- 7 1/2, by Christos Tsiolkas. Allen & Unwin, $32.99.
There is a line, right at the end of 7 1/2, Christis Tsiolkas' new novel, when the narrator responds to a request from a journalist for commentary.
Something terrible has happened - some calamity, an earthquake, a massacre, a pandemic - and the narrator, whose name is Christos Tsiolkas, has been wrenched back into the real world after two weeks of cerebral bliss and solitude.
"Thank you for the offer, but I am not a journalist, I am a poet; I suspect you are confusing the purposes of each of those professions," he responds to the pleading editor.
And this, he tells me, is the crux of what he wanted to do when he set out to write this novel.
7 1/2 is a hard one to categorise - a wrenching, powerful read with several narrative strands. Although Tsiolkas is adamant that it's a novel, he gives his own name to the protagonist, also a writer, and places him on the NSW South Coast, where he also has a house.
There, narrator Christos sets out to write the same story that has been kicking around in Tsolkias' own head for the better part of a decade. In the process, he revisits his own childhood and adolescence, his coming-of-age as a gay man, the son of a migrant family who has become a successful writer. It's a Russian Doll-style unfolding, a manifesto, a plea for beauty, tolerance, open-heartedness.
Speaking from his home in Melbourne, Tsiolkas says he began the book during his second day in quarantine in 2020, having recently returned from London on one of the very last flights out before the pandemic closed in.
He had been travelling there to promote his last book, Damascus. With him was his long-time partner Wayne; the pair had planned to spend two weeks driving around England and Ireland to celebrate their 35-year anniversary.
Instead, they returned, and spent 14 days in home quarantine, hotels not yet in the picture in March, 2020.
"I'd been working on another book that was going nowhere," he says.
"I just found it preachy when I was writing, and inert. And then I started this - I just set myself a goal that morning, a bit jet-lagged - that I'm going to write at least 800 words a day and just see where this book gets me, [while] still working on the other one in the meantime.
"And it was just pure pleasure, you know, Damascus had been so much hard work, and this one flowed."
Damascus, a historical reimagining of the birth of the Christian church, based around the gospels and letters of St Paul, had involved five years of solid research, during which he had retreated from the modern world, and immersed himself in ancient texts.
7 1/2, on the other hand - the title a homage to Fellini's film 8 1/2, about a struggling filmmaker - was "pure pleasure".
Tsiolkas has often been described as a fearless, "audacious" writer, and this has as much to do with the variety of his subject matter as with the forms he uses. His best-known work, 2008's The Slap, begins at a family barbeque, where an adult slaps someone else's child, and investigates the fallout from eight different perspectives. It was social commentary of the most visceral kind, and was, unsurprisingly, a bestseller.
7 1/2 was, he said, something of a dare to himself. An intensely political writer, he wanted instead to write about beauty. The line about being a poet brings that to the fore, he says.
"That is to say that there's something else that fiction can do that is different to journalism, that is different to memoir, that is different to documentary," he says.
"None of that is a dismissing of any of those forms which I passionately love, but I guess my writing that book was a way of coming to understand what it is that I can do."
And so, Christos-in-the-novel sets himself up in a chic holiday rental at an unnamed South Coast town, one that most Canberra readers would recognise as Narooma, where Tsiolkas does own a house - "Wayne calls it 'The House The Slap Built'," he says, laughing.
He says the period after The Slap was published - the publicity, the commentary, the television adaptation, the reaction to the book from foreign readers with less understanding of Australian migrant communities - was marked by a kind of confusion.
"I will underline and underscore this - I'm really conscious of my fortune," he says.
"But, yeah, there is that bittersweet element to success too, where it's like, am I trapped into having to write The Slap ad infinitum? I feel with Damascus, and now this book, regardless of what happens with it, it's not like The Slap is forgotten, but it's clear that I'm not going to write The Slap ad infinitum."
In 7 1/2, Christos wants to write a story that has been in his mind for years, about a retired porn actor named Paul, now living with his wife and son on the Australian coast. He is made an offer he can't refuse from a rich American man - to spend the weekend with him in California. It's a risky journey, one that threatens to re-open all the doors he had shut firmly behind him. But there are unexpected moments of tenderness and beauty amid the chaos of his past life.
An ugly industry that has given succour to untold numbers of people - men and women. Repressed homosexuality, the joy and pain of fatherhood, long-frayed familial bonds, a brother lost to the ravages of drugs, a debased and decaying neighbourhood only slightly less hospitable now than it was to grow up in.
But woven amongst Paul's narrative are the people who have helped make Christos the man, writer and lover he is today. As he writes, he returns to his early family life - the tough life of the son of migrants, crammed into workers' cottages in the narrow streets of inner-city Melbourne. Hardship, but also so much familial love, the kind that will cradle Christos in a sense of safety throughout his life.
There are also the men who, consciously or not, guided him into his own sense of self, his coming out into a world in which homosexuality was barely legal.
Christos leaves his phone in another room, and vows to only check it once a day, if that. Tsiolkas similarly avoids social media in real life.
"One of the things that worries me, and I don't know if this is the Grandpa Simpson in me, you know, maybe a younger generation would think it absurd, but I do worry about social media - it's the polarisation that it creates, it's also the almost addictive nature of it, and it's sapping," he says.
"I can understand the criticism that may be directed to 7 1/2, to say that you're copping out, the idea that turning your back on social media is turning your back on the reality of what the world is. I don't at all feel that's true, that's not my experience at all, but I can see that argument.
"But I think the fact that I can see the argument is the reason I'm not on social media."
It's also why he's happy to dismiss any categorisation of 7 1/2 as "auto-fiction", a term he says he doesn't understand.
"Part of the joy of not being on social media is that I'm not in those currents," he says.
"And you know me, I love reading and I love argument and I love intellectual inquiry, but sometimes these terms are strictly academic in the driest, most sterile sense."
He's more interested in challenging himself, in a different way each time. And this time, it was about bringing beauty and spirituality to a world filled with ugliness and uncertainty.
"I think there's always an element of the work of your previous book, it's almost like a spectre that still haunts the new work, and with Damascus, which was a very different process, that was five years of incredible research, that was a real immersion in history and theology and philosophy," he says.
"But I think it was also allowing myself to write about the spiritual in a sense that I had foreclosed for myself for some time, because it's almost like a conversation that's really hard to have amongst a lot of my peers, because the automatic position is, you know, atheism.
"And I realised that actually those spiritual questions are really important to me, and maybe through working on Damascus and looking at that early period of the Christian church, I realised that there's actually a fundamentalism to a lot of politics as well, which is always looking to the next world to come. I understand that urge, but what can often happen then is you forget the world here.
"I wanted to write a book about living in the now and seeing the beauty of this moment. That doesn't nullify the challenges of living in the now."