Merciless Gods, Christos Tsiolkas

Merciless Gods (2014) is Tsiolkas’s first collection of short fiction. I have been listening to the stories over a couple of months as I had time to kill, the Audible version, read, sadly, by Humphrey Bower whose educated, rounded tones are a very poor match for Tsiolkas’s frequently rough and ethnic protagonists.

Melanie/Grab the Lapels wrote, when she was reading Tsiolkas for the first time (The Slap) that she felt she “was being pursued by penises”. James Ley writes of these stories, “they are notable for their preoccupation with sex and violence, which they frequently bring into uneasy alignment.” (Sydney Review of Books, 1 Sept 2015). I can only say that Christos Tsiolkas writes with his dick.

If you are interested in a proper review, follow the link to Ley. I’ve been listening to these stories over a number of months and barely remember the last few I listened to, let alone the first. I would not have attempted this ‘review’ at all except that one story, Civil War, concerns a young man hitchhiking from Perth, getting lifts with truck drivers across the Nullarbor. Just for you, I am going to have to listen to it again, at my desk, so I can pause it and take notes.

Here’s an admission, discussing this story with Milly over dinner at the Balmoral, she looks it up. Now, days later, I can’t find what she found, a list of chapter headings/story names. Luckily, she gave the story a name, the reading doesn’t (yes it does, I just wasn’t paying attention), and searching on ‘Civil War Tsiolkas’ I find an earlier version published in the Barcelona Review, Issue #86 (here), so suddenly excerpts are a whole lot easier.

I am thinking about God, what it would look like, taste like, smell like. Outside the window of the truck the ochre ocean of the Nullarbor spreads out before me. The massive vehicle I’m travelling in is dwarfed by the grandeur of the prehistoric earth. Its deep guttural snorts, its thundering wheels are no competition for the explosive silence of the desert. God is absent from this landscape. Or rather, God too is eclipsed by the rocks and the dirt, the scrub and sand.

In fact, truck driving is a cocoon, insulating you from the sounds, the smells, even the temperature outside. Your preoccupation, to the extent that you are paying attention, is the road, always the road, what’s ahead – traffic, kangaroos, rest stops – and how your truck is doing. Looking around requires effort.

Nothing can withstand the hold of the desert. The truck driver, over a working life of breathing in this landscape, is also becoming part of it.
‘Don’t you ever get bored by it?’
He laughs loudly and points out to the plain. ‘You can’t get bored by this. I get real fucking bored by this road, by the asphalt and the bloody white lines. But you can’t get bored by this,’ and again he points across the scrub. ‘This land that looks like an atom bomb hit it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’

This is interesting, to me anyway, but is not the point of the story. In Perth, a “white city [living] in fear of the shadows cast by its black inhabitants”, the narrator has had a lover, a young Aboriginal man, who has died of a drug overdose.

I sat next to him and gently pulled out the syringe and took off his T-shirt, wiping away the vomit from around his mouth and chin.
I cried, but I’m still not sure if it was for him or for myself. I had not yet got to know this man who was still so very much a boy. I had been up his arse, I had sucked on his cock, but I knew very little about him. I knew that there was someone I should call: the police? the ambulance?

We move backwards and forwards, from the death and funeral of the young man, to the truck, a truckstop, a meeting of likeminded drivers.

‘People are getting ready … arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away.’ He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying.

The drivers are certain that a civil war is coming, that Aboriginal people are being armed “by the Jews”, and that they, we, must be armed to put them down. The truck moves off again, night falls, the narrator dozes, wakes to see a dark shape in front of them, a thump, ‘Sorry, mate, I think I might’ve just hit some pissed coon.’

A week later he’s in Sydney, making a new life.

I will feel safe and I will not question this safety. But occasionally, when a hot wind blows in from the west, I will remember that they are gathering guns in the outback.

Do truck drivers really talk like that, is that what’s going on in the other Australia, the not-Melbourne-Sydney? Maybe. They certainly use that language, and the idea that “The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars” is widespread. But no one imagines that Indigenous people are armed, and hopefully the days of “dispersions” are over.

What really impressed me was not Tsiolkas’s “knowledge” of truck drivers but his self awareness as a white man that these thoughts are not entirely repressed in his own mind, nor in ours. As he leaves the family gathered around a fire in the backyard after the funeral –

And what about you, you bastards? I was thinking. What about you lot? You were family. You should have done something. And now you insult him. You were too busy drinking and getting out of it in your own way. You fucking good-for-nothing lazy black bastards.
I’m ashamed even as I write these words. But it would be more shameful to pretend I did not think them.

I don’t recommend you read Merciless Gods. I don’t even recommend you read ‘Civil War’. Tsiolkas is a fine writer but his endless sex and violence is wearing.

.

Christos Tsiolkas, Merciless Gods, Allen & Unwin, 2014. Audio version Bolinda Books/Audible read by Humphrey Bower.

30 thoughts on “Merciless Gods, Christos Tsiolkas

    • I read your review. Parent stuff really winds me up – you mention the son visiting the father in a dementia ward, I remember the mother holding a ‘used’ hanky by one corner. I loved Loaded, and Merciless Gods might be what Grunge writers write in their thirties or forties, so perhaps I am being inconsistent in struggling with it.

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  1. I can’t stand Tsolkias. I’d bought some of his early work but not got round to reading it, and I chucked it all out after I read The Slap.
    I find him judgemental and needlessly offensive.

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    • I hope Tsiolkas is better than The Slap. He’s certainly gratuitously offensive though I’m not sure I’d agree with ‘judgemental’. Anyway, it’s on to Barracuda next, in six months or so, and we’ll see.

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  2. I stand by my quote.

