November 2023


Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘The In-Between’

By Sean O’Beirne
Cover of ‘The In-Between’
The latest from the acclaimed Australian author throws scorn at those who claim virtue and the complete control of their desires

Christos Tsiolkas is still so good at arranging the elements of a literary story: its necessary detail, its necessary drama. In the opening pages of The In-Between (Allen & Unwin) he deftly assembles the biggest and the smallest pieces: here is a man, Perry, he is in his 50s, he is a Greek Australian, he has been very hurt in love, he is going on a date, he needs to choose a tie, he will leave his hair wet for now, he will style it later. Tsiolkas is never afraid to include the most ordinary stuff, ordinary jobs, small decisions. There’s such pleasure in this kind of mimesis, when it’s done well, the smaller details can remind you that even your most commonplace actions have value, are proof that you have senses, that you can, as Christopher Isherwood put it, be “counted in … the ranks of that marvellous minority, The Living”. Though of course plenty of writers can supply the smaller details, what makes Tsiolkas exceptional is his ability to show how excessive and unstable our senses are, how we never just enjoy our perceptions in some benign way, but find them turning continuously into greed, and then shame, and then greed again.

Both Perry and his date, Ivan, have been humiliated by a desire that had something too excessive, too extravagantly wishful in it. Perry was with a partner, Gerard, for years, because Gerard was French, he was an academic, he had the authority of a wonderful, imagined, aristocratic father. He also had a wife and two children and kept Perry on the side as his dirty little secret. Ivan was with Joe, for years, because Joe was young, wonderfully young, he gave Ivan (who is Serbian Australian, and, like Perry, in his 50s) the chance to “try to claim a younger body, a smoother body”. Tsiolkas, as with Hector and Connie in The Slap, or Conrad and Paul in , is asking us to see these kinds of excessive, asymmetrical desires, and see that they are, in some form, inevitable in most people. Ivan’s wanting Joe is exactly the sort of mistake we all make, one way or another, in our human imaginations, for what Ivan wants, really, is to never be hurt, to never age and to never die. What we want is always irresponsible, or immoral, or impossible.

And The In-Between is full of scorn for those who attempt to deny this. Throughout the book, Perry and Ivan work hard to make a better bargain with their desires, to still be immoderate – for sex, “furiously eager” sex, for delicious food and drink – but also to moderate themselves, so they can earn each other’s trust and respect. It takes courage: both men have to confess the worst of what their bodies and emotions have done. Perry has to tell Ivan: Gerard was married, but I stayed. Ivan has to tell Perry: I hit Joe once, in the face. In a long dinner-party scene, Tsiolkas contrasts this work, this consciousness of sin, with the habit (so fashionable now) of pretending you are very virtuous, you are only virtuous. Perry and Ivan are brought together with some of Perry’s old friends: lovely tertiary-educated, inner-city people, who are sitting, quite snug, in the midst of the finance-capital system, but who also need to think of themselves as entirely progressive. “I read The New York Times,” says Evelyn, whose father was a doctor and whose mother was a principal at a private girls’ school, “to know where injustices are occurring in my world.” She adds later that women are never cruel, “Men make women cruel.” To which Ivan replies, “That’s bullshit.”

Tsiolkas, in among his deftly assembled details, is making a strong argument for Ivan and Perry’s southern European working-class, or peasant, sensibility – and against the foolish “educated” middle-class belief that we can have it all: be wilful and individual and wealthy and reasonable and responsible and compassionate. Ivan does remember that the peasant world his family came from can be “spiteful and small-minded” and yet “they have humility”. I have a niggling objection to this preference for an older type of humility, for it is the more wilful, individual, middle-class sensibility that gave us that wilful, individual form, the novel. And some other good things as well? But I also bow to what Tsiolkas is saying here. The middle-class, left-liberal, virtue-signalling people who will mostly read this book (and I include myself in this) do badly need to be told a story about how many problems won’t have a solution, exactly, and how much insane desire lies in every human heart.

Sean O’Beirne

Sean O’Beirne is a bookseller and critic, and the author of the short fiction collection A Couple of Things Before the End.

Cover of ‘The In-Between’

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