Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 360 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
In 1963, the Italian film director Federico Fellini directed a film called 8½ in which a troubled filmmaker struggles to get a new movie off the ground. Weighed down by the project, he retreats into the inner world of his thoughts, recalling past and present romantic entanglements, which, in turn, begin to affect his film work so that it becomes increasingly more autobiographical.
Christos Tisolkas’ new novel, 7½, transposes that idea into the world of literature, placing himself as the central character who is working on a new novel, all the while getting lost in his own thoughts, remembering his childhood and writing a memoir of sorts.
Three storylines woven together
I have three stories I wish to tell. The simple nature of our craft is to vomit these stories out on a page. It is an ugly analogy but I think it is apt.
The book is comprised of three main threads, which evolve over time, and criss-cross over each other like an intricately woven tapestry. It’s a book that merges meta-fiction with auto-fiction, throws in some nature writing, offers lots of musings and thoughts about art and beauty, love and eroticism, and attempts to explain the meaning of literature and why novelists do what they do. But despite these many disparate threads, it feels like a seamless, effortless whole.
In the first thread, we meet a writer called Christos Tsiolkas who has headed to the southern NSW coast for a couple of weeks solitude to focus on his writing. Here, in a beach-side cottage, he goes for daily swims, breathes in the beauty of the world around him and shuts out all distractions, including his mobile phone which he locks away in a room, only using it to call his partner who remains behind in Melbourne.
The second thread is about writing and why Christos has decided to shun the usual topics — “Morality or Politics or Race or Class or Gender or Sexuality” — he covers in his work. We find out about the genesis of his new novel, which may or may not become a screenplay for a film. He tells us how he came up with the idea, why it’s important to him and how he is struggling to write it — and then we get to read it in what feels like real-time as the story develops. This novel is about an American porn star, Paul Carrigan, who lives in Australia and is married to an Australian woman with whom he has a teenage son. Carrigan is offered $180,000 to sleep with an ageing fan in California, and the novel follows what happens when he makes the trip.
The third and final thread is the story of Christos’ own life, beginning with memories of his childhood in working-class Melbourne where he was raised by his Greek immigrant parents. Much of what he writes tries to explain how his personal beliefs, his homosexuality and his appreciation of art and beauty have all been shaped by his experiences.
A book about beauty
It can sometimes be a risk for a writer to include different threads in the one work because there’s always the danger that a reader will prefer one over another. But I enjoyed all of the storylines in 7½, perhaps because they were woven together so skilfully but also perhaps because they inform each other: you know, for instance, that Christos watched porn as a young man and that informed his decision to write a novel about a porn star.
I especially enjoyed his musings on literature — he doesn’t claim the novel is dead, but he does say it has become “timid” and “cowardly”, with writers looking over their shoulders seeking approval from peers, colleagues, friends and social media, instead of being true to their selves. Later he accuses novelists of becoming homogenised:
Every bloody novelist sounds the same now, whether they are American or Austrian or Angolan or Andalusian or Australian. All the same cant, all the same desire to shape the world to their academic whims and aspirations. All this compassion and all this outrage and all this empathy and all this sorrow and all this fear and all this moralising and not one sentence of surprise in it.
Perhaps one of the most telling scenes in the book is when Christos has a frank conversation with his friend Andrea about his work. He confesses that he is writing a novel about beauty because it’s a challenge to capture beauty on the page.
“I want it to be simple, almost straightforward in its intent. If I were a poet, it would be easier. Or if I were a musician. It is harder to distil beauty into prose. The novel is treacherous.”
But she accuses him of taking the easy option, of no longer wanting to change the world with his writing.
“You can’t write about beauty,” she says calmly. “You don’t have the talent.”
The usual topics
Despite what the author might say, 7½ doesn’t shun the usual, sometimes controversial or confronting, topics that are present in his earlier work (see all my reviews here), because you can’t write about beauty without discussing morality and politics and gender and class and so on. The topics might not be capitalised but they are still there.
He’s often at his “Christos Tsiolkas best” when writing about the erotic, the sensual and the pornographic, albeit seen through the lens of a gay man (he’s obsessed, it would seem, with men’s hands and armpits — indeed sweaty, smelly, unshaven armpits are mentioned a lot in this book, you have been warned). But if you have read his work before, this won’t surprise you.
But where this novel works best is in that grey space between memory and imagination, where creativity collides with memoir, and how noticing a particular fragrance or hearing a familiar song can transport us back to another time and place, and how that is deeply connected to our emotions and, in turn, our sense of self.
7½ might not be your usual Tsiolkas novel, but it’s just as powerful and thought-provoking, if not more so, than anything he’s written before.
