How can it be that in an era when literature’s power to shock has been tested to the point of exhaustion, Christos Tsiolkas retains the ability to do just that? Think back to the most determinedly decadent writers in recent Anglosphere literature. My vote goes to Bret Easton Ellis – and you will note that the American’s books have a curiously prophylactic quality. Readers are preserved from the full impact of, say, American Psycho’s transgressive subject matter because of the satiric or stylistic filters that Ellis applies to his reality. The result is ugly stories done pretty, like Vogue shoots of junkie chic.
Tsiolkas is another creature entirely. There is no intervening layer of irony or exquisiteness to mute his material. When in Merciless Gods an embittered but loving son ends up masturbating his Alzheimer’s-addled father in a nursing home and tasting the last drip of the old man’s semen (“Genetic Material”), or when a bisexual man is beaten and then sodomised by his drunken boyfriend in their living room (“Jessica Lange in ‘Frances’ ”), there is only the sincere subjectivity of the narrator at work within narratives whose progress is relayed in terms of bland, first-person documentary realism.
And these are not isolated instances. Tsiolkas’s first collection of short fiction, drawn from 20 years of writing, is populated by characters whose thoughts are often facile, whose fears and desires are nakedly exposed, and whose exploits result in undergraduate epiphanies or ecstatic outbreaks of violence or pleasure. They are trembling, confused, unformed creations and, with a couple of fascinating exceptions, the narratives in which they are embedded do not read at all like “literature” as it is generally conceived.
This is not a criticism; it is an acknowledgment that the power of a writer’s style may emerge from a calculated renunciation of sophisticated substance and effects. Tsiolkas’s genius partly lies in his willingness to embrace all the vulgar thoughts, acts and objects that many other writers consciously exclude in order to achieve their more rarefied ends. Don’t be fooled by the crass materials from which these stories are made into thinking they are crass. Vulgarity may be the great engine driving his fiction, but Merciless Gods reveals that it is aimed in the same direction as all true art.
Take “The Hair of the Dog”, which opens with the following sentence: “My mother is best known for giving blow jobs to Pete Best and Paul McCartney in the toilets of the Star-Club in Hamburg one night in the early Sixties.” As an opening, it is about as arresting as they come. Yet what follows scrambles the very voyeuristic impulses such a statement inspires. The story is narrated by a middle-aged German man now based in Australia, and the scabrous tale about his mother comes from an account written by her in later life and entitled in its English translation The Hair of the Dog.
This critically lauded debut was a memoir of unrepentant alcoholism. It emerged from the pen of a woman who had turned her back in disgust on the rancid propriety of mid 20th-century Germany. Her hatred of her own mother became a hatred of the nuclear family altogether. Her son, long settled with his male partner in Melbourne, loves his mother but does not admire the hostile extremity of her attitudes. She publicly upbraids him as a petit bourgeois, he privately considers her a mean old drunk. All of which makes his response to her passing all the more perverse:
She died in her sleep. Her wish was to be cremated. I returned to Germany for her funeral and it was during this time I discovered for myself the wonderful numbing panacea of alcohol. Throughout the organisation of her funeral, the endless conversations with journalists and critics, I drank. I drank from morning to night, I was drunk at the service, I was drunk at the wake, I was drunk on the flight home.
A number of the stories replicate this dynamic. In “The Disco at the End of Communism” a brother finds himself in the backblocks of Byron Bay attending a pre-funeral wake for his younger brother, an artist-activist dead from drink and drugs in his early 50s. The narrator, we learn, in obedience to the strict and narrowly conservative wishes of his European migrant parents, has established a career and a family of the appropriate kind.
His brother Leo, by contrast, was an anarch in matters sexual and political. He rebelled against their father with a satanic anger and energy, and abandoned all family responsibilities to his older brother decades before. Here Tsiolkas once again pitches two ways of being in the world together and generates maximum emotional violence from the clash. And here again removal of one side of the human equation demands that the survivor reconstitute themselves without a loved or hated Other to kick against or cleave to.
In Merciless Gods’ most successful stories this balance raises profound and disturbing questions. Is it correct to regard character or conduct as deserving of condemnation to the degree that it deviates from some ostensibly liberal, middle-class, masculine, heterosexual norm? Could it not be the case that the societal standards of the day represent another pathology, albeit one with official sanction? Whatever the truth of the matter, Tsiolkas – a gay, Greek, working-class boy from the suburban margins of an antipodean city – is ideally situated to press the points.
All this makes Tsiolkas sound too tactical, too fiercely on point in political terms. But that is not the case. The other glory of the stories, and the quality that redeems them from cleverly orchestrated agitprop, are the many instances of tenderness, sensuality and unashamed enunciation of desire they contain. Their presence insists that violence is not the only means to carve out a proper distance from the cool, ironic, conservative virtues of official literature. AF
Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $32.99