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The Australian Face

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas cover
Barracuda
by Christos Tsiolkas
Allen & Unwin
528pp
$32.99 AU
Published November, 2013
ISBN 9781743317310

Ten years ago, David Marr stirred the pot with his Colin Simpson Lecture by claiming that ‘few Australian novels … address in worldly, adult ways the country and the time in which we live.’ As Sophie Cunningham among others pointed out at the time, plenty of Australian writers had, in fact, been doing this throughout the 1990s. But Marr’s speech expressed a specific view of what writing about contemporary Australia should be like. He wanted a literature of the mainstream – of ordinary life in Australia’s suburbs. The kinds of novels Cunningham and others had been publishing were about daily life in Australia, but they were about sex and poverty, unemployment and drug use. Christos Tsiolkas’ first novel, Loaded (1995), was among them. Ever since, Tsiolkas has been raising questions about what the Australian mainstream is, or might look like.

Barracuda continues the unlikely project, initiated by Tsiolkas’ fourth novel The Slap (2008), of bringing troubling ideas about the Australian mainstream within the view of a mainstream readership. Tsiolkas is better than anyone else writing in Australia today at thinking about the affective pull and the sharp edges of communities: ethnicity, family, friendship, class, nation. He dismantles the national idea of ordinariness without discounting the force of nation and belonging. He is also clear-eyed about the way hatred can hold communities together. He calls racism by its name, but is not ashamed to dig around in the experience of racism and its effects. He follows Miles Franklin’s lead in showing the absurdity of the idea that Australia is a classless society, or a place in which anyone can succeed if only they try hard enough.

Barracuda does all of this, perhaps more effectively than The Slap. Where The Slap presented an array of conflicting ethnic and class positions, Barracuda shows how these different positions can be in conflict within one person, one body – a less contrived but more exposing and problematic approach.

Its central character is Daniel Kelly, a working class wog who attends a a posh school on a swimming scholarship. The experience transforms the teenaged Danny into ‘Barracuda’: a ‘psycho’ for whom winning and violence are responses to the derision of his classmates and ways of justifying the sacrifices his family makes on his behalf. His experience at the school he calls ‘Cunts College’ – like that of his friend Demet when she goes to university – is one of social displacement and condescension. The result is an imperfect transformation that estranges him from his family and their values. This is what ‘social mobility’ looks like on the ground. Whatever triumph is there also holds within it complicated emotions: feelings of guilt, indebtedness and betrayal. Class or ethnic difference can only really be surmounted at Cunts College by spectacular success. Such kids cannot afford to be ordinary. In Danny’s case, winning presents itself as a straightforward solution to his problematic situation and the anger and resentment it has created within him. Winning for Danny means physical victory, within the pool and without. That this is no solution at all is apparent to us before it is to him, and the novel’s strength lies in its detailed charting of the painful process by which he finds another way to live.

Barracuda is a long novel told entirely from the perspective of a character who has, for the most part, very limited self-knowledge. This is particularly apparent in the sections describing Danny Kelly’s youthful ambition to become a swimming champion. These parts of the novel are so tightly focused through Danny’s perspective that his myopic view of the world is rendered baldly and with repetition: strongest, fastest, best. There is little nuance in the writing here, as there is little in Danny’s view of the world.

Barracuda walks a wobbly but determined line between prose that is plain and a novelistic conception that is complex. Like all of Tsiolkas’ novels, it is about bodies at their limits and the bodily experience of emotions – especially shame and anger. The writing is particularly powerful and clear when it is bodies that are speaking. I often found myself wanting Tsiolkas to push harder on his language for equivocacy and resonance, but the novel works because it is driven by a moral vision that is complicated and convincing.

The novel wears its relationships to other works of literature inelegantly. Nineteenth-century novelists are namechecked. ‘Increasingly these are the worlds I want to disappear into,’ Dan tells us: ‘I love to lose myself in Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, I devour Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Zola, Balzac, Hugo and Stendhal.’ This is an unsubtle pointer to the fact that this novel is, perhaps a bit like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010), trying to be a kind of updated version of a nineteenth century realist novel, both in its unironic approach to moral questions – how to be a ‘good man’, in this case – and in its use of the heft and narrative form of the novel to think through social problems and political ideas.

