by Christos Tsiolkas
Allen & Unwin
Published November, 2014
Christos Tsiolkas and the Fiction of Critique: Politics, Obscenity, Celebrity
by Andrew McCann
Published June, 2015
It is fitting that Christos Tsiolkas’ best-known book should be called The Slap (2008). Scenes in which one character strikes another recur throughout his fiction. Like his frequent depictions of sexual encounters of all kinds, ranging from moments of mutual tenderness to violent rape, the many slaps and blows that punctuate his writing have various implications. They are presented as symbolically freighted and complexly expressive gestures, moments in which all kinds of pent-up social tensions and inarticulable feelings are given palpable release. In one of the fifteen stories in Merciless Gods, for example, a young boy becomes so overwhelmed at the sight of his handsome father on the beach, so consumed with the confusing emotions stirred in him by the animal presence of his father’s hirsute and glistening body, that he punches him in the face.
The intense physicality of Tsiolkas’ fiction has often been noted – it’s hard to miss. What can sometimes seem elusive is its deeper significance, which is not always clear or straightforward. The stories in Merciless Gods are gathered from across Tsiolkas’ twenty-year career and, like his novels, they are notable for their preoccupation with sex and violence, which they frequently bring into uneasy alignment. The expansive social and political themes of his work – its explicit concern with issues of ethnicity, racism, nationalism, religion and class – are at once grounded in and expressed through this primal dyad. The realities of sex and violence are seen in different contexts to embrace extremes of love and hatred, nurturing and exploitation, power and selflessness. At the same time, they are understood to be manifestations of latent but fundamental instincts that are always ready to reassert themselves in defiance of the social niceties that exist to keep them in check. And they illuminate Tsiolkas’ themes precisely because they are transgressive in this way – that is, not in the facile sense that they are somewhat risqué subjects best avoided in polite company (though one gets the impression that Tsiolkas probably quite enjoys the thought of certain readers squirming at his descriptions of crotch sniffing and spunk chewing), but in the sense that they are moments when boundaries are crossed and are felt to have been crossed, moments when pretenses are dropped and power relations become apparent.
Even in the few stories in which no one is punched or fucked (or in the case of the unlucky narrator of the early story ‘Jessica Lange in Frances’ punched then fucked), the meaning hinges on metaphorical blows, moments in which words shatter the surface of civilised discourse. Tsiolkas describes these interactions in violent terms. In the long story ‘The Disco at the End of Communism’, the protagonist tells a young women about his fractious family history and when he exclaims bitterly that his recently deceased brother was a ‘cunt’ and that he is ‘glad he’s dead’, the words appear to ‘strike her with the force of a punch’. In ‘The T-shirt with a Fist on It’, a tourist delivers a sharp public rebuke to her guide, who looks ‘as if he had been struck’. In ‘The Hair of the Dog’, the narrator remembers how his alcoholic mother would berate him when she was drunk:
She prided herself on being non-violent – oh yes, she was all peace and fucking love – but I’d rather she had smacked me or punched me or scratched my face. It would have been easier to bear.
The story ‘Sticks, Stones’ is a good example of the complexity Tsiolkas finds in these verbal blows. It is told from the point of view of a suburban housewife named Marianne, who becomes uneasy about the casual way her teenage son Jack and his friends use offensive language:
Mong. Mong. Mong. Maco. Nigger, slope, bitch and cunt and slut and fag and poofter and dyke. She did not trust their ease with words that hurt so much. She refused to believe that they had been exorcised of their venom and their cruelty.
Her disquiet eventually boils over in an argument about housework:
‘I’m not washing your clothes anymore.’
‘Oh, piss off.’
‘And that includes your handkerchiefs.’ Her eyes dared his. ‘I don’t want to touch them.’
That wiped the smile off his face; he dropped his gaze. For a moment she thought he might cry. And then he sneered and he flinched, as though he was about to strike her. ‘Get the fuck out of my room!’
She knew her son, she knew his fears, his shames, his strength. She had received a warning. She knew she had hurt him. She had hurt him more than if she had raised a hand to him. She was in a daze as she walked down the corridor. My God, she thought, a coldness settling in her, do I hate him?
There is a lot going on here. The son’s reaction is one that is dramatised repeatedly in Tsiolkas’ fiction: a sense of humiliation is internalised, transformed into anger, and redirected outwards in the form of a violent impulse. When Tsiolkas has used this reactive model of behaviour as the basis for an extended character portrait – Tommy Stefano in The Jesus Man (1999), for example, or the sections of Barracuda (2013) dealing with the young ‘psycho’ Danny Kelly – the force of the insight has tended to be dulled by repetition. But in the most effective stories in Merciless Gods it is possible to see just how fundamental it is to his view of the world, and how far-reaching it is. The interpersonal drama of strike and counter-strike is not only understood to drive the larger cycles of retribution that Tsiolkas depicts; it also expresses a crucial ambivalence: an awareness that a good honest slap can, in certain contexts, be a loving gesture and, conversely, that love and desire can be manifestations of aggression and possessiveness.
This informs the complicated erotics of violence, and indeed the violent eroticism, that is evident in Tsiolkas’ work and connects the intimate experiences of his characters to his political vision. His politics are embodied in his characters, in a quite literal sense. As Andrew McCann observes in Christos Tsiolkas and the Fiction of Critique: Politics, Obscenity, Celebrity:
the body is the crucial site from which Tsiolkas’s thinking and writing seem to emerge. In this respect Tsiolkas is immediately at odds with an Enlightenment sense of the political as a rational, disembodied process, organized around an abstract sense of a subject comfortably alienated from the scandal of the flesh as a site of both pleasure and abjection.
