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/

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Approaching a book like Loaded feels in some ways like revisiting my teenage self. Although he's not at all like me on the surface there is all the familiar adolescent cynicism and rebellion which is still so easy to taste. The story takes place over roughly a 24 hour period of partying, sex and drugs in Melbourne. The protagonist Ari is a 19 year old Australian boy of Greek heritage who would scoff at being so neatly classified as he detests labels. “You're either Greek or Australian, you have to make a choice. Me, I'm neither. It's not that I can't decide; I don't like definitions.” Of course, his resistance to classification and being slotted into place is something that he hypocritically does all the time when viewing other people. He continuously defines the people he meets by their nationality or sexuality or their class (his most sneering contempt saved the married, employed, suburban people he defines as Wogs). For Ari labels like this are curiously hollowed out: “I want to tell her that words such as faggot, wog, poofter, gay, Greek, Australian, Croat are just excuses. Just stories, they mean shit. Words don't stop the boredom.” Like many teenagers he feels exceptionally bored by everything and his time is spent more in trying eradicate the self rather than nourish it (with culture, building substantial relationships with friends/lovers or working). When out and about he frequently listens to music to be “caught in a magic world of harmony and joy, a truly ecstatic joy, where aching longing to be somewhere else, out of this city, out of this country, out of this body and out of this life, is kept at bay.” Rather than be truly present he wants to escape the world immediately around him which he perceives to be corrupt and mediocre.

In addition to listening to music and taking a large amount of drugs to remain constantly high Ari has a phenomenal amount of sex. Because he's young and cute sex with men and women is never too difficult to find in bars, alleyways or at house parties. Tsiolkas' descriptions of the way gay bars and cruising functions is eerily accurate: “we hesitate in our physical communions. Testing each other, not wanting to be the first to admit desire. The first to be the faggot.” The environment is charged with sex, but there is also a wariness for fear of being hurt and rejected as well as a masculine homophobic pride in not wanting to be the first to admit you want it. Ari's blunt attitude towards calling it like he sees it applies especially to the gay people he encounters. “No matter how many hours spent at the gym, no matter the clothes he wears, the way he cuts his hair, the way he talks, a gay man always reveals himself as a faggot.” Ari is nothing but savage in the way he condemns people for being what they are and looking down at them. Typical for a teenager. In doing so Tsiolkas also highlights a particular problem for many gay men who have to wrestle with concepts of masculinity they've inherited when growing up. Our sexual nature is often aggressive especially when having casual sex. At two different points when Ari has sexual encounters pleasure is taken and given only through violent grappling. This attitude is something which especially arises when cruising: “He was a momentary figure in my life. That's what I like about casual sex with men; there's no responsibility towards the person you fuck with.” The anonymity of the encounters gives a kind of freedom where raw desire can be expressed without apology or consideration for the other person. This is because contempt runs closely alongside that desire. Ari has internalized all the anger and disdain he feels from society and projects it back out. At one point he states “insults have formed me, they have nourished me. In latrines and underneath piers I have enjoyed pleasures that are made sweeter by the contempt I know they bestow on me in the eyes of the respectable world I abhor.”

Ari sees that a society based on capitalism creates a competitive environment where some flourish while others are winnowed out. Therefore he can't feel any sort of fellowship with those he judges to be Wogs: “It is impossible to feel camaraderie if the dominant wish is to get enough money, enough possessions to rise above the community you are in.” He stubbornly resists having any sort of direction or purpose in life because of this. Better to get fucked on drugs and sleep around than join in what he sees to be an inherently corrupt and flawed society. Worse than wishing to join in with it he'd rather see the human race eradicated for its competitive machinations: “Pol Pot was right to destroy, he was wrong not to work it out that you go all the way. You don't kill one class, one religion, one party. You kill everyone because we are all diseased, there is no way out of this shithole planet.” To side with a dictator and root for the annihilation of humanity is both a strong statement and an empty pathetic statement. It feels too easy to project your pain out to the world which you haughtily judge and wish to see it levelled out. This is the same logic applied in the story of Noah's Ark or any disaster movie like 2012; wash the world of its sins by eradicating the human race except for a few who survive through chance in order to start over. Except Ari would rather the population be brought down to zero. When contemplating the complex frustrating way society works it's really attractive to imagine these stories and I do love a good disaster movie. But it's not really useful when going forward day to day and it doesn't take into consideration the individual's private pain or their inherent right to live life the way they want to. Ari can't see past his contempt for the world because he is “loaded” - not just strung out on drugs, but loaded with history and all the injustices of society. So where to go from here? It's telling that Loaded only takes place over a single day. As an accurate portrait of a teenage grappling with these difficult issues Christos Tsiolkas does a superb job and the novel is successful in conveying Ari's intense painful feelings. I wonder what could happen to Ari next (although it's clearly not the author's intention to try to answer this and it's certainly not his responsibility to do so.) There is only so long Ari can continue having this attitude towards life before he loses all his opportunities. Either he'll run out of money, favours with his family and friends, get arrested or die from over-indulgence in drugs, violence and/or promiscuous dangerous sex. Or he'll have to compromise his ideas and turn into the kind of Wog he so despises. Ari makes it clear he'll take the former option. I like to think there is a middle ground which many of us tread where we can sustain ourselves while maintaining our ideals and a healthy amount of skepticism but also having a good time and not causing too much damage. Maybe I'm just dreaming.

I haven't read anything else by Tsiolkas yet. Based on his in-your-face themes I'm not surprised he's a controversial writer. Books with unlikeable characters are difficult for some people to read. I grappled with a lot of feelings reading this novel, but isn't that the point? In terms of presenting points of view in a painfully honest way I think he's extremely effective.

Tsiolkas talks here about his novel The Slap but elaborates on his feelings about Australia, masculinity, the middle class and violence which are all themes heavily dealt with in Loaded.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson