This is a first collection of short stories from Christos Tsiolkas, following the infamy of The Slap (2008) and the acclaim of Barracuda (2013). In it, he holds little back, offering rape, scatological revenge attacks and incest, among other hard-hitting subject matter.
Yet there is a deeply moving and tender current running alongside this, in which sex, violence, love and family intersect in the Venn diagram of Tsiolkas' brain. It is the best writing you are likely to come across on the shifting boundaries between love and friendship, and on homosocial relationships between self-declared heterosexual men.
The collection's title story, "Merciless Gods", lays out these themes starkly but also brings to the fore one of the overriding feelings of the book- – that perhaps less could be more. We meet nine friends, well travelled, successful, who, drinking their way through a dinner party, decide to play a game to liven things up; they choose a word from a bowl and each have to tell a story based around that word. It's a plot device that works well to bring up the kind of conversation one finds in Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
As in Barracuda, we get a slow build-up to the violent climax and yet it's the final couple of lines that seem the most powerful in the entire story: "'I couldn't think of anything so I just wrote down 'childhood'." He smiled at this, a small tender smile, but when I turned to him I don't think I'd ever seen him look so sad."
For all its capacity, and indeed its deliberate attempts, to shock, this is a collection which is at its most moving during its subtler moments. There are plenty of these in the stories; the quiet intimacy of sections in "Jessica Lange in Frances" or "The Disco at the End of Communism", what is left unsaid about masculinity and adolescence at the end of "Sticks, stones", the emotional power of "Saturn Return"– each carries more power than the beginning of "The Hair of the Dog" or the toilet sequence in "Petals".
Towards the end there is a sequence of three stories, entitled "Porn 1, 2 and 3". Of these "Porn 1" is the strongest, looking at a mother whose dead son was an HIV-positive gay porn star. The mother decides to rent out a tape of her son from an X-rated video shop in attempt to get some sort of redemption.
Coming towards the end of the collection, it is able to offer a neat echo to "Genetic Material" in which a son masturbates his father who has Alzheimer's disease and believes him to be a former lover, and to "Sticks, stones" where a mother struggles with thoughts about her son becoming a man.
Sex and violence, (sex as violence, sexual violence) runs as an undercurrent through many of these stories; at their best they force us to confront our own intimate relationships, to see ourselves as animal and to see everything as an exchange of power, a struggle for control.
The back cover quotes an Australian paper asking how it is that Tsiolkas' stories maintain the power to shock. It's because of their unsettling quality; they test our understanding and capacity to accept seemingly ordinary relationships which are forced to exist in the corporeal world.
Followers of Tsiolkas will find usual tropes within the stories: lists of obscene and taboo words spilling forth from characters' mouths, the idea of Australia as somewhere else, paradoxical feelings of longing and loathing for the homeland.
If there is anything to ask of Tsiolkas after this blistering, accomplished collection, it is for a little more mercy, to keep giving the reader the quiet moments that will move them, as well as the moments that will shock.
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- Christos Tsiolkos; The Slap; Barracuda