Swimming Against the Tide

31 August 2014

Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas’ fantastic new novel about the rise and fall of a young Greek-Australian swimmer, is his best work yet: ferocious, compassionate and brimming with observations about Australia’s turbulent cultural melting pot.

Barracuda is the fifth novel by Cristos Tsiolkas, a writer who seems to have been around forever (his first novel, Loaded, was published in the middle of the grungy 1990s) but whose output, like Donna Tartt’s, is measured and unfashionably slow in gestation.

Tsiolkas has a surprise international success with his last novel, The Slap. A sprawling narrative set in contemporary Melbourne, The Slap chronicled the disintegration of a group of adult friends after a disgruntled suburban dad slaps a friend’s unruly three year-old child at a family barbeque. Each chapter was told through the perspective of a different character, creating an uneven but satisfyingly complex portrait of a community fraying at the seams.

The Slap was a couple of steps away from being great literature – the writing was repetitive in places, and too many of the characters sounded the same – but its effect was like a thunderclap, striking at the fault lines in Australia’s fantasy of itself as a liberal multicultural society. In Tsioklas’ world, personal identity is a series of clashing tectonic plates. Everyone wrestles alone in the dark with the conflicting parts of their lives – family, ethnicity, sexuality, social class – and reassembles the pieces to try and fit. There are no universal truths or easy reconciliations, and loved ones hurt each other as easily as they find connection.

In addition to huge success in Australia, The Slap became a sleeper hit in the UK, a market which is generally unresponsive to Antipodean writers. The novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize and ABC’s fantastic television adaptation played to good audiences and was nominated for a BAFTA  award for best international drama series. In an amusing example of post-colonial condescension, many of the British critics expressed surprise that The Slap reflected Australia as a developed nation with a literary industry of its own, rather than the exotic wilderness portrayed in Crocodile Dundee. 

Arundhati Roy once said in an interview that perhaps the greatest advantage of literary success is the right to take one’s time about what comes next. It’s a strategy that seems to have worked well for Tsiolkas. Barracuda, published five years after The Slap, is his best piece of writing yet – a return to the anguished first-person narration of Loaded, fused with the broader scope and state-of-the-nation sensibility he developed in The Slap.

Barracuda is the story of Danny, a Greek-Australian teenager from a working class family, whose talent as a competitive swimmer wins him a place at a prestigious private school. The novel begins much later in time from the main action – Danny is an adult, living in the UK and in a relationship with a Scotsman, and inexplicably unable to swim. The narrative glides effortlessly backwards and forwards in time, tracing Danny’s Icarus-like rise and fall, and his fumbling attempts to reconstruct his life afterwards.

While Tsiolkas’ characters have always been time bombs waiting to go off, Danny is his most incendiary creation yet – a character of classically tragic proportions, who comes close to tumbling into a moral abyss. Tsiolkas is phenomenally good at describing the intensity and confusion of male adolescence. His writing takes us literally inside Danny’s skin as he feels disgust at his growing body, and his embarrassment and loneliness and he tries and fails to relate to others. Danny flails against his sense of shame at his social inferiority, and creates his persona of Barracuda as a fuck-you and an escape from his circumstances. He finds release and solace only when he is swimming, which Tsiolkas describes in sequences of breathtaking lyricism and beauty.

Tsiolkas balances his narrative strategies carefully: we become engrossed in Danny’s story, hoping as he does that he’ll be able to swim his way towards a better life, even though we know from the outset that we’re headed towards the inferno. Like all tragic heroes, we’re made aware of the flaws in his character and the limits in his perspective that contribute to his downfall.

Tsiolkas is well-known as a frank and fearless chronicler of male homosexual desire. It’s amusing now to recall the shock waves Loaded prompted on its release. (Ana Kokkinos’ film adaptation Head On, starring the young and frequently naked Alex Dimitriades, was similarly no-holds-barred in its depiction of sex, drug taking and casual violence). Given his history as a provocateur and a truth-teller, it’s interesting to note how measured Tsiolkas is in the revelation of Danny’s sexuality. Unlike Ari in Loaded, whose closeted homosexuality was a cornerstone of his social alienation, Danny’s sexuality is nascent for the first half of the book. Tsiolkas drops a few clues along the way – there’s Danny’s intense rivalry with the “golden boy” in his swimming squad, his apparent lack of interest in girls, and a quasi-erotic overtone in his relationship with his swimming coach – but for the most part we experience things only as Danny does. If this kind of self-denial seems implausible, we need only look to real life for a corroboration. By a weird coincidence, Barracuda was released a few months before Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe revealed his homosexuality in a television interview, after years of lies and deception to his family and the press.

Danny’s eventual sexual epiphany comes in a sequence set in prison, which is both thrilling and something of a cliché. It’s precious and middle-class of me, I know, but I increasingly wish that gay novelists could move beyond Genet-like scenarios of anal sex as something painful and humiliating, and find ways to describe gay sex in terms other than a dom-sub porn fantasy. It makes sense that Danny’s sexual awakening would be sudden and brutal, and there’s something honest and bracing in the way Tsiolkas focuses on the carnality of sex, but still this sequence jars uncomfortably. It’s one of only a few missteps in the novel, in which Tsiolkas feels the need to step out of his own narrative and reassert his angry 90s nihilist credentials.

This overbearing authorial intervention isn’t limited to sex. An extended lunchtime debate between the adult Danny and his friends about the state of Australian national identity feels clunky and not entirely convincing in terms of the narrative. Tsiolkas’ tendency for polemic and his enthusiasm to explore big ideas in his writing makes him a stimulating read, even if it highlights the limitations in his literary technique. Still, a passionately argued mess is a more entertaining read than a polite weight of middle class good taste. To his credit, Tsiolkas is now a mature enough writer to reflect critically on his own lefty liberal politics. The somewhat underwritten character of Clyde, Danny’s Scottish boyfriend, is used well to poke fun at the solipsism and political complacency of Danny’s Chardonnay Socialist friends.

Barracuda ends on a surprising note, veering off in a direction I hadn’t quite anticipated, to focus on Danny’s fraught relationship with his father. It seems like a stealth move and somewhat random, given the other more urgent narrative strands at play. It wasn’t until my second reading that I realised Tsiolkas had planned it this way all along: familial rejection and the search for forgiveness forms is deeply rooted in the DNA of Barracuda. Despite the white hot fire of his anger, Tsiolkas is, at heart, a humanist, albeit an unsentimental one. He writes compassionately and non-judgmentally about his flawed, combative characters, and allows for the possibility of redemption with extraordinary grace.

Barracuda is a novel by a writer working at the peak of his powers. It will alienate some readers and disinterest others (I’d love to see what the Pinot Grigio-swilling ladies of suburban book clubs will make of Tsiolkas’ descriptions of prison tattoos and shaving body hair), but so it should. There’s something deeply satisfying about witnessing Tsiolkas’ growth as a writer, from 90s hellraiser into a novelist of stature and insight. Barracuda is a triumph, and one of the most potent and powerful Australian novels of the decade.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s