The corporeal quality of Tsiolkas’ fiction thus generates what is, in many respects, its defining ambivalence. He makes a point of acknowledging, in no uncertain terms, the regressive side of human behaviour and the ugly realities of power and exploitation – as McCann notes, Tsiolkas’ early novels pursue their obsession with states of alienation and violent degradation to such extremes that it can be hard to see a way back. But the fact that the body is capable of both pleasure and abjection – those notionally opposed, but conjoined and even potentially complementary experiences (depending on one’s taste, of course) – suggests the way in which Tsiolkas’ carnality works in two directions. Physical interaction is not only presented as a manifestation of power relations and a standing rebuke to woolly-headed idealism; moments of unambiguous affirmation are also invariably described in physical terms – they are sensual and eroticised, even when they are not sexual. Any genuine connection between people, Tsiolkas implies, must have this tangible aspect in order to be real, durable and worthy of respect.
This is why there is a particular cruelty in the withdrawal of physical contact. The narrator of ‘The Hair of the Dog’ longs for his mother’s blows because they would at least demonstrate a perverse affinity; they would be less of a repudiation than her cold and distant belittling. The idea also informs the central irony of ‘Sticks, Stones’, the title of which refers to the schoolyard chant that children learn to recite in response to teasing (‘sticks and stones may break my bones / but words will never hurt me’), but the substance of which demonstrates the opposite proposition. Marianne’s words are more wounding than a blow because her intimate knowledge of her son means she can attack him at a vulnerable point. Yet her revulsion at his semen-soaked handkerchiefs is not simply hurtful because it embarrasses him. It is also significant that she shames him immediately after she has observed him coming from the bathroom with a towel around his waist:
The hairs around his belly button tracking down beneath the towel were wiry, thick and black. There was a sprout of thin curls around his nipples. When had they appeared?
These visual signs of his sexual maturation contribute to the psychological disturbance that causes her to lash out, and it is no coincidence that her anger takes the form of an expression of disgust at the physical traces of that maturation. She is rejecting him bodily, recoiling from him as a sexual being. She thus strikes at something fundamental to his humanity and implicitly repudiates their biological connection – a transgression that leads her to the taboo thought that she may hate her own child.
Like many of the stories in Merciless Gods, many of which focus on parent-child relationships, ‘Sticks, Stones’ juxtaposes its pivotal moment of confrontation with a counterposing moment of affirmation. This occurs at the very end. Jack is late coming home and Marianne begins to worry. As she becomes ever more anxious, she starts doing his laundry – including, pointedly, the ‘crusted handkerchiefs’. When he does finally arrive home, she is struck for a second time by his maturity, this time positively, noticing how tall and handsome he has become. He sees that she has been upset and asks if she is alright. The story concludes after this small demonstration of mutual concern, with a relieved Marianne closing her eyes, aware of Jack’s presence, the sound of his breathing, the smell of his body:
She couldn’t open her eyes. She didn’t dare look at him. Looking at him, how it hurt.
‘Hurt’ is the story’s key word. Its bittersweet, almost sentimental ending reveals it to be ultimately less concerned with the politics of vilification than with Marianne’s emotional conflict as she realises that her son is becoming an adult and is leaving her, moving beyond the safety of her lovingly curated domestic realm, negotiating his place in a world that she knows to be harsh and cruel. Her qualms about inappropriate language reveal themselves to be an expression of a deeper anxiety, born of protectiveness.
The narrator of ‘Hair of the Dog’ claims to be suspicious of happy endings, but a significant number of stories in Merciless Gods end in ways that are, if not exactly ‘happy’, then at least affirming on a similarly intimate level. Their worldly political concerns retract into the personal. They tend to resolve on notes of reconciliation that, however fleetingly, displace or ameliorate whatever unpleasantness has come before, concluding with a return to the warmth and security of home and stable relationships, or in an upwelling of sentiment. ‘The Disco at the End of Communism’ and ‘Saturn Return’ both end with characters embracing. ‘Tourists’ ends with a reconciled couple holding hands. ‘A T-shirt with a Fist on It’ ends with a gentle sex scene, in which a middle-aged lesbian couple put behind them their sense of unease and the difficulties they have encountered on their trip through the Middle East – the renewal of their physical bond finally allowing the narrator to feel a genuine sense of wonder at the rich ancient history that lies beyond the region’s troubled present. In ‘Porn 2’, the second of a concluding trio of stories based around the deracinating effects of pornography, the teenaged narrator accompanies his friend Mickey, whom he loves, on a cartoonishly sordid misadventure, yet the story concludes with a joyous night out that culminates in a kiss.
Perhaps the most arresting example in Merciless Gods of this affirming, intimate side to Tsiolkas’ work is the story in which the boy punches his father. Titled ‘Genetic Material’, it is divided between the narrator’s memory of that day on the beach and a scene in a nursing home several decades later. He is giving his now senile father a sponge bath when the father lapses into a sexual fantasy that seems to be a memory of an affair with a woman, unknown to the son, named Alice. When the father becomes aroused, the son masturbates him to orgasm. He then goes to the bathroom to wash his hands, but before he does he tastes his father’s semen:
I taste of my father. My father tastes of me.
