It’s interesting having read Tsiolkas’ first novel so recently to now read his fifth and most recent novel and see the common themes which he still carries through. ‘Barracuda’ is also about a teenage boy with a fluid sexuality rebelling against the world, yet it carries his story further than the protagonist of ‘Loaded.’ The central character of Danny is extremely ambitious and seeks to become an Olympic champion swimmer. However, his dreams are dashed leaving him bereft of purpose: “without my dream, I was just a hole, an absence, that’s all I was.” The novel charts his journey moving back and forth in time from his headstrong adolescent years training at a prestigious private school he hilariously nicknames “Cunts College” to his downfall and the long hard process of finding value in his life again. While I felt large parts of the first half of the novel was like treading water as it was mired in Danny’s arrogant belief in his own abilities, his growing maturity and deepening complexity really hooked me and kept me reading till the end.
I think what I find frustrating is that, despite trying to engage with issues of capitalism and this fragmented antagonistic society, Tsiolkas’ arguments don’t progress much further than an adolescent level. The stance which comes from this book and his first novel ‘Loaded’ feels very much like a teenager stomping his feet, calling out all of society’s problems and slamming the door instead of offering any solutions. The petulance is true in some parts of ‘Barracude’ as well: “let the world burn and choke itself in greenhouse gases: no one wants to give up anything, no one wants to sacrifice anything for anyone else.” Maybe this is because Tsiolkas chooses adolescents as protagonists for these two novels so he’s reflecting their character or perhaps the author himself doesn’t have the optimism to think beyond resolutions other than petulantly shrugging his shoulders and giving up. I wouldn’t be so bothered by all the harsh judgements being made about practically everyone in society if it didn’t come with a sense of entitlement and a smug feeling that the protagonist is better than everyone else. I think that’s why Tsiolkas’ writing feels so abrasive. Of course, these are sentiments really typical of teenagers and I don't feel it's necessary to like characters in books in order to appreciate them. In Danny’s case I know that his inflated sense of self is a sort of strategy for survival because he’s looked down upon by so many people at his college. Perhaps if the character was more self-deprecating in an endearing way I would feel more empathetic. I was drawn closer to him the more the book progressed and when he was humbled. Danny is harsh on himself. When his dreams of being a championship swimmer fizzle he struggles with issues of weight and self esteem. The book says a lot about the dangers of ambition. His discipline and single-minded goal left no room for his personality to become fully rounded. It takes a while to get there, but the journey is worth it.
Danny is a fiercely independent and solitary person. He finds great strength there, but it's a sign of immaturity that he refuses to engage with other people. Tsiolkas makes a striking remark when he observes “There was no loneliness in silence. Loneliness could be found in conversation, it lurked in words.” I can really sympathize with this statement in that I only feel really myself when alone and when in social conversation sometimes feel lonely and misunderstood. However, it feels like for Danny there is a lack of development and self-absorption that he shuts out people who love and believe in him. There are frequent scenes where someone is talking to him but he doesn’t even listen to what they’re saying. This changes slowly as he gets older and shows his development when he’s finally brave enough to at least try to listen and communicate. Similarly he’s often unable to say what he really wants to and holds in how he's really feeling. “Words. The words inside are not the words that come out into the world.” As a consequence he blocks people out with silence or pushes them away with violence. This partly has to do with his issues with language itself. Encouragingly it’s through reading that Danny is able to reconnect with the world through words. “Dan had discovered that he had been mistaken, that books did not exist outside of the body and only in the mind, but that words were breath, that they were experienced and understood through the inseparability of mind and body, that words were the water and reading was swimming.” He’s able to connect the process of reading with the vibrant enthusiasm for life he used to find when swimming. After this he really comes into himself and pursues what he truly wants.
Where the story comes alive the most are in short passages about Danny’s later job as a care worker or his time in prison which are interspersed with the main narrative of Danny’s teenage struggle for stardom. This line seems to sum up Danny's dilemma in the novel: “He couldn’t think how anyone but himself could be the hero of his own life, be he knew that he wasn’t a hero.” When he realizes that he's not the star he always believed himself to be he has to find a way to go forward. It felt to me like the book could have been cut down in places to remove some repetition and superfluous detail, but the story of Danny's struggle is moving and I admired the way the author told it moving back and forward in time to create a greater emotional impact. It's heartening to see a maturity having taken place between Tsiolkas' first novel and this new one.
Simon Savidge does an excellent interview with Tsiolkas about 'Barracuda' at You Wrote The Book! here: http://bookbasedbanter.co.uk/youwrotethebook/ywtb-christos-tsiolkas/