For Christmas I treated myself to Merciless Gods, the first collection of short stories by Christos Tsiolkas. After The Slap and Barracuda, I was interested to see where he went with the short form; the answer is perhaps predictable but no less compelling for that.
If I felt like being a little bit unfair, I would characterise the general ethos of Tsiolkas’s writing–his aesthetic, if you like–very simply: everything is shit. There’s a lot of angst at work in his fiction, a lot of anger, a lot of darkness and resentment. Some of the adolescents I work with might pigeonhole Tsiolkas as an ’emo’. But this is, as I said, to be rather unfair. There’s a lot more going on in the worlds of his fiction than that.
Merciless Gods–which I thoroughly recommend–collects stories going back to the mid-1990s–based on the ‘previously published’ list at the front of the book, the earliest story in this collection is ‘Civil War’, first published in 1995. The title story unravels the complex relationships of a group of dinner party guests who decide to play a game which ends with an especially shocking revelation; I think my favourite story is possibly ‘The Disco at the end of Communism’, which tells of Saverio and his conflicts in having to fly north and deal with the death of his brother. The two men could not have contrasted each other more sharply.
In an Overland interview in 2005, Tsiolkas said: “What I actually want from a novel I read, or a film I see, is to actually go into dark places and difficult places because that’s when I feel most alive and engaged by my interaction with the work.” (Overland 181, p.20.) I remember reading some criticism of The Slap when it first appeared, along the lines of no characters in that book being likeable and the overall situation being fairly grim and relentless. Barracuda is similar, although I think it’s a better novel for its dissection of the Australian obsession with sport.
It’s not my intention with this post to discuss whether or not characters should be likeable in fiction–feel free to chat about that amongst yourselves. I am much more interested, as a writer, in the honesty that Tsiolkas brings to his work. He does not flinch. Merciless Gods brings us all manner of copulations, ejaculations, sexual ambivalences, hatreds, drug uses, violence, self-loathings and doomed relationships. My second favourite story, I think, is ‘Sticks, Stones’ for its searing depiction of a mother who witnesses some very unpleasant behaviour by her son; her situation is tragic in a sense, wanting to hate the boy yet obligated by innate maternal desires. I don’t think any of the stories are wrapped up neatly with polite little happy endings; Tsiolkas is most definitely not a polite writer. I should also mention ‘Petals’, with its unique voice derived from having been written first in Greek and then translated by Tsiolkas; the effect is startling. If I wanted to be slightly unfair again, I might characterise Tsiolkas’ writing as ‘car crash fiction’–what you see is awful, but you can’t take your eyes off it.
Which I think is why I’m drawn to him. Some of my own writing is quite ‘dark’–my novella deals with a terminally ill father and the consequences of this for his son, ‘Catch Me’ dealt with parental grief, and the play I’ve just drafted for Mudlark Theatre features some fairly brutal violence, including a mother belting the living shit out of her daughter. I’m not necessarily a violent person; quick-tempered at times perhaps. So where does this stuff come from?
It comes, I hope, from that sense of honesty. I suspect much of Tsiolkas’s work comes from a similar instinct. You need to know that this stuff happens, Tsiolkas seems to tell us. Look at it. To deny it is to lie. Although I don’t feel as qualified to mention this, I also think that Tsiolkas writes homosexuality beautifully–he normalises it, in a society where marriage equality is still something of a long-term ambition and homophobic bigotry is never far from the Letters pages of our newspapers.
Finally, there are some interesting questions here about why we read. Don’t pick up a book by Christos Tsiolkas if you want a pleasant afternoon’s escape; you probably won’t like what you see in his mirror. But that mirror must be held up, and sooner or later we should all look. Humanity isn’t just about happy endings; it’s about Knowing. Perhaps, if we know, we can understand; and perhaps, if we understand, we can have empathy. Between you and me, I don’t think it’s possible to have too much empathy.
Thanks for reading.