Giving the scene its charge is the violation of the powerful taboo that precludes sexual contact between parent and child. But the divided narrative emphasises the reciprocity and kindness of the act. The son remembers how his once powerful father, who seemed like ‘a colossus soaring over me, a hero, a god’, responded to his confused childish punch with calm dignity, and in doing so provided him, a ‘pale and skinny and frightened’ boy, with a model of strength and decency. The son’s ingestion of the father’s semen is a moment of complex symbolism: not only an affirmation of their biological connection, but a gesture of gratitude and identification and sympathetic understanding. It is a melancholy tribute to the father’s now diminished and fading vitality, to his virtues as a father, but also an acknowledgement of him as a flawed being whose desires would appear to have led him into indiscretions, for which the son does not judge him. There is nothing Freudian about the sexualisation of the parent-child relationship in this story. It is not only non-neurotic, but anti-neurotic: it is an ingenuous demonstration of a radical acceptance of the father’s humanity that is beyond embarrassment, shame or disgust.
Merciless Gods arrives at an interesting stage of Tsiolkas’ career. As Andrew McCann points out at the beginning of Christos Tsiolkas and the Fiction of Critique, the international success of The Slap has placed its author in an odd position. Tsiolkas has been absorbed into a mainstream he has at times railed against, despite the fact that his work has, quite explicitly, adopted an adversarial and often confrontational stance. He has sought to position himself as a marginal writer – not simply on the basis of his identity as the homosexual son of Greek immigrants and his outspoken opposition to the prevailing neoliberal order, but as someone whose work seeks to challenge that political order via an embrace of the unacceptable and the obscene. The artist, he has declared, must be ‘blasphemous’; he must look to that which is ‘unspeakable, intolerable, traitorous, seditious, evil and abject in order to ensure that the violence enacted against its expression is given a voice, shaped into memory’. There is thus a certain incongruity when Tsiolkas – whose early poem ‘Pasolini’s Ashes’ concludes with the rousing line ‘I refuse to die bourgeois’ and whose work has expressed what McCann describes at one point as ‘contempt for middle Australia’ – is venerated in the promotional guff for Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing (about as bourgeois an institution as one could imagine) as one of ‘Australia’s most glittering literary treasures’.
Tsiolkas is hardly the first to find himself lionised by the bourgeois-types he set out to affront. The adversarial or iconoclastic artist is a naturalised and often celebrated cultural figure. But Tsiolkas’ celebrity has become part of a complex dynamic that shapes the reception and interpretation of his work. This dynamic, argues McCann, ‘cannot be reduced to a series of oppositions’:
Celebrity does not nullify the political any more than obscenity impedes one’s access to a popular readership. On the contrary, these terms (politics, obscenity and celebrity) form a series of dialectical relationships; they simultaneously enable and limit each other.
Christos Tsiolkas and the Fiction of Critique surveys Tsiolkas’ career from his first novel Loaded (1995) through to Barracuda (there are a few passing references to Merciless Gods, which appeared as McCann’s book was being readied for publication). It is being billed as the first ‘theoretically driven’ study of Tsiolkas’ work. McCann is certainly well-versed in modern literary theory and philosophy. He draws freely on the ideas of a range of thinkers, from Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno to contemporaries such as Elizabeth Grosz and Georgio Agamben. But this theoretical framework, though it provides many valuable insights, would seem ultimately to be less significant than McCann’s ability to illuminate Tsiolkas’ writing and thinking from within.
McCann identifies the personal, intellectual and aesthetic influences that can be seen to converge in Tsiolkas’ writing: the sense of solidarity with his family’s working-class immigrant background; his experience of being lifted out of that milieu by his university education; his decisive rejection of the presumptuous universalism of bourgeois liberalism; his glimpse of the possibility of an erotic liberation in his formative encounters with cinema. Most significantly, McCann examines the influence of Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose ‘paths of semen’ Tsiolkas set out to follow in his early fiction. He reads Tsiolkas’ first three novels – Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe – as a trilogy written ‘in the shadow of Pasolini’ that is wrestling with the problem of ‘moving from atomized forms of personal experience – mediated by consumer culture, suburbia, the stigmatization of queer sexuality or the alienating effects of middlebrow Anglophone culture – toward some sense of social reconciliation’. These novels’ lurid excursions into violence and pornography constitute ‘a fairly coherent exploration of the relationship between sexual transgression and capitalist incorporation’. Tsiolkas’ two subsequent novels, The Slap and Barracuda, both of which embrace a version of social realism that owes something to the suburban drama of television soap operas, modify the transgressive approach of his earlier work: they seek instead to co-opt and subvert middlebrow generic influences. The trajectory of Tsiolkas’ career to date, McCann argues, ‘seems to constitute its own kind of Bildungsroman, a narrative of maturation and integration that involves both renunciation and reconciliation’.
Some of this process of maturation is evident in Merciless Gods. The early stories – the earliest, ‘Civil War’, was published the same year as Loaded – are apprentice work. They are written in an earnest, edgy and noticeably dated style: present tense, staccato sentences, abrupt cuts between scenes, an affectless registering of details and actions (‘A grape has fallen into the cat’s water bowl. Black hairs are swimming around it. I pour out a dish of dry food …’). They are also marred in places by an element of undergraduate pretentiousness (‘Before drugs, I was immersed in a stultifying mediocrity where the cold, clammy hands of the modern world reached deep into my heart and psyche’).
