Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Queering the Mainstream: The Slap and 'Middle' Australia1

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Queering the Mainstream: The Slap and 'Middle' Australia1

Article excerpt

Christos Tsiolkas's fiction, drama and screenplays explore characters with desires not often depicted in Australian literary writing; these characters pursue anonymous beat sex, excessive drug use, vicious violence, pornography, blood fetishes, and the great taboo of sex with minors. Such preoccupations, and his continued exploration of uncomfortable desires and provoking issues, have meant that Tsiolkas has been seen as interesting and immensely talented, but rather marginal in Australian literary life. His accounts of migrant experiences, while less confrontational, have also tended to place him outside of the white Anglo dominance of Australian literary life. This has all changed since the publication of The Slap. In writing a fiction that concerns a range of mostly middle-class, inner suburban Melburnians, Tsiolkas is now seen to be writing prose highly relevant to 'ordinary' Australian life.

This has seen the book discussed in arenas outside the strictly literary, such as in the columns of daily papers and on news television, where, amusingly for those familiar with his earlier work, Tsiolkas has been consulted as a potential authority on the disciplining of children.2 He is now a major figure in the literary life of Australia and beyond.3 In 2009 The Slap won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, the ALS Gold Medal, the Australian Book Industry and Book Association's Book of the Year awards and the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, as well as being short-listed for the Miles Franklin. The book has also been successfully adapted for television.

Does The Slap actually represent a departure, a jump into the mainstream, in which Tsiolkas is suddenly more interested in writing about backyard barbeques than sex in back alleys with strangers? And in his literary techniques-the instant decoding and widespread use of popular fictional methods, discussed later-has Tsiolkas moved squarely into the realm of popular fiction? Is this book really different from the rest of his oeuvre or can it be seen as a continuation of an ongoing literary project, especially that begun in Loaded? This article will trace both continuities and discontinuities in Tsiolkas's work as seen in The Slap. It will also examine its specificities as a fiction produced in the later stages of the Howard years in Australia, a fiction that recasts the nation via a profound ethics of inclusion.

Followers of Tsiolkas's work know that the structures and divisions of Australian society, as they manifest in Melbourne, have always been central in his writing. Such structures reflect various vectors that have an impact on potential identities or identifications for individuals within contemporary Australian life. Class, ethnicity, sexuality, and race are just some of the more obvious of these. The way these vectors play out on the physical geography of the city has been shown to be inseparable from the subject positions they help to produce. Tsiolkas's work is grounded in very literal ways, concerned with how the city he writes about is classed, where ethnic groups concentrate, how sexualities coalesce in localities, and where sex and drugs are available in a variety of forms. Despite tracing these factors though, Tsiolkas resists essentialising identities around embodiment. Though these vectors provide a way of mapping the city, they are also an exercise in 'mapbreaking' it, as Ari's ultimate refusal of identity suggests (Schwartz 16). Though this impulse in his current work goes well beyond sexualities, such a rejection of identity politics is a tactic of the queer politics of the nineties.

The queer theoretical and political project has sought to deconstruct those binaries which position heterosexuality and homosexuality as differing poles, taking their meanings from their opposition to each other. Queer recognises that identity is not stable, but contingent, even though identities have material, not just discursive effects. It is opposed to essentialist understandings of identity politics, which is why it can also be applied to any system relying on binaries for meaning. …

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