Books

Christos Tsiolkas
7 ½

“If you’re uncertain if a book is autofiction,” ran a recent, waggish listicle on lithub.com, “turn to the names for clues.” “If the protagonist is unnamed, it’s autofiction. If the protagonist is named, it’s fiction. But if the protagonist has the same initials as the author, then it’s double autofiction. If the protagonist has the same name as the author, it will earn back its advance.”

The protagonist of Christos Tsiolkas’s most recent novel is Christos Tsiolkas. This narrator shares many physical attributes, biographical details and personal opinions with the writer we have come to know and admire. His account of a brief period of creative withdrawal at a beachside house on the New South Wales south coast forms the autobiographical spine of the present work.

But Tsiolkas is not joining the autofictional gravy train to get down with the youth and sell some extra copies. He’s hopped it with the intention of derailing the cars of a literary moment he vehemently rejects.

Narrator “Tsiolkas” tells us at the outset that he writes in a time when “the novel is unbearably timid”: “It often mistakes itself as being Revolutionary or Progressive or Subversive. But it is none of those things. It is the novelist looking over her shoulder, seeking the approval of her peers, her colleagues, her friends, her social media feed.”

This combination of sanctimony and cowardice is anathema to Tsiolkas, the working-class Greek boy whose success as a novelist lifted him into the middle class, yet whose homosexuality made him an outsider to bourgeois mores. His appropriation of autofictional modes in should, then, be read as a calculated and defiant “screw you”: a weaponising of the fashionable literary form most closely associated with the class he’s set on decrying.

What we get instead is two invented or recalled narratives nested inside an angry, anguished and occasionally self-lacerating editorial on the responsibility of the artist. Narrator Tsiolkas has, at the story’s outset, rented a beach house as a way of muting the white noise of contemporary life. He has reluctantly agreed to his long-term lover’s plea to bring a mobile phone, but otherwise the narrator has gone monastically analog. These are days to swim and walk on the beach, to smoke cigarettes and ponder, and to work with diligence and discipline on a new novel, the story of which has haunted him for years.

This official narrative, speculatively titled Sweet Thing after the Van Morrison song, concerns a retired gay porn star named Paul, who moved to Australia with his wife and child in the wake of a long career of sexual flamboyance in America. Having avoided the twin dangers of HIV and drug addiction, Paul has discovered the more durable joys of ordinary domestic felicity. He did gay porn only because the money was better than the straight kind, after all. Then a mysterious older rich man from the States makes contact through a third party. He wishes to purchase Paul for three days – and pay him $180,000 for the privilege.

But in summoning the story of Paul to the page, Tsiolkas – who bases the invented character on a real porn star he watched with undimmed desire for years – the question of Tsiolkas’s own erotic history becomes tangled up in invention. The second narrative strand takes the form of a memoir of Tsiolkas’s sexual evolution, from the young boy who regarded the tough Greek peasant friends of his mother and father with sacred reverence, to the adult man whose fictions shocked with their candour and explicitness.

Again and again in these pages, the purely sexual shades into a broader account of the author’s sensuous engagement with objects, images, memories, people and place. We learn that the erotic is only the doorway through which the artist is drawn, summoned within to create and re-create those aspects of reality that call to him.

“As a writer,” claims Tsiolkas, returning from one such reverie, “the moments we return to, that we change, that we exalt, that we sometimes dishonour and betray, are what the craft of fiction is about.” “That is why … the lying poet is to be expelled from all utopias. This is the first moment I can remember in which I understood fully, even in the moment of its happening, that truth and imagination are enemies.”

Narrator Tsiolkas returns to this idea doggedly: that the alchemical wonder of artistic creation is at odds with the strict biographical template from which autofiction emerges. The author connects the real and the fictive in a manner against the grain of authors such as Ben Lerner or Rachel Cusk. He insists on imaginative freedom rather than fiction restricted by fixed identity, where subject and style is always de rigueur and what Freud called the narcissism of small differences is on constant display.

Tsiolkas, it should be said, is so determined to be polemically successful in his attack on the current literary moment that he allows the fictional elements of his story to drift. For all its undeniable passion, its blunt and fearless defence of the artist’s calling, in the end 7 ½ falls between two stools: too real to be passed off as the monologue of a “literary” character, yet too wedded to the free play of story to beat autofiction – which uses subtle modulation of the real for literary ends – at its own game.

Geordie Williamson

Allen & Unwin, 360pp, $32.99

Christos Tsiolkas is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 20, 2021 as "7 ½, Christos Tsiolkas".

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Reviewer: Geordie Williamson