Christos Tsiolkas / Allen & Unwin
The range of Christos Tsiolkas’ fiction has widened in recent years. His last two novels, The Slap (2008) and Barracuda (2013), proved that he was adept at exploring worlds with a sustained gaze, an energy less centred in the first instance on delivering the shock roller-coaster experience that characterised his earlier works, Loaded, Jesus Man and Dead Europe. While this shift delivered Tsiolkas up to a wider readership, it’s welcome to see in this collection of 15 short stories, seven of which have been previously published, the persistence of Tsiolkas’ more stripped back core. That core is doubly charged. Let’s call the charge at one end ‘cruelty’ and the other ‘love’. In most cases it’s possible to isolate a story and hang on its elements one or the other label. ‘Merciless Gods’, the new story that gives the collection its title, features a group of friends who are at the end of their collective tether. The final cut is made when, in a game, one member confesses an act of merciless and disproportionate revenge. Acts of racism inform both another new story, ‘Tourists’, and ‘Civil War’, a story from close to the beginning of Tsiolkas’ career. mIt’s perhaps telling of Tsiolkas’ maturing as a writer that while in the older story the racism, which involves outback truckers arming themselves for a racial civil war against Aboriginal Australians, is outright, aggressive and dystopian, in the newer story it’s almost incidental. Bill, an Australian tourist, utters a racist insult about a New York gallery attendant. While Bill’s partner, Trina, is the only one who hears what he says, by withholding her love for him as a political and moral tactic she delivers a consequence that he finds difficult to bear. In other stories love and cruelty aren’t so easy to disentangle. In ‘Genetic Material’ a family spends the day together at the beach. David, a boy of seven, is caught by a surge of desire to touch his father that is so sudden and so inexplicable, that he cannot find any other way of expressing its intensity but to punch him in the face. It’s a shocking but utterly complete act of violence that articulates and apparently communicates the feeling to his father. This unflinchingly observed nexus between embodied desire and what seems to Tsiolkas to be inescapable about masculine psychology has always been the most admirable, and perhaps most unique aspect of Tsiolkas’ writing. Never far from the surface is the public display and examination of the erotic, in which the depiction of sex both maintains and is stripped of desire, is titillating, disgusting and indifferent all at once. It doesn’t only emerge in the ‘Porn’ tryptich the three stories that close the collection that are largely about the visceral confrontation of sexuality. It’s there too in ‘Saturn’s Return’ as Stan and Barney, on the way from Melbourne to visit Barney’s dying father in Sydney, stop in at a caravan park near the remnants of the Bonegilla migrant camp where they film a private sex tape of themselves. When Barney’s father inadvertently sees it, their acts lose its eroticism. More than once, death, particularly the death of fathers, takes up the foreground. Through these themes, Tsiolkas delivers the flavour of life’s most visceral moments, an entanglement of brutality, desire, love and death, from which he strips away taboo and delivers something transcendent.