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Since 1995, when he published Loaded, a slim but incendiary novel about twenty-four hours in the life of a young, gay, Greek man living in Melbourne, Christos Tsiolkas has been a powerful literary force. He would go on to receive high praise and perhaps even riches for The Slap (2008), a kaleidoscopic novel which would be adapted for television in Australia and the US. There has been Damascus (2019), Tsiolkas’s award-winning re-imagining of the life of St Paul and the dark and violent early days of the Christian church, as well as other novels, a short story collection, and criticism.

His is a towering presence, one that would be intimidating if the man did not have a reputation for being warm and generous.

But this reviewer can now hear Tsiolkas spitting venom: ‘Do not bring my personality into this, you fool. Do not mix my life with my art.’

So then, this latest work.

7 ½ is subtitled ‘a novel’, but how much of that is true? It concerns a Melbourne-based novelist called Christos Tsiolkas. He lives with his long-term, same-sex partner. He is in his mid-fifties. The narrative involves Christos (sometimes ‘Christo’ and sometimes ‘Chris’) taking himself to a rented holiday house on the far south coast of New South Wales in the hope of retreating from the world with all its distractions to write a new book. We see Christos writing in the house – often on the deck overlooking a manicured garden – and swimming at the beach, making meals, watching films, smoking, reading, and dreaming, which is a close cousin of the imagination, as it is of writing fiction.

The Christos of the novel makes it clear that he is telling a number of stories simultaneously, one relating to his childhood and adolescence, another about a retired gay porn star who, despite now being married to a woman and has a son, is offered a large sum of money to return to the US, the country of his birth and former profession, to have sex with an elderly gentleman who never had the opportunity to properly explore his sexuality.

In typical Tsiolkas fashion, 7 ½ is also a polemic.

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Keep reading this review at the Canberra Times, where it was published on 13 November 2021.

There is a mystique to the writer, particularly the novelist, and most of it is a cliché. The commonly imagined (dreamed) scene is this: sitting at an oversized antique desk, an expensive, preferably French bottle of red wine or an exquisite whiskey to one side, a clunky old typewriter waiting for the next masterpiece to appear, one that will put the author on planes and flown around the world and plonked in front of adoring festival audiences, long lines of readers waiting for an autograph. Of course, the reality is much less glamorous: years spent trying to wrestle a manuscript to the ground, with only a flickering hope that the book will see the light of day and find a readership. Industry surveys suggest we are reading less, especially less literary fiction. So most writers will ask themselves: why am I doing this?

George Orwell wrote ‘Why I Write’ in 1946, as the world was beginning the slow process of rebuilding after the devastation of the Second World War. In it, he gave four reasons for why he wrote: ‘sheer egotism’ (a need to seem clever), ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ (perceptions of beauty), ‘historical impulse’ (a desire to document facts), and ‘political purpose’. Of the latter, Orwell claims:

When I sit down to write a book, I don’t say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write because there is some lie I want to expose, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.’

One of Australia’s most political writers of recent generations is Christos Tsiolkas. Born in Melbourne in 1965, Tsiolkas is the son of Greek migrants; he is also gay and identifies as a socialist as well as an atheist. Despite, or because of, the conservatism that has been a part of Australia’s political landscape since John Howard came to power in 1996, shaping the way the nation operates, particularly in terms of economic policy and international relations (that is, an appalling treatment of those seeking asylum), Tsiolkas has had one of the rarest experiences in Australian letters: a literary career that is commercially successful while – in the main – being critically lauded. He is the author of short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, and essays of criticism covering art forms such as film and music. Even though widely regarded to be fearless writer, Tsiolkas is well-known to be a warm and affectionate man who has supported generations of emerging writers.

Looking deeper, how might we describe Christos Tsiolkas as a writer?

Words such as audacious, dangerous and ambitious come to mind. From the evidence of his considerable output to date, it is likely that Tsiolkas would agree with Orwell’s political motivation, being to ‘expose lies’ and ‘get a hearing’.

Justifiably, and perhaps reassuringly, Tsiolkas has been getting a hearing since the publication of his first novel, a relatively slim novel called Loaded, which was first published by Vintage (Random House) in 1995. In Loaded – the novel was adapted for the silver screen and called Head On starring Alex Dimitriades and directed by Ana Kokkinos (1998) – Ari is a nineteen-year-old son of Greek migrants. He is actively gay though expresses considerable hatred, both of himself and the world around him. We see him as he works his way through a day and night in Melbourne, taking an almost death-defying amount of drugs, having sex, and interacting with family and friends with both animosity and affection.

What is most striking about Loaded is its audacity.

The opening paragraph:

The morning is ending and I’ve just opened my eyes. I stare across the cluttered room I’m in. I scratch at my groin. I yawn. I feel my cock and start a slow masturbation. When I’m finished, and it doesn’t take long, I get up with a leap, wrap a towel around my naked body and make a slow journey downstairs.

There is much to learn about the craft – or the ‘trade’, as Tsiolkas himself likes to say – of writing: the life in the language, the boldness of the prose, and the fact that the DNA of the entire novel appears to be contained in those few opening words. We immediately know the story will be told in an uncensored way, and we know there will be shocks; we also know, by the very fact that Ari makes a ‘slow journey downstairs’, the narrative will be one of descent, potentially into some kind of hell. It is the audacity that is the most striking feature here: this is writing that believes in its own worth, even though Ari himself openly believes in nothing but short bursts of sexual connection and chemical-induced pleasure.

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This is an extract from my commissioned essay, titled ‘Fearless’, which appears in READING LIKE AN AUSTRALIAN WRITER, edited by Belinda Castles and available now through New South Books.

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