Monday, 13 February 2006

Review: Loaded, Christos Tsiolkas (1995)

Ari seems rootless — no job, no plans to study, doesn’t like his father, doesn’t have a girlfriend, doesn’t have a boyfriend. He seems unworried about his future. He’s 20 and he’s ready to party. In Loaded, Ari’s Walkman accompanies him around the city:

On this tape I’m listening to I have the Jackson Five doing ‘I want you back’. This is a supreme moment in music history, even if I’m the only one in the world who knows it. On one of my tapes I have one side of the tape only playing that song. When things aren’t going so well I play that cassette over and over and just walk around the city or walk around Richmond. I sit on a rock by the river throwing bread to the ducks, letting a young Michael Jackson cheer me up. In the three minutes it takes the song to play I’m caught in a magic world of harmony and joy, a truly ecstatic joy, where the aching longing to be somewhere else, out of this city, out of this country, out of this body and out of this life, is kept at bay. I relive these three minutes again and again till I’m calm enough to walk back into life again. I can’t meditate in silence, I haven’t got the patience. I meditate to music; I need something else going on.

This is a first novel. Christos Tsiolkas makes much of being ‘a wog’ &#8212 the scene with the two Anglo women and the tram is heavy with irony, some of it unintended. But, serious when under scrutiny himself, Ari sometimes wants to subvert glib clich├ęs, and can refuse to buy into the naming game that is the cause of so much meaning elsewhere in the novel:

  —I don’t thing you’re a dag. She smiles back but I don’t let her off the hook completely. I do think you’re a wog.
  —So what, I’m proud of it. And what are you? I don’t answer. I’m not a wog. I’m not sure what I am but I’m not a wog. Not the way she means. Mick Jagger’s voice comes on rough and soulful, the opening verse to You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Dina starts to sway to the song: she’s enjoying being stoned to it.

He does get irritated by the labels that are so easily applied, but the politics of the city mean so much to Tsiolkas that Ari's assertions sometimes struggle against the strength of the claustrophobia that these labels generate:

Ethnicity is a scam, a bullshit, a piece of crock. The fortresses of the rich wogs on the hill are there not to keep the Australezo out, but to refuse entry to the uneducated-long-haired-bleached-blonde-no-money wog. No matter what the roots of the rich wogs, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Arab, whatever, I’d like to get a gun and shoot them all. Bang bang. The East is hell. Designed by Americans.

Ari escapes into a Saturday-night debauch, buoyed by drugs:

My breathing seems loud to my ears. I allow the night breeze to tease my body, to cool me down, and I piss against the alley wall. I tuck my T-shirt into my jeans, tread on the cigarette, mixing the tobacco in with the come and piss on the ground and walk back through the car park and into the backyard of the pub.

The politics of sex and of the city dominate the narrative, but the characters outlive the length of the novel by demonstrating how real they are, how they are trying to break free of such constraints.

I have no interest, she tells them, in involving myself with progressive, so-called left-wing Greeks if it is the same faces, the same conservative mob of wogs, married, bourgeois, living in the suburbs, who happen to be able to spout Marx and Lenin. The woman across from me flinches. Ariadne continues: I want to be involved with the deviants, the mad, the creative, all those people that the Greek community despises, that the general Australian community despises. For Christ sake, she screams at them, communism is dead. She walks off.

In the immigrant suburbs, Ari finds his epiphany — he faces down the desire for his own life:

I hate it, but the North is temptation. I take the bus from the city and roam the ovals and parks and river banks, searching out fat Arab men and chain-smoking Greek men who stand with their dicks out at urinals, cigarette in their mouths, waiting for you. A defiant stance, for I am a wog myself, and I have to force myself to my knees before another wog. I have to force my desire to take precedence over my honour. It is in the North where I search for the body, the smile, the skin that will ease the strain on my groin, that will take away the burning compulsion and terror of my desire. In the North I find myself, find shadows that recall my shadow. I roam the North so I can come face to face with the future that is being prepared for me.

The politics of the city morph into the politics of sex. The earlier political discussions in the Greek club named Retreat (quoted above) don’t stand a chance beside Tsiolkas’ ethnocentrically subversive examinations of ‘the scene’:

The club is now crammed tight with people, mostly men. The music is a savage ceremony, men walking around each other, making eye contact, flirting, but flirting in a detached, cynical manner, to avoid the humiliation of rejection. The women are mostly on the dance floor, thrusting their hips to one another, oblivious to the games of male sexual conquest around them. A few very drunken men, or out-of-it men are putting on an aggressive manner and asking for sex from strangers, loudly and insistently.

This is a short, satisfying book that manages to cover about eighteen hours of life in 151 pages of dense prose. Tsiolkas runs dialog together with narrative in a way that is reminiscent of Saramago. His low-key drama presents actions in a tone that avoids theatrics and keeps the most outrageous events on an even keel. Ari even has a love affair, but it doesn't seem forced or unusual, just slightly sad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

that book stole my identity