I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books
22 thoughts on “‘7½’ by Christos Tsiolkas”
I struggle with Tsiolkas, I confess. I couldn’t finish The Slap, although I did watch the movie of Head-On back in my twenties. When you talk about “the erotic, the sensual and the pornographic” that he does so well, I think of that movie & realise I just don’t want to read that any more. God, I’m getting old!!
He’s definitely a writer you either love or hate. I love him because he’s not afraid to criticise Australian culture and society, to be confronting, to push the boundaries of what it is acceptable to write about. His characters are always flawed (and often unlikable) and the men all think with a certain part of their anatomy 😆 but they are all human and real and raw.
Note I’ve not seen the movie Head On and I’m not sure I’d want to. I take it that’s the one adapted from his novel Loaded?
I recently watched the adaptation of Dead Europe (it’s streaming on iView) and it was pretty grim / rank / terrible. The book was confronting, dark and strange but the film felt exploitative in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.
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Somehow, it sounds from your review that the Australian context is important here and might not transpose well into Europe. Anyway, that’s the excuse I’m hiding behind, because I’m not sure I’m ready for smelly armpits this morning 😉
Funnily enough, this is one book of his that *will* transpose well into Europe because it’s not Political or about Class or Australia. It’s basically a memoir, with some lovely passages about the natural world (birds, beaches, the ocean, forests etc) interwove a far-fetched tale about an American porn star. BUT… he is not for everyone and I don’t really know anyone in the blogging world who likes his stuff as much as I do.
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I’ll try to give him a a try sometime then, to see which side of the fence I’m on.
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Hmm. Well, all I can say about his spiteful opinions about contemporary literature is that he’s been reading the wrong books. Yes, there is homogenous rubbish around, but one doesn’t judge food standards by McDonalds or tins of baked beans, and it’s absurd to suggest that there is nothing interesting or surprising to read.
Lol. I know you hate him, Lisa. I should probably make clear that the quote is the character Christos speaking in the book which may or may not be the actual Christos. But I do kind of agree with what he says in GENERAL terms. It’s why I don’t read American fiction and read very little contemporary British fiction. Those books feel like they’re just the same old stories I have read before. It’s why I read Irish fiction, Oz fiction, translated fiction, memoirs, literary crime etc because those books feel new and exciting to ME. I’m aware they might not feel like that to others.
I don’t hate him, I don’t hate any authors.
I am not interested in his work, because I disliked The Slap, which is not the same thing. Plus, I had two of his earlier works on the TBR and I chucked them out because every page I flicked open was full of filthy language, which is a sure sign that an author doesn’t have (or chooses not to use) the power of the English language to express himself.
If he were commenting on US or UK Lit, I might be inclined to agree, though really I don’t read enough of either to make that kind of judgement. But including Angola in his spray is absurd. How many writers from Angola has he read, to form an opinion like that?
Oh, I think the Angola reference is just flippant… the whole sentence is using alliteration so it’s not to be taken seriously. I guess that’s the danger of using a quote in a review because it gets taken out of context. This quote is from a much larger, argumentative conversation with his friend Andrea (who I couldn’t help wondering might be Angela Savage?) so you get to see the rebuttals to his opinions, so nothing is presented as fait acompli. I just happened to prefer his (the Christos character) opinions because they resonated. But he does come away from it troubled, wondering if he’s got everything all wrong.
Did you see the review in today’s Australian? (A pale shadow of itself BTW under the new editor, I mostly chuck it out, but I read their review because I’d read yours.
No, I don’t read the Australian… isn’t it behind a paywall?
I’ve just seen the horrible headline, so I’m guessing it wasn’t a positive review.
Yes, it is. The Spouse get the Weekend edition. We chuck most of it out, but I scan the review in case there’s anything of interest.
If I had my way we wouldn’t have it in the house at all…
I would like to try this, and I did request a copy – sadly, none forthcoming so far (maybe they didn’t like my review of his last one!).
Ask again, Tony. It might have got lost in post. Mine actually got delivered to the wrong address even though it had the correct address on the label. It took 24 hours to track it down. My neighbour had actually opened the parcel. I’m wondering if she read the book before repackaging and giving to me 🤷🏻♀️
Kim – Maybe, but I’m not hopeful. They’re very good at sending kids books for my daughter, but a bit hit and miss with any I request for myself!
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Thanks for alerting me to his latest novel! I’m out of the loop really with current Australian literature but have been a big Tsiolkas fan since Loaded.
Hi Hilaire, I believe it will be published in the UK in February.
I was worried Tsiolkas was getting a bit middle-brow, but this sounds like he’s grasped that particular bull by the horns and has confronted it head on (probably not the best way to deal with a bull). You have inspired me to let one of my children know this is what they are buying me for Xmas.
Hope you get a copy, Bill. It’s a good read, even though it’s quite different to his usual stuff. I like that he’s prepared to experiment a little with structure and form. I still haven’t read Damascus but will have to give that a go at some point.