What the stories reveal, however, is the extent to which Tsiolkas has been refining a consistent set of tropes and symbols. Intergenerational and interracial conflicts feature prominently in his fiction, and eroticised moments of connection are presented as counterpoints to these conflicts. Merciless Gods establishes that Tsiolkas has been working with these themes from the very beginning: in ‘Civil War’, the narrator’s encounter with a violently racist truck driver is contrasted with his love affair with a young Aboriginal man. This thematic emphasis is reflected in the symbolic importance of blood and semen. The word ‘blood’ is often used in Tsiolkas’ fiction as a shorthand for the determining influence of an inherited identity, and by extension an inherited history, culture and social position. The exchange or ingestion of bodily fluids, whether this is to solemnise an intimate bond or to symbolise the ugly realities of power and exploitation (an idea the vampirism in Dead Europe pushes to its logical conclusion), literalises these familial and social relationships.
This leads to one of the defining paradoxes of Tsiolkas’ work: it seems at once to destabilise and reinforce those fundamental identifications. Tsiolkas has drawn a great deal of creative energy from his tactic of inverting cultural or racial hierarchies, placing marginalised perspectives centre stage and turning their withering gaze back upon the presumptions of a complacent mainstream. The recurring trope of tourism, which is central to Dead Europe and recurs in several stories in Merciless Gods, is also used to disorient and disempower his characters, to undermine their cultural assumptions. These strategies are often effective on a dramatic level, but at times they merely reverse the polarity of a prejudicial relationship, turning the tables but leaving the structuring opposition intact. Tsiolkas is not above taking an easy shot at a soft target – middle-class progressives, baby boomers, university-educated feminists, postmodern art (to be fair, he does score some palpable hits) – but there is also an evident tendency to present his characters as typical or emblematic in ways that can leave the fiction trapped within the us-and-them logic it is ostensibly critiquing. As McCann argues, Tsiolkas’ work ‘can sometimes feel dependent on the stereotypes it works so hard to displace’.
McCann is an astute reader of Tsiolkas because he is conscious of the ‘lurking essentialism’ that he detects in some of his subject’s youthful pronouncements. He is also attuned to the unsettling power of the fiction, recognising that there is ‘something inherently volatile about the writing’ that makes it at once compelling and hard to pin down. Just when Tsiolkas’ writing ‘seems to settle into an affective, gestural or political groove, it also threatens to explode the very space it has carved out for itself’.
But McCann also admits to a certain ambivalence. He argues that Tsiolkas’ first three novels dramatise the author’s failure to reconcile the ideals of a post-communist emancipatory politics, the violence of his sexual fantasies, and his overpowering awareness of the world’s systemic cruelty and degradation. And the reason for this failure, McCann suggests, is not simply the problem of conflicting desires and loyalties (Isaac in Dead Europe says at one point that he is ‘trying to form a coherent faith out of the remnants of my father’s politics, my mother’s cynicism, my youthful idealism and the demands of my prick’), but the inherent limitations of a political vision that is based on the principles of embodiment and obscenity. The body can certainly ‘appear to be an eruption into the space of culture’ (McCann’s emphasis) in a way that ‘can still evoke the aura of radicality’, but the emphasis on obscenity in Tsiolkas’ fiction also ‘has the ability to sabotage politics by limiting it to the libidinal’. Ultimately, Tsiolkas ‘cannot avoid a confrontation with the moment that calls into question the political quality of corporeal experience’.
In tracing the way in which Tsiolkas arrives at this impasse – which is replicated in the work of Pasolini, whose formative influence is thus ‘a beginning that already contains this end’ – McCann clarifies what has always seemed so erratic and paradoxical about Tsiolkas’ politics as it manifests itself in his fiction. The early novels express a palpable anger at the forces of bigotry and social disintegration and systemic exploitation. But they also depict these depredations as overwhelming and inescapable in a way that seems to foreclose the possibility of amelioration. The vehemence of their sweeping denunciations implies something stronger than mere moral pessimism. They suggest that the atomised society we have created is not simply alienating and unjust, but may well be irredeemable. As McCann observes, the negations and self-annihilating subjectivity of Tsiolkas’ early novels serve to highlight ‘the absence of viable communal and political structures’.
At its most extreme, this regressive side of Tsiolkas’ work takes the form of a jejune nihilism. Ari in Loaded stomps around Melbourne thinking that Pol Pot had the right idea and that the entire human race should be nuked into oblivion. In Dead Europe, there is a climactic passage in which Isaac, who is in the grip of a vampire curse that leads him to revel in bloodlust and sexual depravity, states his belief that all humankind is incurably hateful and destructive and that religious divisions will never be overcome. We will continue exploiting and killing each other, he declares, until we ‘create Armageddon’ and we ‘will do all this in the name of God and in the name of our nature’.
