November 2013

Arts & Letters

Christos Tsiolkas’ ‘Barracuda’

By James Bradley

A barracuda. Source: Wikimedia Commons

All fired up

In the opening pages of Christos Tsiolkas’ fifth novel, Barracuda (Allen & Unwin; $32.99), a man stands on the shore of a Scottish loch.

“The girls and the women are all in bikinis, the boys and the men are all in shorts, and bare-chested or in singlets. Except me: I have jeans on and two layers on top, a t-shirt and an old yellowing shirt. The sun feels weak to me; it can’t get any stronger than pleasant, it can’t build to fire, it can’t manage force.”

It’s a revealing moment, because force is a quality Tsiolkas seems to admire very much. In the still-thrilling energy of his debut, Loaded (1995), the queasy return of the repressed in Dead Europe (2005) and the tabloid sprawl of The Slap (2008), there is an almost physical charge to the Melbourne writer’s language and imagery, a privileging of a certain sort of rapt intensity. Homesickness doesn’t descend, it hits; characters fantasise about acts of violence and violation; even sex is not sex, but fucking and being fucked, a process in which true release seems to lie not in intimacy but in giving oneself over to the dominant partner’s desires. At every turn, Tsiolkas’ fiction hurls itself at the reader, demanding a reaction.

Nor is this forcefulness simply aesthetic. In his non-fiction, Tsiolkas has written of a novelist’s duty to be blasphemous. For him, fiction is not about representing society but confronting it with unpalatable truths, disrupting consensus. It is not the writer’s duty to reassure or console but to clear a path for new ways of thinking.

Yet as the passage above suggests, this is counter-balanced by another quality, a sympathy so tender it might, were it not for its rawness, be almost sentimental. The dream of force, of transcendence, cuts both ways, exposing Tsiolkas’ characters as well as arming them.

In Barracuda, the forcefulness is given physical dimension in the character of Danny Kelly, a young swimmer with the talent and determination to become a champion.

When we first encounter Danny – or Dan, as he has become by then – standing beside the loch in Scotland, he is a mess: dislocated, depressed, isolated, living in a relationship with a man he doesn’t love, too ashamed to confess the truth about who he is and what he was. The reasons for this paralysis are not immediately evident, yet it becomes clear they involve not just failure in the pool but an act of violence that led to a stint in prison and estrangement from family and friends.

There are echoes here of the story of Nick D’Arcy, who was dropped from the Australian Olympic swimming team in 2008 after assaulting one of his teammates. (He received a suspended 14-month jail sentence.) Yet where the blond, blue-eyed D’Arcy was all too clearly a member of society’s elite, Danny is the opposite; the son of a truck driver, he earns a place at one of Melbourne’s most prestigious private schools thanks to his ability and purpose.

It might be possible to read Barracuda as little more than a novel about the collision between gay, ethnic, working-class Danny and the school’s world of entrenched privilege. In one of the book’s more deliberate – and self-mockingly compulsive – acts of provocation, the school is only ever referred to as “Cunts College”. Certainly a great deal of Barracuda’s energy is devoted to Danny’s attempts to navigate the unfamiliar world of the school; he is marked as an outsider by his voice, the colour of his skin, his obliviousness to the complex social codes that rule his classmates’ worlds (one asks him despairingly why he still doesn’t get that he can’t just “drop around” without an invitation), even his Greek-Australian mother’s overt sexuality. It’s perhaps a sign of the selectiveness of Tsiolkas’ sympathies that sensuality seems to be a quality reserved for working-class women like Danny’s mother, while the ruling-class women and girls Danny encounters through the school are conflicted, controlling and out of touch with their bodies.

It is also possible to see in Danny the embodiment of the rhetoric of winners and losers that increasingly pervades contemporary culture. Danny’s sense of self is bound up in his ability to be the best. It is not enough for him to win, it is necessary for him to beat everybody else, to prove his superiority, both in the pool and, later, with his fists.

Tsiolkas has written of a novelist’s duty to be blasphemous. For him, fiction is not about representing society but confronting it with unpalatable truths

Yet even as Danny carves himself a place in the school community – a place recognised by his nicknames, “Barracuda” and, less comfortably, “Psycho Kelly” – his need to win appears to disguise a deeper vulnerability. In a practical sense, this vulnerability expresses itself in a need for the reassurance of routine, whether in the form of training or, later in life, of an order to his days. It is also present in Danny’s ambivalence about his own body, about the way its heaviness and hairiness contrasts with the lean, waxed bodies of swimming’s “golden boys”, and later, after he has given up swimming, the fat around his waist and elsewhere.

This sort of ambivalence isn’t new in Tsiolkas’ fiction. Since Loaded, his work has always had a curiously unresolved relationship with the male body, fetishising the “thick cocks” and pressing physicality of male characters while simultaneously allowing their bodies to exist as intrusive, disruptive forces. In Barracuda it takes on a new dimension when Danny, after his release from prison (and a not very convincing side-trip to Adelaide to visit his mother’s family, most of whom are Jehovah’s Witnesses), discovers an aptitude for helping people whose bodies – or at least their ability to control them – have been irreparably damaged by accidents of one sort or another.

Like the depiction of Danny’s time in prison, the most striking thing about these sections is the way they serve to remind us of how rarely this sort of difference is represented in fiction, and of the degree to which it renders the exaltation of sporting success not just meaningless but almost offensive.

Yet alongside this interest in contemporary Australia’s fascination with success, Barracuda seeks to ask other, broader questions. Some of these concern class, or, more pointedly, the processes by which individuals transcend their origins, and what that costs them. Others concern the ways in which prosperity is transforming society, and by extension our assumptions about who we are and where we come from.

At least initially, the novel seems to want to use sport as a vehicle for many of these questions, perhaps seeing in it a metaphor for Australian society more generally. Yet this larger connection never quite gels, forcing the novel back into the realm of the personal. In its place, we get arguments in restaurants about contemporary Australia’s soullessness and vacuity, its ugliness and intolerance. “You all think you’re so egalitarian, but you’re the most status-seeking people I’ve ever met,” declares Danny’s Scots boyfriend, Clyde, in one of the book’s set pieces.

You call yourselves laid-back but you’re angry and resentful all the time. You say there’s no class system here, but you’re terrified of the poor, and you say you’re anti-authoritarian but all there are here are rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don’t climb there, don’t go here, don’t smoke and don’t drink here and don’t play there and don’t drink and drive and don’t go over the speed limit and don’t do anything human.

To an extent, this doesn’t matter: as is so often the case in Tsiolkas’ fiction, there is something gloriously panoptic about his anger, a sense he shares Clyde’s contempt while simultaneously registering the complacency with which privileged cosmopolitans like Clyde express such views. And as Barracuda amply demonstrates, the sheer energy of Tsiolkas’ writing – its urgency and passion and sudden jags of tenderness – is often an end in itself: a thrilling, galvanising reminder of the capacity of fiction to speak to the world it inhabits.

At the same time, the real power of Barracuda lies not in its broader critique but in its sympathy, for the damaged Danny and for its characters more generally. Because it is this sympathy as much as the anger that makes Tsiolkas’ fiction tick, the knowledge that sometimes the only way to win is to let go or to realise, as Danny does in the book’s final pages, that in the end belonging is less important than just learning to be.

James Bradley

James Bradley is an author and a critic. His books include WrackThe ResurrectionistClade and Ghost Species.

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