Like many others, I had been excitedly anticipating Tsiolkas’ follow-up to The Slap. I wasn’t disappointed. Firstly, if you hated The Slap (and I know many of you did!) for its unlikeable characters, then you may take issue with Barracuda’s largely flawed protagonist, Danny Kelly. I feel like I need to write a 5000 word essay about Australian national identity to even begin to scratch the surface of this text. Chris Lilley’s satirical mockumentary, Ja’mie, Private School Girl, is working with the same themes; race and class in modern Australia. Artists of Australia are certainly grappling with who and what we are, here in Oz. We’ve never been more aware of our thoroughly ambiguous sense of national identity, of the ever-growing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.
I’m going to tell you something about myself, something that undoubtedly impacts upon my writing. I have straddled two worlds in my life: I went to public schools and grew up in a largely working class suburb. My parents gave me and my brother the option to go to elite private schools for high school. My brother went, and I stayed in my comfort zone, with a peer group that I loved. I was best buddies with children of butchers and hairdressers and tradesmen. But we don’t like to talk about class, here in Australia; I feel an odd sort of cultural cringe, even as I write about butchers and hairdressers and tradesmen, like their vocations mean anything at all. But the truth is, I’ve watched these offspring go forth and make good. For all the exposure to degeneracy and poverty (and in the surrounding suburbs, there was plenty of it), the great bulk of the people I know are leading good lives. I know, because I’m still good friends with many of them. Oh, and of course, Facebook told me. And the interesting thing, is that the great bulk of my cohort are firmly middle class, with a similar level of wealth and similar preoccupations. But some of them are as aspirational as their parents were, except they’re ready to climb the next rung; they want the elite private schools, the houses in the best suburbs; all the trappings that an individualist, capitalist society promotes. Very few of these peers went to university, but in Western Australia, with mining and endless urban development, a trade, or a PA job in a wealthy firm can take you a long way. Perth is a truly fascinating place at the moment. I can’t help but think of the ‘old money/new money’ discourse, the way terms like ‘cashed-up bogan’ have become an acceptable phrase in our vernacular. It is a loaded phrase, demeaning to the ‘new money’. Denigrating language is a missile; a symptom of age-old class warfare and power play.
Tsiolkas said in a recent interview, ‘People are going to ask me what this book is about, and I had a note that was above my desk at the beginning of writing this book and it’s how to be a good man’. But I would go a step further and suggest that Tsiolkas’ new novel is an adjunct to The Slap, dealing with the same themes, but with new insights: How do we raise good humans? How do we instil morals in our kids? What is more important: success or kindness? I’m particularly interested in this notion- I’m trying to raise two healthy young boys. Tsiolkas beautifully examines these themes within a distinctly Australian obsession: the world of competitive sport.
I loved this novel, but, as with The Slap, it was uncomfortable reading. It’s the kind of book I’d like to see on the upper-school English syllabus. Unfortunately, the graphic sex scenes might be an issue. I struggled with the more venal passages in the text; there were parts where I felt physically repulsed, but this makes me admire Tsiolkas all the more. He has a knack for delivering a resounding ‘whack about the head’, a punch in the guts, by showing us a world that is all too familiar.
If you’ve made it this far, here are some notes I wrote on The Slap, back in 2009.
The Slap is a morality tale that reveals the absence of absolute morality; of society’s constant state of moral ambiguity. Fractured by its narrative structure, this is a novel of postmodern torture where multiple realities have very real implications for each character. Christos Tsiolkas is masterful in his ability to make sympathetic characters out of those who can otherwise seem morally bereft. He so astutely examines the Australian middle class; the concerns and complexities that make the characters so very real and flawed. The characters and themes just felt so familiar- this text resonated with me in a profound way.
Tsolkias shows individuals struggling to connect with their community despite the fewer strictures that class and race may have previously imposed. I was interested by the way that he tackled class, how even those living on a meagre income have come to inhabit the middle class. Individuals, previously exiled, have gained access to a bourgeois lifestyle. It’s not all about money- it is about image. Rosie, a stay at home mother with a no-hoper, alcoholic, would-be-artist husband laments their inability to have their own home but is comfortable in the knowledge that her Birkenstocks, her purchase of Vanity Fair and ‘expensive, chic’ David Jones skirt gives her right of entry to the middle class.
The fluidity of class and race is never more apparent than in Bilal, an Australian aboriginal who has undergone a massive transformation. From alcoholic blackfella Terry to Bilal, who, despite his “unmistakeable black accent, a jaunty melody in the vowels, distinctly different from the close-mouthed thud of the white man’s tongue” has adopted a clean living, Islamic lifestyle. Through Terry/Bilal, Tsiolkias has beautifully tackled some very current Australian anxieties and misunderstandings about Aboriginal and Muslim identity. The hysteria and paranoia that surrounds these racial and religious differences is particular to our time. Tsiolkas doesn’t try to elucidate too much, just represents cultural difference in a way that often varies from the stereotypes perpetuated in the Australian consciousness. Bilal’s wife, Shamira (also an assumed name, she too has converted) and the other Melburnian Islamic women playfully refer to their parents as ‘Mussies’ (a term I had not encountered before this novel) and it is a joy to feel privy to the intimacies and the normalcy of a culture that is so often ‘shrouded’ in the popular media.
Tsiolkias paints ours as a highly misogynistic society. I’d love to sit down to dinner with this man, a Greek Australian gay male writer, and find out who he is and how he feels about things. If nothing else, this book reminds us that ‘gay’, ‘Greek’, ‘Australian’ and ‘male’ can mean everything or nothing. His take on women in contemporary Australia is pretty grim. In this text the concerns of motherhood are petty and women are divided by the choices that feminism has provided. Women are constantly objectified, most frequently, in the pubescent, waifish state that our society celebrates.
Harry, a successful businessman who beats his wife observes four young girls in thin strip bikinis showering in the park: ‘…they had pert adolescent tits, they were blonde and lithe.’
Hector, despite his love for his wife Aisha, commits adultery with a 17 year old and would have no problem ‘...falling asleep in a girl’s locker room, surrounded by the moist heady fragrance of sweet young c**t.’
Gary exposes his four year old son to pornographic images in girly magazines.
And yet, it’s the mothers who really cop it in this book. They are often cast as weak and self serving- their maternal urge, or lack of it, seems to define them. Women are castigated in the usual way, the usual mother/whore archetypes rearing their head more than a few times. I think that the observations in this text serve as an indictment on the sorry state of affairs that is our confused post-feminist world where women are still defined by maternity and appearance.
Rosie breastfeeds her four year old, Hugo, and is vilified throughout the book for doing so. I have no major issue with sustained breastfeeding. However, in my opinion, Rosie does use breastfeeding inappropriately. It is basically her ONLY form of behaviour management. Maybe not the best idea for a four year old? Hugo is the catalyst for narrative action; he is the little fellow who is slapped at the barbecue (for wielding a cricket bat a little too close to the offender’s son’s head!) and he seems to be the product of uber-permissive parenting. He is mollycoddled and there never seem to be consequences for bad behaviour. Rather, any type of offensive conduct is rewarded with a snuggly, warm breast.
Tsiolkas appears interested in the swing of the pendulum in terms of parenting: he examines the ramifications when parents practice permissive parenting and do not provide boundaries. Tsolkias asks: How do adults help to develop a sense of morality in their children? I read in an interview that he is continually appalled by a lack respect for the elderly in today’s youth. Parenting paradigms have changed so much over the last 60 years and Tsolkias insightfully tackles the current confusion surrounding the moral education of the next generation.