On one level, this is clearly the vampire in him talking. But Dead Europe backs up Isaac’s prophetic rhetoric with a scene near the end of the novel, after he has been reunited with his boyfriend Colin. They have a long discussion in which Colin scorns the idea that some kind of harmonious coexistence between different faiths might be possible. He claims to ‘fucking hate that liberal bullshit that claims we’re all brothers, that it’s all the same religion’. He insists, against Isaac’s feeble objections, that it is simply not possible to be both democratic and monotheistic:
This might offend your fucking democratic wishy-washy liberal pieties, but religion is war … It’s history, it’s politics … I don’t believe you can pick and choose from religious moral codes as if faith is some kind of supermarket of beliefs. I’m with the fundamentalists. You make your choice. You make your fucking choice. You are either a believer or not. God makes his meaning and his character clear in the Torah, in the Bible and in the Qu’ran. He is not a God of love, he is a God of justice. [Emphasis in original.]
Given that Colin’s rejection of ‘liberal bullshit’ involves an embrace of reactionary bullshit (he insists that to be a Christian means accepting the obnoxious anti-Semitic slur known as the ‘blood libel’ as a ‘fact’), this would all seem to constitute a pretty compelling argument for choosing not to believe, and maybe even for taking one’s chances with democratic wishy-washy liberal pieties. Yet it is significant that, having set out the choice in such unequivocal terms, he fudges the issue. When Isaac asks the obvious question – ‘So do you believe in this God?’ – Colin replies bathetically ‘I don’t know’.
He instead declares his allegiance to Isaac. He chooses to defy, if not deny, the monotheistic God of justice, and damn the consequences. It is a noble and touching gesture. Yet its significance very much depends on whether the answer to Isaac’s question is ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If it is the latter, there would seem to be considerably less at stake. The more important point, however, is that the wider context of the novel seems to necessitate the equivocation. In its very conception, Dead Europe confirms Colin’s conflation of religion with the merciless gods of war, history and politics. It suggests that the great delusion of modern liberal democratic societies is the idea that they have outgrown the superstitions and hatreds of the past, that they are not subject to the terrible retributive justice of these perpetual deities. Having sided with the fundamentalists, Colin is in no position to return his ticket or to express his solidarity with any larger or more generous principle of humanity. Politically speaking, he snookers himself. His profession of love is thus offered less as a counterpoint to this dark, even fatalistic, view of history than as the last remaining option. He makes a personal gesture, but one that is inevitably small, sentimental, ideologically vague and politically inconsequential.
The pattern is repeated across Tsiolkas’ work. At its most expansive, it evokes the destructive global forces of history and politics. Moral condemnations, which characters dispense with alacrity, are made in general terms that target collective identities. When characters are scorned, they are scorned for being in some sense typical: they are slapped with pejorative labels, taken as representatives of the kinds of categorical distinctions that mark out larger conflicts. Moments of validation and connection, on the other hand, are specific and personal: a fragile sense of intimacy is presented as a relief or a modest sanctuary from those ignorant armies that clash by night.
The difference in scale points to something fundamentally unresolved in Tsiolkas’ fiction, which has its origins in his Pasolini-influenced conception of the radical artist as someone who positions himself outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. Tsiolkas has argued that the radical artist must reject the bogus notion of ‘liberal tolerance’ and embrace
a radical, disturbing, dangerous tolerance; heretical, blasphemous, cruel. It has to speak on behalf of not only the oppressed, the imprisoned, the condemned, it also has to refute the silencing of the racists, the inhuman, the murderous and, dare I say it, even the fascistic.
This notion of ‘radical tolerance’ is, as McCann observes, ‘as much about aesthetics as it is about political engagement’. It is a way of laying claim to a degree of artistic autonomy, a form of resistance against potentially constraining or determining cultural forces. The unresolved question a deliberately transgressive work like Dead Europe raises is whether it is possible to give voice to racist or (dare I say it) fascistic sentiments in the name of a liberating aesthetic strategy without this affecting the work’s meaning on a deeper structural level.
One of the things that makes Tsiolkas’ writing so volatile is that he is prepared to take this risk. And it is his willingness to treat collective identities as emblematic that encodes an ambiguity of intention into his work. Religious, racial, ideological and class identifications – the very sources of political and dramatic conflict – can often be seen in his work to overlap and become confused, as they do in reality. But the schematic use of those identifications can also generate confusion about the extent to which we are being invited to regard them not simply as distinct, but as fixed and constitutive. Robert Manne, in a long and disquieted critique of Dead Europe, objected that there was ‘nothing in the novel that resists the idea of the Jews as a single united group and as a cultural burden’ and that it appropriated, ‘crudely and ambiguously, some of the oldest and most consequential anti-Semitic libels – the vengeful Jew; the diabolical Jew; the bloated capitalist Jew; the Jewish curse; the world power of the Jews’. McCann’s reading of this genuinely unnerving novel is more sympathetic, more willing to accept its philosophical rationale and the underlying good faith of its disturbing evocations of anti-Semitic prejudice. I am also inclined to give Tsiolkas the benefit of the doubt, but it is hard to disagree with McCann’s observation that the racial implications of the vampire curse that drives the plot – which is explicitly based on the ‘blood libel’ – ‘remain ambiguous, perhaps even a bit confused’.
