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.

Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Elizabeth Tan

How many writers am I waiting for their next book? I suppose that should be How many writers are there whose next book I am waiting for? I wonder if I can get that for away from the end. How many writers are there for whose next book I am waiting? It feels like it should be for whom’s. Grammar’s not my strong point.

Elizabeth Tan is the only one I can think of I said I was waiting for (sorry, for whom I said I was waiting) but if you said Kim Scott, Claire Coleman, Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane had a new book out I’d be down the street in a flash – the iso rules for truck drivers in WA permit essential shopping. I wonder who else. There can’t be many.

As it happens the flash was a bit muted for Tan. Smart Ovens has been out about six months.

I could die happy with Tan and Coleman writing (good) Western Australia based SF. I suppose there are others. I wonder what happened to … . DuckDuckGoes “WA SF”. There’s a Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation! With its own radio show!

You might remember Tan’s last (and first) was Rubik, a novel of loosely connected episodes, set in Perth WA, up the surreal end of SF. Smart Ovens is the same but the ‘episodes’ aren’t connected.

A children’s slide ups and runs away; mermaids kept in a restaurant fish tank, in the casino of course, metamorphose, find freedom; long after pens are a thing Ira gives one to a homeless man who scrawls kilometres of ink on the subway walls before stepping in front of a train; Pikelet was born in the Year of the Rabbit after the Year of Unprecedented Ecological Terror, her family moved to New Zealand following the Year of Seven Different Prime Ministers, and she now works at “Eighteen Bells Karaoke Castle, Perth’s premiere karaoke destination, in the heart of the city with a view of Old Swan River”; Tom and Ant are lovers, Tom knows that Ant is a spy but Ant doesn’t; and so the stories go on, lots of them concepts you wouldn’t dream of and yet Tan makes them real, spins them out for 5 or ten pages. In Would You Rather things start to disappear:

What did it look like? A flaw in the morning, a hanging pixel. An iridescent chip in the shape of a rhombus, shimmering in the sky. Unnoticed for days, until all the bicycles lifted up on one wheel, and then the other; turned counter-clockwise in the air, handlebars raised like the antlers of a stag, sliding riders from their seats; floated towards the hole, and then through the hole, and then …

So it’s not just the ideas, it’s the writing; writing and ideas and stories and Perth and young Asian-Australian women and a post eco-apocalyptic future of decay and magic.

And the smart ovens? “After that day at the overpass I was assigned an oven.” That day at the overpass, she of course jumped, and so was assigned an oven for a year to be her friend in the kitchen. With an extra six months if the oven’s end-of-year report was unsatisfactory.

After Neko Oven had been activated for two weeks she [for Neko Oven was programmed with a female voice] sent a recommendation to Biljana to let me return to work…

On my lunchbreak I used the kitchenette microwave to heat up a little plastic container of Neko Oven’s leftovers (some kind of casserole she’d improvised from tinned chick-peas, bacon, and gin) and took it to the food court to eat alone.

When she runs into the guy who chose that overpass, that day, that same minute to jump, they discuss ‘why’.

When people asked ‘How are you?’ did they really mean ‘Why did you?’

Because I was tired.
Because I wanted to die, the same way you might want a drink of water, or want to sleep, or want someone to love you back.

That last is it of course. But with a smart oven life goes on.

.

Elizabeth Tan, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Brio, Sydney, 2020. 244pp.


*The SF book I was thinking of [… Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes. I found it, randomly shelved, when I got home, and he has 12 more, going by ‘images’] involves a young entrepreneur with a bucket of bolts space ship and an android pilot. The name Matt is in there somewhere. I used to know the book’s editor. Fremantle Press. I DDG Fremantle Press, they don’t have SF as one of their genres! They do have a new Dave Warner. One of you is having a crime fiction month soon [Kim/Reading Matters in March], so that’s my book sorted. They’re also still advertising Robert Edeson, so there is at least some SF (here and here). From two or three years ago.

(Not) Going Places

Journal: 062

It astonishes me just how ignorant public speakers – journalists, politicians, writers – are of spelling, vocabulary, general knowledge, and how infrequently they are called out for it. It’s a long time since I listened to the ABC’s “local” network – except for football of course – but the self-important pronouncements of men and women whose only qualification is that they have mellow voices is constantly off-putting, not to mention the ABC’s official “non-partisan” stance of giving right-wing lies equal billing with proven science.

The following, not ABC, examples came up this morning while I was reading on-line

Trump fans are calling for “succession” when they mean secession, and that’s pretty much how their night is going. It’s also a reminder that we need to invest more in education.

Palmer Report, 11 Dec 2020

The punishment metered (sic) out to both banks resulted in board and senior management changes, massive fines and reputational damage.

Adele Ferguson, The Age, “Casinos Lose”, 12 Dec 2020

Of course my own spelling is not the best and the number of times I have typed slef instead of self … The quotes were unplanned, what really got my goat was Lindsey Davis in The Ides of April who not once but repeatedly used opaque to mean see-through. As in Flavia Albia, the heroine, standing up to address a crowd in an “opaque” dress and everyone could see her legs. Remember back in the day when editors read what they were publishing.