Barracuda is also, straightforwardly, a bildungsroman: it is the story of a boy negotiating educational institutions and social structures and finding his place in the world. It is The Getting of Wisdom (1910) with less satire, and with pants. The narrative trajectory feels hackneyed, but is salvaged by the force with which the gulf of class difference is portrayed. Danny’s family are proudly working class – he is the son of a truck driver and a hairdresser – and his exclusive private school feels to him very much like another planet. His mother drops him off

outside the gate that didn’t look like it belonged to a school, that should have belonged to a mansion from the movies, a mansion with a thousand rooms and with butlers and maids and ghosts … Behind it the grounds stretched out endlessly, with no visible fence, no shops or warehouses or homes to be seen.

This class difference is registered bodily, too: his classmates have ‘the clearest skin he had ever seen and the best cut hair and the whitest and most perfect teeth.’

Tsiolkas is making class privilege visible and making it strange. In this sense, he is, like Alexis Wright, pushing back against much Australian literature, conceived as such – that is, literature which sets out to be, or is taken to be, representative of the nation. One of the most powerful moments in The Slap is the response of Hector’s mother to Gary’s drunkenness. She turns to the other Greeks in the room and says: ‘Australezi, what do you expect? It’s in their blood.’ This subjects Australianness to the kind of objectifying gaze usually bestowed upon non-Anglo Australians. It provides a view of the ‘mainstream’ from the outside. Wright does this even more effectively in Carpentaria (2006) with her portrayal of the people of Uptown: seen from the perspective of the Indigenous people living in the Pricklebush, they appear paranoid, superstitious and violent  –  powerful and pitiable all at once.

Barracuda approaches this in a complicated way: through a character who is both an insider and and outsider, and thus allows for a nuanced view of class. Dan travels between worlds: home and Cunts College, Melbourne and Glasgow. In doing so, he provides insight into class difference as it manifests itself, not only in access to resources, but also in forms of identification. At Danny’s school, it is not the fact that his mother is Greek that attracts the derision of his classmates; it is the fact that she is a hairdresser. Swimming offers Danny the possibility of social mobility, but like Sybylla in Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), he ends up where he started. He falls from being one of the potential golden boys to being one of those beyond the pale – an ex-prisoner, unemployed. This change is registered on and through the body. When he is a swimmer, his muscular, shaved body is perfectly at his command. The subsequent loosening of his control over his body charts his downfall: he drinks, he commits an act of violence, he engages in rough sex, he becomes overweight and unkempt.

Sport is an ideal subject for Tsiolkas because it is the point of intersection between body and nation. In sport, the body represents the nation and a fixation on the workings of specific bodies is sanctioned by the language of belonging. Danny Kelly’s experience at Cunts College suggests the way in which shame and defeat are an inherent part of competitive sport. Any sporting triumph – individual and national – is also an experience of loss and shame for someone else. Danny realises the obvious thing: that to win is to beat others. In this respect, Barracuda is a novel about losing. Like Tracey Moffatt’s brilliant series of photographs, Fourth (2001), it focuses where the television cameras do not: on the complicated emotions of the person who does not quite make it. This is prefigured in Danny’s experience of watching Kieran Perkins beat Daniel Kowalski on television at the 1996 Olympics. Danny ‘couldn’t look, couldn’t look at Kowalski’s face, at Brembilla’s face, at the face of the man who had come fourth – who wouldn’t stand on the dais, who wouldn’t hear any cheers.’ Barracuda shows us the face of the loser and asks what responsibility we have to him.

Barracuda is, for the most part, written in a very different register from Tsiolkas’ earlier, more challenging novel Dead Europe (2005). But like Dead Europe, Barracuda examines the ways in which nationalism contains within it violence and hatred, even – and perhaps especially – at moments of collective celebration. This is evoked in Dan’s experience of the national celebrations during the opening night of the Sydney Olympics. The chant ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi’ is an unbearable reminder of his failure and shame. He can’t stand it. And on this night there is nowhere for him to escape: his home, the pub that has dragged in an old television for the occasion, the street. Everyone is watching the opening ceremony. This powerful and jubilant experience of nation as imagined community can be felt differently: as coercive, inescapable, alienating, shameful.

But the novel is not simply a critique of strident nationalism and Australia’s sporting obsession. Danny’s relationship to all of these things is conflicted. Early in the novel we learn that the adult Dan feels the pull of Australia as home so strongly that he will leave his partner. He feels uncomfortable about the criticism his left-leaning friends heap upon his country. One of the most interesting things about Dan’s character is his resistance to the progressive politics of most of his friends and family (and of Tsiolkas himself in his published essays and interviews). In Daniel’s eyes, the constant outraged talk of politics and refugees and human rights that his friends and family engage in is arrogant, irrelevant and annoying. At a disastrous Australia Day dinner, he is embarrassed when his friend Demet and his partner Clyde excoriate Australia in a restaurant. An elderly couple nearby fall silent, and ‘Dan wanted to say sorry to them, to explain that Demet and Clyde didn’t know they were insulting them, they just didn’t see them …’ Demet and Clyde are making precisely the kinds of criticisms of Australia that we might consider Tsiolkas’ previous novels to have made:

You all think you’re so egalitarian, but you’re the most status-seeking people I’ve met. You call yourselves laid-back but you’re angry and resentful all the time. You say there is no class system here, but you’re terrified of the poor, and you say you’re anti-authoritarian but all there is here are rules … We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and we occupy this land illegitimately and we’re toadies to the Poms and servile to the Yanks …

I tend to agree with Clyde and Demet on almost all of these points, but the novel places us, through Dan, in an antagonistic and embarrassed relationship to them. The waitress becomes tense and silent; the elderly couple are horrified. What could be seen as a triumphant calling out of Australia ‘as it really is’ becomes a drunken and embarrassing diatribe – another aggressive display of collective identity.

The development of the young Danny, the ‘Barracuda’ and ‘psycho’, into the mature Dan is presented unchronologically, switching between first- and third-person narration. This makes sense as a narrative strategy because the adult Dan is a more nuanced character than the teenage Danny. In its temporal shifts, the novel, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), raises one of the questions the novel form is best suited to answer: how does an individual get from A to B? Novelistic plot tells us not only what happens but why it happens: it depicts causality. When a novel jumps around temporally, it disrupts any easy narrative of development. It allows space for the reader to think about the reasons for the events that take place, questions of responsibility, and how these apply to the development of the individual character. In Barracuda, the temporal shifts can be confusing, especially with regard to the chronology of Danny’s swimming career, but the focus on the adult Dan from the outset directs our attention to the fact that Danny’s path out of violence is less straightforward – and more interesting – than the path that leads him into it.

Redemption, for Daniel Kelly, is achieved through his family, and sacrifice to the family. The emotional force of these family relationships – which are beautifully rendered – makes Barracuda appear, at first glance, to be a surprisingly conservative novel that places a Howard-era emphasis on the importance of family at the expense of broader claims. So tight is the focus on Dan that his shame and struggle to redeem himself fill the frame of our attention. The voices talking about the wider world – about human rights and refugees – seem whinging and abstract and far away.

But Dan’s redemption – his quest to ‘be a good man’ – is not straightforward, although it is baldly presented. His Scottish father, Neal, is a key figure in this complication. Neal is infuriated (as some readers might be) by Dan’s lack of interest in anything outside of himself. His school and his sport have encouraged this focus: they taught him to put his pursuit of success above anyone else’s needs. When Dan responds blankly to a discussion of politics, Neal turns on him: ‘What the fuck do you mean you don’t care?’ After a confrontation which leaves Dan victorious but ashamed, he realises, forcefully, that his father is ‘a good man’. This goodness comes from his father’s work to provide for his family, his protectiveness and love for his wife, but it also comes from his intellectual honesty. Dan feels his father failed him because he did not support his swimming, nor his scholarship to Cunts College. But Neal is a good man because of his clear moral view of the dangers of Danny’s swimming ambition and the ways in which it implicates him in a world he sees as privileged and myopic. In other words, his goodness comes not just from his commitment to his family, but also from his broader view of the world and what is important within it. This is left implicit in the novel, as it is something perhaps only dimly grasped by Dan himself.

While the novel presents what might be seen as a sentimental view of family and its redemptive possibilities, Neal’s status as a ‘good man’ does not prevent Tsiolkas from raising questions about an equally sentimental conception of working-class identity which Neal both embodies and endorses. This identity is privileged (compared to the underclass we see in Clyde’s Glasgow) and perhaps limiting, in the sense that social mobility is presented as a sham, as a dangerous pipe dream. This novel is radical and conservative at the same time, much like My Brilliant Career. As always, Tsiolkas provides a counter-voice – here it is Clyde – undercutting deeply-held attachments and beliefs.

Dan’s other path to redemption begins when his solipsism is punctured by an encounter with his cousin who has suffered a brain injury. This is one of the moments in the novel where the language is pushed in an interesting way. Dennis’ slurred speech is presented from Dan’s point of view. As he comes to understand it, Dan also comes to understand the man himself. He recognises that his initial opinion of his cousin was wrong. It is here that Barracuda extends, more successfully, the ethical implications of the shifts in points of view Tsiolkas explored in The Slap. Dan’s care for Dennis, and the other men he comes to look after as part of his working life, is devoid of pity – and pity is what he fears and hates most after his failures in the pool and in life. This daily care of injured men is presented both tenderly and viscerally. It seems a world away from the talk of Demet or Clyde, grounded as it is in bodily contact, in shit and piss. In this way, the novel continues Tsiolkas’ project across his career of thinking through the experiences of the body – especially the body in states of abjection – but here it represents the possibility of redemption as well as shame.

Tsiolkas is an intelligent writer operating in a literary space which is, in one sense, the holy grail for novelists: he is writing good books that also sell. In another sense, he has abrogated the role of the capital-L Literary writer to dance with the dreaded middlebrow. Dead Europe was never going to be a book club book, but The Slap and Barracuda certainly are, and I for one am glad about that. In the long outpouring of public writing about The Slap, Tsiolkas was often described as provocative. His provocations are deliberate and important. He provokes to bring things that are cast out of the national discussion back into that discussion: class, racism, drugs, desire. In Barracuda, the provocation is complicated and poses difficult questions about the relationship between the backyard problems of parenting, careers and relationships, and the problems that exist beyond our backyards. In the Australian public sphere, such questions are usually posed in ways that brook no such complexity.

Early in Barracuda, there is a strange and slightly labored passage set in Glasgow about Dan’s conviction that he is seeing Australians everywhere:

I look at the man selling me the ticket and I see a stern, long-chinned Australian face. I run to catch the train, slip through the turnstile past the elderly man checking the tickets; he too has a ruddy Australian face … Clyde said to me the other day, ‘Pal, do you think you might be seeing the Australian face everywhere because you want to?’

This is odd because clearly there is no such thing as an Australian face – it is a homesick delusion. In some ways, Barracuda states the obvious: that violence and privilege, ethnic difference and gay sex are all part of the ‘Australian face’. But more than this, it is presenting the idea of an ordinary or representative Australian as something longed-for but imaginary. It demonstrates this point in its steadfast focus on the often painful and exceptional detail of one person’s life and in its examination of the worth of his small-scale struggle to live well.  Although Barracuda is certainly thinking about class and nation, sport and sex, in the end it focuses on a much more concrete daily ethics of care and respect.

Read the correspondence for this review.

References

David Marr, ‘The Role of the Writer in John Howard’s Australia,’ Colin Simpson Lecture (29 March 2003).
Sophie Cunningham, ‘Making Up the Truth,’ The Age (13 September 2003).