Pow­er­ful ren­di­tion of hu­man­ity, warts and all

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed Wright

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

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