Since 1995, when he published Loaded, a slim but incendiary novel about 24 hours in the life of a young, gay, Greek man living in Melbourne, Christos Tsiolkas has been a powerful literary force. He would go on to receive high praise and perhaps even riches for The Slap (2008), a kaleidoscopic novel which would be adapted for television in Australia and the US. There has been Damascus (2019), Tsiolkas's award-winning re-imagining of the life of St Paul and the dark and violent early days of the Christian church, as well as other novels, a short story collection, and criticism. His is a towering presence, one that would be intimidating if the man did not have a reputation for being warm and generous.
But this reviewer can now hear Tsiolkas spitting venom: "Do not bring my personality into this, you fool. Do not mix my life with my art."
So then, this latest work.
7 1/2 is subtitled "a novel", but how much of that is true? It concerns a Melbourne-based novelist called Christos Tsiolkas. He lives with his long-term, same-sex partner. He is in his mid-50s. The narrative involves Christos (sometimes "Christo" and sometimes "Chris") taking himself to a rented holiday house on the far south coast of New South Wales in the hope of retreating from the world with all its distractions to write a new book. We see Christos writing in the house - often on the deck overlooking a manicured garden - and swimming at the beach, making meals, watching films, smoking, reading, and dreaming, which is a close cousin of the imagination, as it is of writing fiction.
The Christos of the novel makes it clear that he is telling a number of stories simultaneously, one relating to his childhood and adolescence, another about a retired gay porn star who, despite now being married to a woman and has a son, is offered a large sum of money to return to the US, the country of his birth and former profession, to have sex with an elderly gentleman who never had the opportunity to properly explore his sexuality.
In typical Tsiolkas fashion, 7 1/2 is also a polemic.
Early in the novel, Christos visits a friend, a public servant who lives in a town just up the coast. When Andrea asks Christos what he is working on, he replies, "I am writing a book about beauty. 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." A moment later, Christos adds, "I know there is so much happening that should concern me...Crisis and revolution, war and bushfires, the pandemic and the shifts in the superpowers. But there is nothing I can offer anymore to illuminate any of that. And these days, when I read novels that are all crisis and revolution, war and bushfires, I am nauseated by their arrogance and their naivety."
A few pages on, there is this: "I go into a bookshop these days and it as if the shelves are filled with the agonised and narcissistic rantings of teenagers."
Whatever Tsiolkas does with the rest of the novel, he must not be a hypocrite.
As he continues to describe the quiet, mostly solitary days of his writing retreat, as he shares story after story about his early life, as he tells the tale of the porn star - Christos makes it clear that he has had this story for 10 years but has never been sure if it should be a film, stage play, or novel - Tsiolkas is in no way a hypocrite. Powered by his electric, at times fevered intelligence, and through his pushing of the English language to the point it is almost overloaded (in this way there are echoes of Patrick White), Christos Tsiolkas offers his many readers a multi-layered novel that refuses to be categorised. Much like the author himself.
Being Tsiolkas, there is plenty of sex, drugs and rock n roll in 7 1/2. And bodily functions - Christos rails against the ageing of his body.
Does Christos Tsiolkas achieve his desire to write a novel about beauty? Undoubtedly. In his hands, of course, beauty is not easy: it is not a screensaver, nor can it be found on Instagram. For Tsiolkas, beauty is raw and erotic and shocking; beauty comes from history and family, from allowing bodies to do what makes them come fully alive; beauty is thinking for yourself, and giving two fingers to Twitter while you do it. There is a palpable vulnerability in these pages, and a great tenderness - Christos remains in love with his partner, and vice versa, and while it is a love that is lightly sketched, it helps to show that beauty can be found at home, wherever home might be. That conclusion may appear simple, but the telling is not, despite the novelist's wish to write a "straightforward" book.
The audacity of Tsiolkas is still a thrill. And, dare one say it, necessary.
Nigel Featherstone is the author Bodies of Men.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.