Category Archives: Tsiolkas Christos

Barracuda (2013) – Christos TSIOLKAS

Very few sports novels are actually about sport, and Barracuda is no exception. Recent discourse in Australian literary circles has focussed on how to better promote the excellent work done by female writers in this country. Barracuda is a slap in the face to this trend—more than any novel I have read recently, this is a novel that interrogates what it means to be a man. How do you go from being a man in your prime, a man perfectly sculpted to take part in the ultimate masculine challenge to man reviled for the very things that make you who you are?

All of this is embodied in Daniel Kelly. Danny is the misfit at his private school—placed there on a sport scholarship, he is hated by his teammates because he is better than then, even though he is poorer, and much less white. But while he is being bullied mercilessly in the classroom, he is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the pool. He is the Barracuda, mercilessly beating everyone that gets in his way. The disconnect between his in-pool and out-of-pool selves is unsurprising, but the vast distance between the two is.

Out of the pool, Danny’s weakness is his crippling self-doubt. and I cannot help but wonder how many other athletes suffer a similar affliction. Danny’s self-worth is so intrinsically tied to how he performs in the pool, he quite literally cannot imagine a life in which he cannot compete with the world’s best. There would be nothing else for him. To see a man try and claw his way back to having any kind of functional self-respect is a fascinating journey, and one Tsiolkas treats with deftness and dignity.

There are, of course, no excuses for what Danny does to his friend (think Nick D’Arcy on a bad night). At that point, he embodies everything that is wrong with Australian sports culture, particularly in respect to way we build up young men (I use that word deliberately) to succeed. And so, in parallel with this story of the Fall is a story of redemption, of a broken man attempting to find himself. The internal has become external as Danny becomes a drifter, floating through the world, trying desperately to find a role for himself in a world that has no time or space for losers.

I always image people who came to Christos Tsiolkas’ work via The Slap get something of a shock when they decide to dip into his earlier work. Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe are glorious novels, unlike anything else in the Australian canon, but they are intense, in-your-face works that force the reader to re-evaluate a great many of their opinions about contemporary Australia. The big question I wanted answered when I opened Barracuda was this: which way would Tsiolkas go this time? Would he continue the careful examination he began in The Slap of contemporary Australia, or would he return to his wilder youth?

I can’t help but feel that Barracuda is Tsiolkas defanged. There is no question that he is an excellent examiner of the contemporary Australian psyche—indeed, I can think of no other. But Barracuda is another step towards the mainstream. The scenes designed to shock are no longer shocking (particularly the sex scenes, which seem crowbarred in just for shock value), the barbs aimed at upper-middle-class white Australians seem to be just a little bit less sharp.

Barracuda is not Christos Tsiolkas’ best novel. But even when he’s having an off day, he forces us to think. How do we deal with the internal pressures we place on ourselves to satisfy the wants and demands of the many? I think Tsiolkas is ultimately hopeful in this respect: he sees paths of redemption for all of us who have done something terrible, for those of us who struggle to find our place in society.

Oh, and that last chapter? Perfection.

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Loaded (1995) – Christos TSIOLKAS

Now that everyone’s going crazy over The Slap, I figured this was a good a time as any to finally finish off Tsiolkas’ backlist. Which is weird, ’cause this is his first novel, meaning I’ve pretty much done it backwards. There you go, though. This short novel was the perfect escape from my exams, which will be over in two days!

Ari is nineteen, not at university, and not in a job. He lives (sometimes) with his parents, and goes out at night to get wasted, stoned, and fucked. He’s not proud that his parents are Greek, but he doesn’t think of himself as Australian, either. He’s tired and frustrated with the world, but lusts after almost everyone he sees. His nights are full of clubs, parties, sex in club toilets, and his friends are just as gone as he is.

It’s interesting to plot Tsiolkas’ career as a writer, having now read everything. This novel is full of anger and frustration, and it’s nice to see that he’s calmed down a bit – though it’s clear that much of it still remains. While family relationships are vital in The Jesus Man and The Slap, here, they are simply degrading and unimportant. Ari seems to hate his parents, and the feelings are, though not fully returned, mutely mutual. There is this constant deconstruction of the family throughout Loaded – Ari’s parents are clearly no good, his friend Johnny’s dad sleeps in the same bed – and so young people are forced to look to each other for company. Well, each other, and gratuitous amounts of drugs.