    Also, it feels like this author is trying his very hardest to be a trash human, and one thing that we say in America (and elsewhere, I hope) is that when someone tells you who they are, you should listen. For instance, famous comedian Louis C.K. constantly joked about how obsessed he is with sex and masturbation and then years later was confronted by several female comedians whose careers were sidelined because he had asked them to his hotel room and then exposed himself. If Tsiolkas is telling me who he is, I’m going to listen and believe him.

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    • Melanie, it’s a great quote, and one I agree with.
      I’m not sure though that I make the leap from author to person. Tsiolkas writes about the early part of his adult life as he (seems to have) experienced it – druggy, gay and violent – in much the same vein as William Burroughs did.
      As far as I know, he now leads an ordinary middle class life in an ordinary gay partnership. I don’t think he writes female characters very well, and I think he still writes aggressively about sex, but I also don’t think he is a misogynist or violent to women (nor to men probably).

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      • This is actually Maya Angelou’s statement: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

        I’ve not read this collection, but I think it’s important to distinguish between a writer who creates a character whose views are offensive/ignorant and a writer whose voice infiltrates their fiction with such views. From what I’ve heard of Tsiolkas in interviews over the years, he is concerned with injustice and seeks to expose prejudice.

        I’m also reminded of another short story I read recently, by Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, that includes an extremely prejudiced and misogynistic character in such a credible scene that a reader could mistake those clearly stated views as representative of the authorial voice, but, in fact, he’s just reflecting real life, which is so often unpleasant and unkind.

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      • I agree that the protagonist does not always speak for the author, though I think for authors that is a pretty dangerous path to attempt, and perhaps not a particularly honest one – looking at you Lionel Shriver.

        I think it’s likely that the young, gay, druggy in Civil War is a version of a young Tsiolkas and he was looking for a way to be on the side of Australian First Nations peoples without speaking for them, and I think he was successful in that. I don’t agree that the dangers Australian Blacks face include civil war, or even police-led shooting parties as occurred well into the C20th, though the ongoing theft of their lands and oppression by police might feel like it at times.

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      • And, in fact, I know someone who has met him a few times, and she says he’s a very gentle man. I sometimes find it hard to make the link between the toughness of his writing and the persona, but I think we do have to recognise that writers aren’t always writing their own lives but lives they see about them. My sense is that Tsiolkas writes about masculinity, and is often tackling some of the toxic things he sees. Some of those he *might* see in himself, but I don’t think that that’s a given, and could very well be things he is reacting against.

        Sorry I’m late, with this. We were in Sydney at the end of last week for three days.

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      • Sue, feel free to reply (or not) as you have the time. I’m sure Tsiolkas is an fine person. I write about his body of work, in the context I guess of his public bio. In what I’ve read, the men are sexually aggressive, or at least assertive, in ways that are sometimes difficult to read. If Tsiolkas the citizen condemns this then it is not apparent to me from his work.

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      • I guess I should be clearer. It’s not so much that I think the author lives the same life as his/her characters, although there are similarities between this author and his characters; however, I do associate a certain type of character with authors, and I don’t support those folks with my time or money, though I also do not want to see their books “cancelled” or any such nonsense.

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      • That makes it clearer Melanie, and I don’t want authors censored/cancelled either, I just like to submit them to legitimate criticism (I see people today wanting the white supremacist ‘Freedom Caucus’ Republicans kicked out of Congress, but that’s a path that might easily come back to bite you). Tsiolkas is an important writer in Australia so I feel obliged to continue reading him. Feel free to skip future Tsiolkas posts, or if you like, when I complain, you can say ‘I told you so’.

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    • I think maybe we have to read Tsiolkas, in this collection at least, as a ‘minority’, that he’s saying for us outsiders – druggies, gays, Blacks – the world is a violent place. In The Slap he seemed to be saying middle class suburbia is a violent place too. Perhaps he just feels the need to describe the world as violent.

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  3. He is really not my kind of writer and I really disliked The Slap for various reasons, the main one being a poor ability to distinguish between the voices of his characters. And the penisness of it all.

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    • I agree with you about The Slap, both reasons. And the second applies here too.

      Civil War is much closer in tone to his first, grunge, novel, Loaded, than his later fiction. In the collection as a whole he seems to be exploring what it is to be 20ish, 30ish and gay, from a number of angles including a mother’s (she’s not impressed at having to deal with his ’emissions’)

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  4. I like the challenge of Tsiolkas’s writing. I haven’t read this one, but I will at some stage. Like Kim, I read him occasionally – I don’t think I could go back-to-back. I do wonder how much I have been influenced by hearing him speak (a number of times). He is always engaging, challenging and comes across as absolutely genuine.

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    • I think when you know a writer well you can see where they are coming from, and so maybe you cut them some slack or maybe you just read them differently. I think Tsiolkas must draw on more than just his ordinary middle class life to create his fiction. I think he is trying to tell us the world is not as benign as it sometimes seems, especially when you’re Anglo and well off. Next up Barracuda and I might form some new theories.

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  5. I’m afraid that Tsiolkas is not for me, although Mr Books found Barracuda interesting and, once he got into it, found Damascus compelling. Not so many penises apparently!

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  6. All those ‘begats’ and no penises! I’m not going to read Damascus, though I can see why it might be interesting to revisit the myths and legends of Western civilization. Barracuda on the other hand, I will read ‘soon’.

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  7. I enjoyed your review, but I think I’ll take your advice and give this one a miss – lots of graphic violence and sex doesn’t really tend to endear a novel (or author) to me!

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    • Lou, don’t be put off Tsiolkas altogether. The sex is sometimes graphic but the violence is mostly in his attitude – he doesn’t write action fiction. He started out like Trainspotting, but he’s middle aged now and writing about suburban middle class stuff (though still with his penis).

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