It’s a recipe for a blockbuster summer read. In Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas applies his signature scrutiny of suburban failure and small-mindedness to the very Australian world of competitive swimming. Add the conflicts of a working-class boy subjected to an awful private school, and it makes quite a feast. Is there anything the Australian middle class likes better than wallowing in self-hatred on its holidays?
The story won’t disappoint fans of The Slap, though it should unsettle them a little more than that work of mild cultural self-flagellation. Instead of infidelity rage and childcare rage, here we have ambition rage, in the study of a psychotically determined boy swimmer. The novel turns the rags-to-riches story on its head, as Dan Kelly’s swimming prowess gets him a scholarship to an elite school and he slowly spirals into a spectacular moral collapse. He makes few friends, treats them badly, and strives to win – but ultimately fails.
On its own, this is a compelling story. But it’s only half the book. What Tsiolkas does afterwards is actually more interesting and more risky. The collapse of Kelly’s moral sense is followed by a narrative redemption, via prison, anal sex, social work, and reading, ambiguous pleasures which he discovers more or less simultaneously.
Kelly’s incapacity to process failure damns him; his final acceptance of humiliation and what it teaches saves him. This is quite a Dostoyevskian process, during which we come up close to the body of the protagonist, the physical pain and lust and anger of sport, the sublimated sexuality of the athlete. With perhaps the exception of Kelly’s benign and somewhat romantic prison experience, this journey is very convincing.
There is a bit of excess. The trip to Adelaide to see the Greek side of Kelly’s ancestral family gives a good depiction of migrant anxiety, particularly his mother’s sense of hovering on the fringes of an already marginalised family, but its contribution to Kelly’s core story is minor. A longwinded scene in which annoying lesbian characters try to acquire Kelly’s sperm is neither original nor fair. There are a few conversations that the novel could do without and the third quarter loses its energy somewhat.
But the rewards are high: the relationship between sex, violence, desire and humiliation is better drawn here than I have found it in any other place in Australian writing. Barracuda is a contribution to the literature of queer sexualities as much as the literature of the self-hating middle class. It is the Querelle de Brest of Australian suburbia. Kelly’s unfulfilled desires and his moral imbalance are awfully human, and his sexuality, which never adheres to a simple identity or predigested narrative, is the spine that holds the book together. Indeed at certain points, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between his lust and his rage, between his pleasure and his humiliation, between his need to win and his need to be loved. Dan Kelly is a character who has been vividly, unstintingly embodied.
It is in his treatment of class, though, that Tsiolkas risks the most. Discussing anxieties around migrant backgrounds, private schools, competitiveness and progress – again and again his characters fall back on the problems of class as a category of identity.
It is probably eccentric of me to expect rigorous political analysis from novels, but I can be forgiven for reading Tsiolkas with that in mind; he deliberates out loud. Tsiolkas likes to hold forth and puts words in his characters’ mouths, which is perhaps a habit he’s acquired from screenwriting. He’s not alone: much Australian drama does this. Yet, with scenes jumping back and forth in time, this exposition does become repetitive and threatens to rob a reader of some of her pleasure.
The end point of identity politics is, of course, ‘my category is better than yours’ – and the ensuing bickering about privilege and boundaries. The increasingly interconnected fictionalised selves that we project require and receive constant policing. Identity is always a fantasy; it is the body that holds us down, while the imagination thrusts us upward. This was true of old working-class bodies that couldn’t hide their muscle – Kelly ponders ‘how the body was moulded and transformed’ by ‘all that labour and exertion and sweat’ – but as Stephanie Convery recently pointed out, physical culture has made that a signifier of the past.
Bodies are flexible, then. Transformable, obviously. But if we adapt that queer, fluid embodiment – the body as fantasy, as performance – to class politics, we come up against a rather difficult conundrum. The invisibly policed parameters of sexuality might be seen as fluid, able to be liberated, but class is the product of an economic relationship and ‘class liberation’ is an essentially capitalist concept.
Where sexuality allows and invites transformation, the politics of identity can be useful in building solidarity, even when they are, to a limited degree, categories of exclusion. But class as identity is far more harmful, given capitalism’s ability to manipulate boundary-crossing desires in the service of economic aspirations. Ambition, then, is a terrible means of escape. It is always a betrayal, though it is not always clear who’s being betrayed. All the characters in Barracuda struggle with this, and none of them are able to see a way out.
In some ways, it is Tsiolkas’ sense of embodiment that provides the clue to this conundrum. In a moving scene where Kelly turns on his father, as if to accuse him of the failure that defines his son, he abuses the older man, contemplates raping him, and through this fantasy of humiliation, finally realises that it is his father’s goodness he wants – that is, an ordinary moral code.
The destructiveness of Kelly’s obsession with physique and status is familiar to anyone who’s glanced into an Oxford Street gym, but his overcoming of it is inconclusive and, in part, helpless. Identity politics can never finish the classification of what it is to be human and transformable and neither can race or class allow that transformation to be completed. He’s stuck between aspiration and pride, between the McMansion and the housing commission flat. Tsiolkas tells us that ‘for all Dan and Demet had gained, they both shared the same fear: that middle class wasn’t worth it.’ At the same time, old working class identities are fragmented, lost.
Beyond the disappointment of becoming middle class, the only transformation that Kelly has left is empathy: being a better son and friend and lover. But if the suffering and humiliation in Kelly’s body is partly a result of his failure to transcend class boundaries, then this ‘goodness’ cannot restore his body’s integrity, despite the Christian road-to-redemption narrative that underpins this story.
Barracuda can be read, like its hero, as an effort to transcend its own limitations. Kelly is a deeply troubled character, and this is by no means a perfect novel, but it may well prove whatever Tsiolkas set out to prove to himself about what he can do and the kinds of questions his work can raise. If, as I suspect, Tsiolkas is still striving towards his own imaginary Olympics, struggling with his own ambition and the sources of that ambition, then Barracuda shows not just brilliant form but philosophical reach. If he’s right and when it comes down to it empathy is all that is left to strive for, then this is a work that offers us its own conclusion. It’s the human here that leaves an afterglow and the enduring sense of an intimate, irreducible encounter.