There are milder manifestations of this tendency in Tsiolkas’ subsequent novels, notably in The Slap. Its ensemble cast of ethnically diverse characters gives it an obviously schematic quality (though this diversity is not implausible as a depiction of Melbourne’s northern suburbs). McCann argues that the book is ‘caught between realism and allegory, between an attempt to evoke the flux of lived, multicultural experience and emblematic evocations of ethnicity’. The character of Anouk, for example, is identified as Jewish, but this identity does not seem to connect her to any larger sense of tradition or community. It assigns her a place within the novel’s multicultural scheme without appearing to be meaningful or substantive, in contrast to the Greek-Australian characters, whose cultural milieu, McCann notes, is rendered more richly and convincingly. Of greater significance, however, is the confrontation between the Aboriginal Muslim convert Bilal and the Anglo-Australian Rosie, in which he declares that he wants nothing to do with her:
‘I just want to protect my family. I don’t think you’re any good, Rosie. Sorry, it’s just your mob. You’ve got bad blood.’
As McCann points out, Tsiolkas has identified this moment as the centre of the novel. Its trenchant ironies, which are a distillation of The Slap’s quite pointed marginalisation of Anglo-Australian culture, depend on the assumption that the characters ‘are subsumed into the identities ascribed to them: the terms “Aboriginal” and “Anglo” have to stand for larger processes that are more important than the complexities of the individuals to which they attach’.
The moment encapsulates an underlying conflict that not only informs the novel, but permeates Tsiokas’s work. Bilal’s verbal slap confirms, and arguably overdetermines, Rosie’s low status. She is the focus of the other characters’ disdain – a disdain that it is strongly implied the novel endorses. But Bilal does not simply deliver the adverse moral judgement that she is no good; he also makes the provocative claim that she has ‘bad blood’. There is an obvious irony in this, when one considers white Australia’s long and disgraceful history of racism towards Indigenous people. Rosie, in her assigned role as representative of a declining Anglo-Australia, is receiving her historical comeuppance. The collapse of her culturally privileged position is reinforced by the wider context of the novel, which, as McCann remarks, ‘constantly returns to this sense of white abjection in a way that would be problematic in the case of virtually any other identity’. Yet the structural irony that makes Bilal’s rebuke a historically loaded counter-punch is complicated by the fact that the concept of ‘blood’, with all of its essentialist and potentially regressive implications, is also evoked throughout Tsiolkas’ work repeatedly and unironically.
It is on this very question that Tsiolkas’ radicalism is at odds with itself. His fiction is radical in the everyday political sense that it rejects and seeks to disrupt the privileged assumptions of the status quo. But it is also radical in the literal sense that it is concerned with origins (from the Latin radicalis: pertaining to roots) – an emphasis that has much more conservative implications.
It is notable on this point that the cultural détente (of sorts) that Tsiolkas achieves in The Slap and Barracuda – novels that are, as McCann argues, ‘thoroughly and self-consciously integrated into a popular media landscape, rather than defined against it’ – has drawn out the element of social conservatism in his work. To some extent, this is a consequence of their overt generic identifications. ‘Despite the novel’s best intentions,’ McCann observes of The Slap, ‘its progressive vision of a multicultural Australia is almost impossible to distinguish from an aspirational, bourgeois habitus that, in the greater scheme of Tsiolkas’s work, is clearly regressive.’ Barracuda – which takes the conventional form of a Bildungsroman, a genre that McCann argues the young Tsiolkas rejected in Loaded – lifts Danny Kelly out of his working-class existence and places him in the privileged world of an elite private school, but the prejudice and class antagonism he faces at ‘Cunts College’ (as he comes to call it) ultimately sends him tumbling back to the bosom of his family. His path to maturity and atonement involves a selfless dedication to the intimate care of others, a turning away from the clamour and striving of the wider world, and an acceptance of his humble social position. His return to family ‘suggests reconciliation with the social body more broadly conceived and an attentuation of the earlier sense of class difference that produces an intractable and destructive kind of rage’. Danny’s selflessness and his mature ambition to become a ‘good man’ are, like Colin’s declaration of love in Dead Europe, admirable in many respects, but a long way from anything resembling a liberating politics.
There is a kind of circular logic to Tsiolkas’ fiction. The most casual reader cannot fail to notice that it is full of denunciations of the middle class for being judgmental and moralistic, but that the fiction itself often seems rather judgmental and moralistic (and never more so than when denouncing the middle class). The potency of Tsiolkas’ best work derives, in large part, from his awareness of its paradoxes and contradictions, and his cunning manipulation of them. Yet the polarising and self-reinforcing implications of his aesthetic commitment to ‘blasphemy’ also set out the firm parameters of his political vision. ‘In a secular world,’ Angela Carter observed in an essay on the Marquis de Sade, ‘the notion of the impure is meaningless. Only a true believer can see the pure glamour of the blasphemy.’ Tsiolkas is clearly still a believer in this sense.
There is a small but illustrative example of the philosophical significance of blasphemy in Tsiolkas’ work – and the categorical uncertainty it can create – in one of the best stories in Merciless Gods, ‘Tourists’, about a Melbourne couple named Bill and Trina, who are visiting New York. The opening pages describe their wonder and excitement at being in such a vibrant cosmopolitan city, but also capture the way their displacement undermines the sense of urbane sophistication they would normally take for granted. Bill is embarrassed to realise that in New York they are more or less bumpkins. They are naive compared to the brassy, jaded locals; they gawk at the scenery; they don’t know their way around. The story’s central incident occurs when they visit a gallery to see a particular Edward Hopper painting. The attendant immediately picks them as tourists and speaks to them with open condescension. Already irritated by several small humiliations he has suffered that morning, Bill voices his frustration as they are walking to the lifts, referring to the attendant as a ‘stuck-up black cunt’ to the considerable disgust of Trina and an elderly couple nearby.
Bill’s outburst is another one of Tsiolkas’ propriety-shattering metaphorical blows. Trina is appalled not because he calls the attendant ‘stuck-up’ (an accurate description), or because of the pungent obscenity (one of Tsiolkas’ favourite epithets), but because Bill commits the grave error of referring to the attendant’s race. And he immediately realises what he has done:
For fuck’s sake, he rebuked himself, thinking of the man’s arrogant dismissal of him and Trina, why didn’t I just call him a spoilt cunt, or a rude cunt, or even a faggot cunt? All of them were inexcusable, but none was a disgraceful – no, as blasphemous – as what he had said.
Bill does not directly offend the attendant, who does not overhear him and plays no further part in the story, which goes on to describe his attempt to atone for his misdeed and reconcile with Trina. The shame Bill feels is a result of his self-betrayal. The disgrace lies in the violation of his own enlightened principles. It takes only a minor reversal of status, it seems – a trivial exchange in which he is on the wrong side of an inconsequential power imbalance – for the ugly spectre of racism to appear, bringing with it the unsettling implication that it was lurking within him all along.
The story pivots on that bracing word blasphemous, which pushes itself to the front of Bill’s consciousness to express the full force of the violation. That the archaic theological term sits outside the lexicon of liberal, rational, secular, democratic discourse would seem to be the point. The modern world, Tsiolkas implies, has its own pieties, its own sacred cows. Yet it is not immediately obvious that the word is appropriate in this context. It is arguably a bit of a stretch that someone like Bill would reach for such a theatrical term. And even if we grant Tsiolkas his artistic licence here, the implications of the categorical confusion between the (presumably) secular disapproval of racism and the religious prohibition against profane speech remain hazy. On one level, the word ‘blasphemous’ is being used as a loose and rather hyperbolic metaphor for stepping beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse; on another level, it seems to recast the social disapproval of racist speech – for which there are many valid reasons – as a mere doctrine.
The categorical blurring is nevertheless deliberate and purposeful. It signals that Bill’s offense against propriety has touched a deep sense of identity – in this case his own, as his egregious faux pas rebounds in a way that leads to self-questioning. The rupture is caused by the destabilising encounter with difference, but it is no less significant and characteristic of Tsiolkas’ work that the rift between Bill and Trina is healed only after she has condemned the ‘smug emptiness’ of the art they have seen, which she takes to be a reflection of the bankrupt culture of the entire city.
The word ‘blasphemous’ makes significant appearances elsewhere in Merciless Gods – notably in ‘Petals’ and the collection’s final story ‘Porn 3’. Both of these stories conflate the religious concept of blasphemy with notionally secular divisions created by racial and cultural identity, and both ultimately link blasphemy to retributive violence. ‘Porn 3’ follows a homosexual university student named Ghassan into a grimy sex club, where he fucks a handsome ‘European’, whom he recognises as a fellow student. In his sexual fantasies, Ghassan had imagined youthful white flesh as ‘hairless, smooth … feminine’. But the corporeality of the interracial encounter proves to be estranging and fearful:
the sight of the man’s naked body was making him swoon with an intoxication that was humiliating. He had expected a boy and he had to confront a man. A man like himself but viewed in a false and diabolical mirror … It was the European man’s unfamiliarity, the exotic pornographic danger of his skin, that was threatening.
The story describes the conflict Ghassan experiences between his carnal desire and his ideal of purity: his simultaneous feelings of attraction and repulsion, his recognition of similarity and difference, ‘his ecstasy and his loathing’. It gradually becomes apparent that Ghassan had not intended to ‘sin’, but succumbed to temptation after he entered the building with the intention of destroying it with a ‘bulky belt that contained God’s fury’. The story ends with him feeling disgusted with himself, but gathering his sense of righteous indignation, directing anger at this place where ‘nothing was sacred, nothing was safe, not even a child’, and which he now feels has tainted him:
Their magazines, their videos, their films, their dirty words scrawled on toilet walls, their nakedness, their parading of their bodies, their hatred of chastity, their decadence, their sadism, their brutality, their filth: it had infected him, it was in his blood.
That Ghassan is a Muslim is not stated explicitly, but is implied by the fact that he speaks Urdu and, at the very moment he is ‘bringing the fire’, declares his belief in ‘only one God, my God’ (the emphasis on my introduces a telling ambiguity, since it confuses God’s almightiness with the egotistical assertion of Ghassan’s will and is perhaps itself a subtle blasphemy). This would seem to add layers of implication to the story. To write about an Islamic suicide bomber attacking a ‘decadent’ Western target is inevitably to evoke the emotionally charged issue of terrorism and all of the political complexities and cultural sensitivites it entails. ‘Porn 3’ ventures into that treacherous territory where religious, racial and cultural differences are often confused and even conflated, where misunderstandings and negative stereotyping are rife.
Characteristically, Tsiolkas inverts the predominant perspective, writing the story from the suicide bomber’s point of view, granting Ghassan an inner life and subverting common prejudicial assumptions – here it is the nameless ‘European’ who is objectified and stereotyped. What makes ‘Porn 3’ a puzzling and problematic story is not that it should assume this perspective, but the way it disconnects Ghassan’s motivation from the wider issues it would seem to evoke. It does not establish a political context or a worldly objective for his violent act. Ghassan is driven to destruction as a result of a personal crisis that has its origins in his conflicted sexuality and is sharpened by his experience of racial difference. As McCann notes in one of his references to Merciless Gods, ‘Porn 3’ is a version of a ‘narrative of guilt, excess and self-annihilation’ that is evident elsewhere in Tsiolkas’ work – in fact, Ghassan’s inner conflict seems, in its basic elements, to be quite similar to the tortured sense of religious guilt that drives Tommy Stefano insane in The Jesus Man.
