Review of Christos Tsiolkas: The Utopian Vision, by Jessica Gildersleeve

Abstract

Christos Tsiolkas: The Utopian Vision, by Jessica Gildersleeve. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2017. Web US$30.99, PDF US$41.99, E-book US$51.99, Hardback US$104.99.

I still come across people who find Christos Tsiolkas’s work creepy or off-putting. Usually these people have had a brush with Dead Europe and decided that it is too bleak, too violent, too sexually explicit, or perhaps too explicitly political. They haven’t read on. It strikes me as an odd reaction, or at least one that is trapped in a particular moment, and hence overlooks the trajectory Tsiolkas’s career has taken since the publication of The Slap in 2008. As Jessica Gildersleeve tells us in the acknowledgements to Christos Tsiolkas: The Utopian Vision, she in fact first read The Slap with her mother’s book club. I’m sure the experience isn’t unusual. I’m sometimes in a similar situation: my parents and their reading group friends are very eager to talk to me about Tsiolkas, the television adaptations of his work and the sense of controversy that lingers over him. They might find aspects of the writing creepy or off-putting as well, but they’ve embraced these responses and are eager to understand them. These contexts – domestic, familial, intergenerational – tell us a great deal about the sort of writer Tsiolkas has become, and about his centrality to public discussion. And yet there is still the shadow of the other Tsiolkas: the Tsiolkas whose work haunts and unsettles in ways that don’t quite lend themselves to the reading group format, the family dinner table or chats with Mum.

This tension is often at the centre of scholarly and journalistic work on Tsiolkas. This work tends to produce particular kinds of narratives, all of which have their flaws: the sublimation of modernist style, maturation, commercial incorporation, heightened political responsibility, and so on. The great attractiveness of Gildersleeve’s study is that she manages to encounter the fundamental tension between different versions of Tsiolkas without needing to narrativise his career in a way that is governed by any particular set of terms. She does this through her astute use of affect theory to set up another way of encountering his work. With each chapter focusing on what is, ostensibly, a form of affect, Gildersleeve manages to show how what we might consider negative affective responses – grief in regard to The Jesus Man or disgust in regard to Dead Europe, for instance – open out onto a utopian dimension, a sense of futurity, that holds out the promise of moving beyond the negative conditions of the present. Of course, this future might be an impossible one; it is what Gildersleeve calls a ‘mournful future-mindedness’ that drives us and Tsiolkas’s characters towards a ‘future which can never arrive’ (13). She argues that this aspect of the work displaces the sort of static contentment (call it happiness) that numbs us to political realities; she also suggests that the negativity of Tsiolkas’s early novels in fact prefigures or anticipates the much more conciliatory tone of The Slap or Barracuda. The book might be considered part of the ‘affective turn’ in literary studies, or an attempt to bring this to bear on Australian material. Its orientation is overwhelmingly towards literature’s ‘ethical relations’ (4). In this respect Gildersleeve is ultimately very optimistic, not just in regard to Tsiolkas’s politics, but in regard to literature’s potential to function as part of an ethical horizon. By bringing affect theory into dialogue with current cultural discourses she aims to show us ‘how Australian writing can work as part of a broader network of cultural reparative strategies’ (17).

Tsiolkas is ideal for this sort of theoretical framework and political ambition. His work is affect-laden, and his negativity is framed with enough complexity to solicit the sort of ‘reparative strategies’ in which Gildersleeve is interested. Moreover, Tsiolkas is in the very unusual position of being able to provide a prolific public discourse about his work that constantly orients it to contemporary political concerns in a way that not infrequently resolves some of its ambiguities. He is in the truest sense a public intellectual. He is also a media presence. Suffice it to say that discussing his work independently of what he himself says about it is very difficult. Gildersleeve can’t avoid it, but neither can virtually anyone else writing about Tsiolkas. The strongest sections of Gildersleeve’s book focus on the early novels. They show us how negative affective dispositions model a critique of contemporary social relations that prefigure the promise of something in excess of the present. The reading of The Jesus Man, Tsiolkas’s most disparaged novel, is terrific in this sense. In that novel Tommy’s embodiment of trauma ‘comes to allegorically stand for the national and cultural losses wrought by colonialism and capitalism,’ which ‘can only be overcome by the acknowledgement and punishment of the crime/s committed’ (40). It is only through this process, which is relentlessly confronting, that the novel can clear a path towards futurity and hope. Here Tsiolkas’s ‘utopian vision’ offers ‘a way forward, a series of possibilities, and an attitude to the future which depends precisely upon openness and ambiguity’ (55).

The chapter on Dead Europe works slightly differently, but the recuperative approach to negativity is similar. As the reader is increasingly implicated in the disgust circulated by the novel, she is also forced to ‘recognize and claim its traumatic force’ (79). We are, in other words, educated in some sense by our own affective relationship to the novel. Our disgust is also a matter of self-exploration – what is it that keeps us reading in its midst? – and the ‘traumatic recognition of responsibility’ (60). The same might be said for shame in The Slap. Gildersleeve shows how the proliferation of shame fractures community, but she also insists that this is essential to the movement ‘beyond shame and towards reconciliation and true multiculturalism’ (83). It is ultimately shame that ‘permits an understanding of responsibility to community’ (93). What I’ve described as the optimism of these readings is fairly apparent. In the chapter on Barracuda the process by which negative affect is reconciled with a reformed sense of the communal finds its most overt manifestation: terms like ‘responsibility’ and ‘justice’ describe Danny’s narrative as one in which he is finally able to reconcile with community.

The first five chapters of Gildersleeve’s book, which follow the five novels in chronological order, are lucid, well-constructed and very learned. Gildersleeve writes eloquently and sympathetically. She is terrifically erudite, which enables her to generate unexpected insights into the broader literary and cultural context. Her expertise as a scholar of modernism is evident at the moments that Conrad, Eliot, Mann and others pop up. She is also theoretically very capacious, and gracious with regard to other critics. Her book hasn’t perpetuated the agonistic tone that tends to define literary criticism in Australia, where scholars seem to be endlessly wrestling over control of some intangible narrative or piece of cultural turf. Perhaps the clarity of the opening five chapters drops away a bit in the later discussion of Merciless Gods and the television and cinematic adaptations of Tsiolkas’s work. There’s something inevitable about that given the more fragmentary character of the subject matter. But it’s a shame, because Tsiolkas’s relationship with the media environment that has turned his work into a staple of public discourse seems extremely topical, not least because it raises questions about the very fraught ways in which literary culture circulates through the public sphere.

It is possible to feel that the confidence with which Gildersleeve establishes literature’s ‘reparative’ qualities is a bit too easily won. Perhaps these reparative qualities are peculiar to Tsiolkas, who looms on the Australian literary landscape as unusual in his increasingly lucid commitment to a nineteenth-century sense of Bildung, or to what Gildersleeve calls ‘cultural improvement’ (135). In this respect, the book strikes me as a fascinating example of a trend in literary studies that really does deserve more attention: a desire for a notion of Bildung that is called into being at the very moment that literary culture, not to mention broader forms of historical and critical literacy, seem most threatened by new media forms that have thoroughly undermined the very ideal of community to which Bildung appeals.

Christos Tsiolkas: The Utopian Vision is at least implicitly fighting this current, and in the process making claims for literary texts that should be taken seriously but not for granted. We all want literature to matter. Whether it does or will continue to is another question. The issue seems especially pressing in regard to texts that might have a local notoriety, but that are still not widely read or well understood outside of Australia. Writing a study of a single Australian author, moreover, can feel a bit thankless: it is possible to end up trapped by the subject matter and its sphere of influence, and of course finding readers outside the small field of Australian literary studies is difficult. And in an academic environment where accumulated citations matter, that alone is a pretty big disincentive. How many books like this the field can sustain is another question, but in the meantime, I’m glad that articulate critics like Gildersleeve are investing their scholarly energy into generating a critical discourse about a figure as nationally influential as Tsiolkas. Her book will be an important touchstone for anyone interested in Tsiolkas and affect theory, or in Australia’s contemporary literary landscape more generally.

Published 19 September 2017 in Volume 32, No. 2. Subjects: Contemporary literature, Christos Tsiolkas.

Cite as: McCann, Andrew. ‘Review of Christos Tsiolkas: The Utopian Vision, by Jessica Gildersleeve.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, 2017. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.c81749e584.