This novel feels like one big trip. Not that I have any experience in this field. But still, I imagine were I to take drugs, my nights would be like two thirds of this novel. In fact, it’s not until you get to the final section that you realise all this crazy stuff that Ari gets up to takes place in the short space of one night. Insane! I actually lost count of how many people he got off with, and just how many pills he’d taken. Instead of plot, this novel reads more like a giant angry rant at the world, with Ari constantly telling us how shit his life is. But that’s ok – the writing is brilliant, and the novel has so much pent-up energy, it doesn’t feel particularly depressing. There’s so much feeling, so much – well, enthusiasm’s not the right word – fervour, maybe, that you can’t help being drawn into totally believing him to be correct. It’s damning indictment of modern society, but it’s all the better for it. There’s no wallowing in self-pity – just a reason to go out and get fucked.

Even though this novel is short, it packs quite a punch. There’s so much hatred and anger (and drugs) in here to fill a novel ten times its size. And yet, that’s what makes it so powerful. There’s little plot to speak of, the secondary characters are intresting, though uninspired, but Ari and his philosophy are genuinely enthralling. It’s amazing that one young man can find so much dislike for the world around him, but there you go. There is almost nothing he seems to find beauty in, and that’s what makes this novel so brilliant. It’s almost as though Tsiolkas has taken Eliot’s philosophy – the degradation and destruction of the modern world, where morality and humanity have been pushed into the dirt – to a contemporary audience. The story he tells is dirty, gritty, and altogether unpleasant, but it is brilliantly focused and on message. I think this may be my most favouritest Tsiolkas novel. That’ right, you heard it here first.

Also, sorry for the swearing in this post. I guess Tsiolkas will have that effect on you.

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The Jesus Man (1999) – Christos TSIOLKAS

After reading The Slap last year, and having read Dead Europe a few years ago, I figured I’d splurge and buy Tsiolkas’ other two earlier novels. The Jesus Man is probably the least known of the bunch, with Loaded being famous for being turned into the film, Head On, which caused quite a stir when it came out. If you’ll excuse the pun.

The men of the Stephanos men all have their problems. Artie, the father, is half-Greek, half-Italian, and struggles everyday with the problems this can cause. Dom, the oldest, had a small problem in his teens. And Lou, the youngest, feels the gap of being young. It is the middle child, however, that has perhaps the most problems. For this is Australia in the early 90s, and Tommy has lost his job. As his life spirals out of control, will everyone survive?

I know everyone is still raving about The Slap, but you can clearly see where Tsiolkas has come from, and his earlier novel seems to be almost a warm-up to his later stuff. Structurally, The Jesus Man is quite similar to The Slap, in that Tsiolkas manages to create a story from several different points of view. Here, each of the four Stephanos men have a story to tell, and together they build up a history of the latter half of the 20th century in suburban, working-class Melbourne. From the Whitlam incident, right up to the first election of John Howard, we see these people go about our lives as governments come and go, and ignore the working-classes. While The Slap focuses on the middle-classes and their very 21st century worries, this novel gets inside the heads of the working-classes of the time – we see their frustration at what is going and, and their inability to do anything about it.

This may be the novel’s main point – we are unable to control what goes on around us, but we should, indeed must, rise above all the things around us, and stay sane. And when Tommy realises that he cannot do this, he spirals out of control very quickly, and it is not pretty. Once fired, he spends his time in his unit, drinking, jacking off, and not showering. And when this depression comes to a head, he damages more people than he could ever imagine. It will have consequences that will shake the Stephanos family for years to come. Without getting into details (I wouldn’t want to spoil it), I do think Tsiolkas loses it a bit in the middle of the novel. Tommy’s descent into madness is fine up to a point, but it very quickly becomes disorientingly badly written, and the language is a little hard to wade through. We’re never sure what is quite going on (which I’m sure is the point), but when Tommy commits his fatal act, it all becomes very clear. His actions are disgusting and repulsive, and I don’t think they are ever really justified. He really has become depressed, and mad.

