago and promptly sat down with it. It was an interesting experience to see that what I loved about ‘The Slap’ was all there, along with some of the things that I didn’t. I do also quite like the idea of everyone who has read ‘The Slap’ and found it shocking giving ‘Loaded’ a whirl, oh what they would be letting themselves in for…

9780099757719

Vintage; 1997 (reissued 2011), fiction, 160 pages; kindly sent by publisher

The narrator of ‘Loaded’ is quite a fascinating one. Nineteen year old Ari lives in the city of Melbourne in Australia, he is Greek, he has no job, he is gay but secretly, he loves nothing more than going on massive drink and drug fuelled binges preferably with lots of random anonymous sex along the way. In fact from the first page where the novel opens with Ari masturbating with a massive hangover you pretty much know the story that you are getting here, well you think you do at least, as we follow him for the next twenty four hours.

Initially I didn’t think there was really any plot. In fact if I am honest I had written this book as one of those ‘lets write a really shocking book that gets me published even if it’s a cliché but everyone will read it anyway’ kind of novels. Yet as we read on between all the drug taking, drinking, etc there is a lot that this book is looking at and saying. One of the main senses you get is a sense of needing to belong, to be a part of something and yet rejecting that very thing at the same time.

“Are you proud of being Australian? The old mans question feels like an interrogation. The answer is easy. No, no way. Proud of being an Australian? I laugh. What a concept, I continue, what is there to be proud of? The whole table laughs at this and Ariadne gives me a hug. They forget me and continue their conversation.”

Its about fitting in and identity and in the case of Ari he doesn’t feel he fits in with the culture (because he is Greek and is Australian yet doesn’t feel he can be both) or with his sexuality (he hates the term ‘gay’, only sleeps with ‘men’ not ‘faggots’ and still sleeps with women when he is bored or drugged enough) and these things both add to his sense of feeling like he doesn’t belong in his family and that environment. In fact the family dynamic is another thing that Christos Tsiolkas looks at in ‘Loaded’ and this family is pretty dysfunctional. The parent’s of Ari, Peter and their sister Alex are volatile to say the least, one minute screaming obscenities at their children, next minute joining them in having a cigarette and an afternoon whiskey or three.

“If they were very angry they might come in, turn off the music, throw your CD or cassette against the wall. The screaming could go on half the night, wake up the neighbours, wake up the dogs. They called us names, abused us, sometimes hit us, short sharp slaps. It was not the words themselves, but the combination of savage emotion and insult, the threat of violence and the taunting tone that shattered our attempts at pretend detachment; it was Peter’s sly, superior smile, my sister’s half-closed eyes which did not look at them, my bored, blank face, that spurred my parents on to greater insults, furious laments.”

These were the moments when I thought Tsiolkas had the book spot on. We see other friends of Ari’s like Joe (very heterosexual) and Johnny (also known as Toula when in drag) and then through Ari’s sharing of their back stories get an insight into why they have become addicts, be it to the drink, the drugs or the sex. This was all brilliant and I could have read much, much more should Tsiolkas have written it. Instead sadly we get these marvellous moments of character and prose and then its back to the sex.

I don’t have an issue with sex in books; I’m not prudish, if there is a reason behind it. Twice in this book there is, one scene illuminates us to Ari’s self image issues and the psychology behind that and what he does to try and rectify it, the other proves a violent then emotional scene between Ari and someone who might just steal his heart. The latter was actually an incredibly effective piece of writing, so much sad in the violence and the silent post-coital cigarette after. Yet when we manage to have about six graphic sex scenes and several solo efforts within 150 pages I was just thinking ‘do we need this?’ It let the rest of the book down rather a lot.

‘Loaded’ is an interesting book. It is also a book where the effects of the wondrous prose is almost extinguished by the graphic scenes ‘set to shock’ and light up the readers indignation, or whatever effect was meant to be achieved. Take 85% of the sex away and you have a cracking and insightful read into the lives of some mixed up teenagers in the early 90’s. It would also be a really interesting angle of some of Australian life. Sadly with the sex left in some of that is lost, and so sadly was this reader. 6/10

Who has read any of Christos Tsiolkas’ other novels? Has anyone seen the film version of this called ‘Head On’, I did years ago, can remember little about it apart from it having the lead from Heartbreak High in it. I wish I had written about ‘The Slap’ after I read it the first time last year, after another read and a half I wasn’t so keen, in fact why didn’t I keep reviews on the computer instead of a notebook for all the Green Carnation submissions last year, drat’s! Isn’t it funny how sexing particular, be it of any orientation, can really put you off a book? In fact anything taken too far, in a graphic context, can almost ruin a book. Has this happened to you, would you care to share the novel and what put you off it?

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Filed under Books To Film, Christos Tsiolkas, Review, Vintage Books