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Christos Tsiolkas’s last novel The Slap centred on a single initial incident, a man slapping a child, that set off a complex chain of events — Tsiolkas employed this plot device to observe its repercussions on the book’s characters through a series of episodic sections. His latest novel, Barracuda, has neither the instant intrigue of The Slap nor the sensationalism of its treatment of cultural mores and instead draws upon an almost 19th-century inclination to find meaning in the shape of a life.
Speaking at the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival, Tsiolkas compared “dry and academic” European literature unfavourably to books about the American suburban experience, describing John Updike’s Couples as an example of the “fearlessness that I am hungry for”. What is this fearlessness? In his desire to find beauty in the ordinary, often unpleasant, always honest, inner lives of suburban Australia, Tsiolkas attempts to express something almost beyond his artistry.
Barracuda is the chopped-up biography of Danny Kelly, a once aspiring swimmer trying to escape his working class upbringing. The novel begins in first-person before shifting its focus to 1994 and a third-person narration — the story of Danny’s life moves the same way, between first and third, past and present and creates the sensation of a self complete only in transitory moments.
Initially, Danny comes across as a promising and ferociously ambitious swimmer. His athletic prowess wins him a scholarship to an esteemed private school he calls “Cunts College”where he doesn’t belong. It’s a boyish, working class gesture at once rebellious, defiant, aggressive and compensatory. Here, Danny struggles to deal with the chasm in privilege and feels shame at his background.
It didn’t matter what medals Danny won. They didn’t want him, he didn’t belong there.
Status anxiety becomes a kind of inverted snobbery. He is obsessed with his own standing, feelings of cultural inferiority and shame. It’s interesting to note that many of the boys simply don’t even think these things or may even admire, fear or respect him. Barracuda allows all these issues to breathe, naturally. There is a sense in that Tsiolkas is writing fiction in the truest sense. His characters are coruscating and real.
Throughout, sport is used as a metaphor for male competition, cultural and class conflict. Danny watches the Sydney Olympics with languor and idleness, now an unfulfilled spectator and literary descendent of Albert Camus’ Meursault: an outsider bearing up to the absurdity of his life.
He was going to take in, possess the whole of the world. Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi? Fuck off. He wanted more.
The personal and the political meet in a national stage. Danny simultaneously reviles the xenophobia, self-righteousness and self-entitlement on display, but also, the smug intellectualism of his now university educated leftwing friends. Most of all, he hates himself. The second half of the novel doesn’t offer Danny redemption. Instead, it shows how people grow, change, heal and simply forget.
Tackling existentialism seems at odds with the contemporary fashion of cool, knowing, ironic novels. But this is literature as it should be: challenging, tender and lacerating. Barracuda is a profoundly moral novel, asking how should we live? While Danny is superficially preoccupied with class and status, the deeper needs of an individual, friendship, family, memory and acceptance are delicately measured beneath the surface glitter of the waves. How do we live with failure? What do we do when we can’t be the strongest, the fastest, the best? How do we live with our mistakes? In his follow up to The Slap, Tsiolkas has found a moral force and authenticity rare in contemporary fiction.