Tsiolkas really comes into his own in the final section, narrated by Lou, the youngest brother of the family. As with the gay teenager in The Slap, Lou is the character that Tsiolkas clearly ‘is’ in the novel, and as such, this section flies. It really is truly great, with echoes of future works by Tsiolkas. Love, lust and ethnicity are once again topics that Tsiolkas thrives on, and he does his best work when he’s looking at how each of these fit into contemporary Australian society. As such, he doesn’t pass up the opportunity to put Pauline Hanson (aptly nicknamed ‘The Racist’) into the forefront of the novel, making her views a vital part of his discussion of these things. She was, of course, a truly inflammatory political force, and as such, the views of the characters become exaggerated and passionate. Good stuff.

I wasn’t intending this to be a comparison to The Slap. My bad. But it is interesting to look at this novel in the greater scheme of Tsiolkas’ career. Clearly, there are themes that he will always return to. But does this make his books all the same? Hardly. Each one is different enough to make each one worth it. Go for The Jesus Man, it’s different to The Slap, and in a good way.

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The Slap (2008) – Christos TSIOLKAS

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a little while – since it came out, in fact. I’ve read one of Tsiolkas’ earlier novels, and while it was pretty confronting, it remains in my mind. Something clearly worked. So has he created another memorable story?

At an innocent summer barbeque, where friends and family are hanging out and relaxing, one event will shape and change the following year for eight people in ways they had not imagined. One slap will force friends and family to draw lines, to take sides, and to question who they are, and question beliefs of their own.

Tsiolkas truly is one of the best novelists this country has at the moment. His ability to be pitch-perfect on so many topics and ideas is astounding, and whether this is because he has such a unique background, or because he’s just has an amazing imagination is not important. He manages to create characters that are real, believable, and above all, sympathetic. Each and every chapter, you totally understand what and why these people are thinking, and each truly believes they are totally justified in their actions. And while each reader will take their own side of the debate, this novel touches a part of Australian culture that is often skimmed over.

Just as in Steven Carroll’s Miles Franklin winner, suburbia becomes a place where different people come to live together, and while Carroll deals with gender roles, Tsiolkas deals with ethnicity as a vital part of the points of view of each of these characters – not surprising, considering his own background. And while the Greeks are the dominant ethnic group featured here, Tsiolkas presents us with an Australia that consists of white Australians, Indians, Greeks and more. This is the Australia that we have become, and the Australia that perhaps we will see more and more of in the future.

Each of the stories, while relating to the slap at the barbeque, are essentially separate short stories, each on dealing with the quirks and back story of each of these characters. There is continuity throughout the year, as each of these people try to come to grips with the emerging views of the people they thought they knew. I would have liked to have seen the last two chapters swapped around -  I think the symmetry of having the husband narrate the beginning, and the wife narrating the end would have been nice. Mind you, the last chapter does seem to be a kind of epilogue – the second last chapter (narrated by Aisha, Hector’s wife) does seem to bring the story to a close. I wonder, then, how much Richie, the character of the last story, is actually like Tsiolkas himself – Richie is a gay teenager who has just finished school, and is trying to deal with all of these things the best way he can. There are some touching chapters as well – Manolis, Hector’s father, becomes the voice of the older generations, the people who feel out of touch with the younger world, and don’t understand all the fuss that is going on. For Manolis, family and loyalty are everything, and he doesn’t understand that loyalty could present itself in other places. Even Rosie (the mother of the slapped child) managed to gain some of my sympathy in her story, despite my major disagreement with her course of action in response to the slap.

I really hope this book does wonders for Tsiolkas’ career. I think The Slap dilutes some of his earlier edginess, but in doing so, allows him to mellow out his characters, make them more accessible, and ultimately send his message to more people. Not that I am advocating dumbing down, or anything. The Slap is certainly more readable than his earlier work. But it is still very good – because Tsiolkas’ observations about what Australia is are totally spot on.

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