Again, this is perhaps the point. Ghassan’s religious belief merely provides an outward form and an orientation to a more fundamental sense of moral confusion. This condemnatory and rather superficial religious framework is supplied and in a sense personified in the insinuating character of Omar, who points out the sex club and tells his naive friend Ghassan ‘that children were taken there and violated, how iniquitous orgies as vile and blasphemous as those of the time of Sodom and Gomorrah were committed there inside’.
One could perhaps read ‘Porn 3’ in this light as a comment on the poisonous absurdity of the concept of blasphemy itself, which (contrary to Omar’s imprecise usage) refers specifically to profane speech and not to an activity such as an orgy, no matter how iniquitous – that is, it refers to the violation of an idea, an ideal: something that is by definition immaterial. It is arguably Omar, rather than the ‘devils’ who frequent the seedy club, who is the story’s diabolical figure, since he represents the impossible ideal of purity that divides Ghassan against himself and inflames his retributive wrath.
But like ‘Petals’ and the collection’s remarkable title story, ‘Porn 3’ is a kind of fable. It sets out clear structuring oppositions (Ghassan’s love for Omar is ‘pure, a love beyond the degrading treacheries of lust and desire’; the European ‘he wanted to fuck’) and depicts them collapsing into a judgmental moralism. A similar logic informs ‘Petals’, in which the narrator, a Greek prisoner, is physically and verbally assaulted by a racist Australian inmate, who speaks nothing but ‘blasphemy’ and whom he regards as a ‘devil’. (The narrator also has a perverse attraction to white flesh – at one point he imagines how much he would like to sexually violate the Queen.) The story culminates a hideous moment of violent retribution, which the narrator nevertheless experiences as a joyful affirmation of the song of himself, which he has sung thoughout the story – a song
from inside my body. Not from outside me but inside, a melody that is being sung by my blood and my bones.
The perspectives of both ‘Petals’ and ‘Porn 3’ stories invite us to share, to some extent, their protagonists’ moral condemnations. The racist prisoner in ‘Petals’ is an unrelentingly disgusting caricature, and in ‘Porn 3’ it transpires that Omar is right: ‘they’ do indeed violate children. The story concludes with Ghassan, the moment before he annihilates himself and those around him, looking up at a pornographic film in which a man is ejaculating on the face of a young boy. It is a symbolic moment possessed of an ambiguously beatific serenity:
On the screen, the boy’s eyes opened and looked straight at Ghassan. The boy was smiling and the semen on his face sparkled as tears.
Moments such as this distil Tsiolkas’ moral and political vision to its essence. The merciless gods of his fiction are the personal gods that determine our identities, whose outward manifestations – family, race, religion, class, ideology, nationality – are often inherited and inescapable. They are gods we do not choose to believe in, but they define us nevertheless. Their wrath is provoked when a well-aimed blow hits its target, strikes at a character’s core sense of self. The concept of blasphemy is, in this sense, more than an aesthetic strategy for Tsiolkas; it goes to the heart of his view of humanity.
Merciless Gods throws this into sharp relief. In his novels, Tsiolkas airs conflicting political opinions in full-throated arguments; in his best short stories, he compresses his concerns into symbolic moments and lean narratives that begin to take on the contours of fable. These stories reveal something of the philosophical underpinnings of his work and the idiosyncrasy of its moralism. Who but Tsiolkas would trace the complicated global issue of terrorism to a character’s unresolved homophobia (literally ‘fear of the same’)?
The collection’s title story – which is not only the best thing in Merciless Gods but one of the best things Tsiolkas has ever written – is a brilliant summation of the basic moral conflict that has shaped his work for the past two decades. It combines elements of Dead Europe’s violent conception of history, The Slap’s social drama, and Barracuda’s concern with ambition and competitiveness. A group of friends attend a dinner party at which they decide to tell competing stories on the theme of ‘revenge’. The focus becomes the contrasting stories told by the narrator’s boyfriend Mark and the arrogant Vince. Mark’s story, in keeping with his wholesome New Testament name, is about resisting the urge to seek revenge, suppressing the rage that one feels when a sense of oppression and injustice strikes home. Mark is a ‘good man’ – a phrase that reverberates throughout Tsiolkas’s fiction. Vince, on the other hand, is ‘not a good man’; he is an ‘evil man’. His dubious story of revenge, which evokes the spectre of conflict between East and West, is a hair-raising tale of violent Old Testament justice. The narrator claims to be in love with both men. Tsiolkas clearly is too.
Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (Virago, 1979).
Robert Manne, ‘Dead Disturbing: A Bloodthirsty Tale that Plays with the Fire of Anti-Semitism,’ Monthly (June 2005).
Christos Tsiolkas, Loaded (Vintage, 1995).
– The Jesus Man (Vintage, 1999).
– Dead Europe (Vintage, 2005).
– The Slap (Allen & Unwin, 2008).
– Barracuda (Allen & Unwin, 2013).