Powerful rendition of humanity, warts and all
Merciless Gods By Christos Tsiolkas Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $32.99 AFTER five novels, Christos Tsiolkas has released his first collection of short stories, and it’s well worth the wait. Merciless Gods is a collection full of vitality, clever angles, shock value, power and unexpected delicacy.
These stories straddle almost two decades of Tsiolkas’s career and display many of the preoccupations of his writing. The political troika of identity politics — class, race and sexuality — feature, as may be expected of a contemporary novelist who began his career in the 1980s. So much writing that works with these rubrics devolves to turgid pieties obedient to the limits of decency, but Tsiolkas has the gift to infuse them with tension and dazzle. Moreover, he shows how these values interact with the grand old
October 25-26, 2014 themes of literature: death, love and revenge. The title story picks up on a vogue for stories framed by storytelling (Wayne Macauley’s recent Demons being another). Told in retrospect it concerns the dissolution of a group of friends that may or not have resulted from a night of telling stories.
Aesthetically employed Melburnians, they have gathered in one couple’s Collins Street apartment to celebrate the success of two of their number: Marie, who has secured an editing gig in San Francisco, and Hande, who has landed a job as a solicitor in a prestigious law firm. There’s champagne and seafood, a beautiful view of the Melbourne cityscape, and pills — all the yuppie accoutrements to a good night out in the 80s.
This set-up shows a keen awareness of the faultlines of elite culture: the convergence of left-wing politics with high-end consumption.
And there’s further tension. Vince, “brilliant, quick-witted, a child of energy who wore his entry to the bourgeoisie as both a chip on the shoulder and a badge of honour”, had come second to Marie, the multilingual child of a diplomat, in the bid for the editing job. Some thwarted desire adds to the undercurrent of their chemically enhanced camaraderie.
Each person writes down a word on pieces of paper that are scrunched into a ball. One is chosen, and the theme is revenge. The stories play with the satisfactions, redemptions and costs of revenge. As the evening progresses the stories become more extreme, until one character claims to have done something the others find unforgiveable. Revenge is one of great subjects of literature, but Tsiolkas still manages to deliver surprise to the reader and, in making it contemporary, gives these ancient arguments vibrant embodied life.
There’s a keen sense of generation in many of the stories. Whereas the title story Gods is a tale of the lost youth of generation X, others deal teasingly with the baby boomers. In The Hair of the Dog, the narrator tells the story of his German author mother, best known for blow- ing two of the Beatles. The Disco at the End of Communism captures an engineer’s journey to his bohemian brother’s funeral in the Byron Bay hinterland. It’s a story beautifully told; the reader’s moral sensibilities are subtly and constantly manipulated to create a complex vision of the good and bad emanating from an insistent commitment to the 60s bohemian ethos.
As a collection, the stories play off each other superbly. Saturn Return, for instance, is another story of a counter-culture man coming to his end. This time it’s a wry and tender one where the narrator and his lover, Barney, travel to Glebe in Sydney to attend the assisted suicide of Barney’s father, Dan, a bohemian musician and errant father, who is dying of AIDS.
Although the stories span 20 years, there’s a collective sense of an author growing into a recognition of his mortality, an awareness that generates both edge but also generosity, the acceptance of people and their foibles that can grow out of the shared knowledge of the inevitability of our demise. There’s a feeling of care