So here I am, home at last, sitting at the computer, bookwork neglected, waffling on. Just reading odd stories mostly, or getting up to make a sandwich. My next post will be a book review. Promise! It has taken all day, 8 hours at least, to get this far. A proper Perth summer day, stinking hot, me sitting in shorts and nothing else sweating in front of an inadequate fan.

I crossed the border Wednesday latish, so, with a whole day up my sleeve (to do 14 days iso and make it to xmas dinner). Unloaded yesterday, Friday. Milly will drop in tomorrow, she has the grandkids tonight, yet another pancake breakfast I have to forego. She’s five years younger than me (yes I know, than I, but who says than I), already retired and now, moving into a retirement village. My mother’s in a retirement village! And way down the coast. Milly’s retirement village I mean. I have a house down that way so I may have to move to stay in touch.

I’ve been writing (and thinking) a lot about place. Perth is a long, narrow city of 1.1 million people, stretching 100 km along endless white Indian Ocean beaches, on a 20 km wide stretch of sandflats between the ocean and the low hills of the Darling Range, bisected by the Swan River, an insignificant stream opening up in front of the CBD to the lovely expanse of Perth Water. Milly’s new home will be at the southern end of the conurbation, on the estuary of another small waterway, the Peel. Why, I wonder, am I the only one who writes like this. Well, not only, Pam is probably even more passionate about Hobart.

Very early in my blogging life I wrote about an idea I called Intertextual Geography, and more recently I posted on a Tony Hughes-d’Aeth essay on Regional Literature. This is where I’m up to so far on the subject of ‘Place’:

  1. Our knowledge of a given place influences how we read fiction set there; and what we read influences how we see/experience that place.
  2. Writers in a place are influenced by each other, hence Regional Literature.
  3. A regional writer is an ambassador, for good or evil!, presenting his/her place to others.
  4. Much more importantly, our regional writers present our place to us, giving us new ways of experiencing and understanding it.

Now do you see why I get so angry when writers get places wrong? No? I thought not, but I’ll keep chewing away at it anyway.

In comments after the Hughes-d’Aeth review, WG raises the interesting question of how we deal with the different relationship of Indigenous writers to places with which we whites also have a relationship. More to think about. Perhaps I should say:

5. There is no place in Australia (or Canada or the USA) which was not for millenia before our arrival significant to the indigenous people of that place.

Which is trite, but then we’re not proving very good at sharing, are we. Which is as good a segue as any to this story from today’s New York Times: “Of the 7,124 books [widely read, major publishers, 1950-2018] for which we identified the author’s race, 95 percent were written by white people.” (NYT, 11 Dec 2020, Why is Publishing so White?)

Playing with the Block Editor/Slideshow: Some images of Perth Water (mine, to forestall copyright issues, and one of Milly’s of South Beach, Freo at sunset)

Recent audiobooks 

Margaret Atwood (F, Can), Cat’s Eye (1988)
Suzanne Enoch (F, USA), Angel’s Devil (1995) – Romance
Michael Connelly (M, USA), The Black Echo (1992) – Crime
Leah Fleming (F, Eng), The Girl under the Olive Tree (2013) – Hist.Fic.
Christopher Spielberg (M, Ger), 101 Nights (2003) – Crime
Emma Hart (F, Eng), The Roommate Agreement (2019) – Romance
Mary Anna Evans (F, USA), Floodgates (2009) – Crime
Lindsey Davis (F, Eng), The Ides of April (2013) – Hist.Fic/Crime
Ruth Downie (F, Eng), Vita Brevis (2016) – Hist.Fic/Crime
Pilip K Dick (M, USA), Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970) – SF
Donna Milner (F, Can), The Promise of Rain (2010) – Hist.Fic (WWII)
Alain de Botton (M, UK), The Course of Love (2016) – a very long lecture
Lydia Millet (F, USA), Mermaids in Paradise (2014) – Gen.Fic
John Marrs (M, UK), The Good Samaritan (2017) – Crime
Isabel Miller (F, USA), Patience & Sarah (1969)
Paolo Bacigalupi (M, USA), Pump Six & Other Stories (2008) – SF
JD Robb (F, USA), Wonderment in Death (2015) – SF/Crime
Martha Mitchell (F, USA), Gone with the Wind (1936) DNF
Fern Michaels (F, USA), Fancy Dancer (2012) – Romance
Norman Mailer (M, USA), Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984)– Crime
John Connolly (M, Ire), The Unquiet (2007) – Crime
Adam Mitzner (M, USA), The Girl from Home (2016)– Crime

I also started Dickens’ Dombey & Son, 39 hours!, but the publisher, Brilliance Audio, had made a hash of the first disc, replacing some chapters with unrelated medieval history, so I was forced to give up.

Currently reading, planning to read

Ursula Le Guin (F, USA), The Unreal & the Real
Christina Stead (F, Aust/NSW), The Little Hotel
Kylie Tennant (F, Aust/NSW), Tell Morning This
Ernestine Hill (F, Aust/NSW), The Great Australian Loneliness
Joseph Furphy (M, Aust/Vic), Such is Life