7½ by Christos Tsiolkas review – sumptuous but unsettling autofiction that eschews the political

Responding to rolling catastrophes, the Australian author turns inwards, with a celebration of eroticism and beauty that occasionally undermines itself

“I have come here to write a book,” the narrator of 7½, a semi-fictional version of the acclaimed Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, tells the reader in its opening pages. “I don’t want it to be about politics; I don’t want it to be about sexuality; I don’t want it to be about race; I don’t want it to be about gender. Not history, nor morality, and not about the future. All of those matters … now bore me.”

It’s difficult to fix a stable reading to this opening. It is deliberately provocative, certainly playful, and it works to set up the meta-fictional and autofictional elements of the book – its framing narrative that follows an author who has retreated from the city to write in isolation, and his grappling with a story that has preoccupied and evaded him for years.

It is a bold statement, even bombastic, because such a project – a book that is not in some way about any of the issues and experiences covered in that list – is all but impossible to imagine, and because Tsiolkas’s previous novels are all explicit in their concerns with sexuality, religion, history and class. Exactly where the author-character and the author proper, Tsiolkas himself, stand here is indeterminate – and this makes for a deeply unsettling read.

Instead of politics and sexuality and morality and history (all of which are soon capitalised by the narrator whenever they are mentioned), instead of “crisis and revolution, war and bushfires” and “all this compassion and all this outrage”, the narrator is determined that his book will instead be about beauty. It will be about what he loves in and about the world – the sensual and the sensuous, the physical – and the mysterious and thrilling interplay between observation, imagination and memory that propels his writing.

And 7½ does indeed capture these things – it is full of lavish and finely detailed descriptions of landscapes, the ocean and the inlet that surround the coastal town where the narrator is staying, sweeping changes in the weather, animals and birds, as well as the small human interactions he witnesses while walking in the town, and the people he watches in passing. Bodies are of particular importance, with the narration often lingering on details of their forms – and paying close attention to the sensations and operations of the body, walking and swimming and lying in the sun, and eating, showering, urination. Tsiolkas’s interest here is in what he describes as “the essential relationship” between the sensual and creativity and the “wondrous alchemy” they work on each other; as well as on the erotic, where “everything begins”. And this ever-present physicality, this sense of liveliness in and alertness to the world is the biggest pleasure of the book – it is sumptuous and evocative, and, indeed, beautiful – a celebration.

But this beauty is positioned strangely within the novel, especially as its multiple layers of narrative and artifice accrue. The narrator’s book about beauty is one that he sees as standing separate from those big issues, from everything happening in the world that he says “should concern” him – and by extension, from contemporary novels as a whole, which are “arrogant”, “naive” and full of “moralism” at the expense of imagination. When the narrator visits a friend in a nearby town, she takes him to task for the renunciation she sees in these ideas: “We have grown old,” she says, “And you have grown soft.” It’s a clever move, dramatising this argument and these two aesthetic positions, in no small part because it allows Tsiolkas to consciously indicate his awareness of the political implications of his project. But it also feels disingenuous – because any opposition to the narrator’s repeated assertion that it is too much “priggish and scolding” focus on the political that has so enfeebled contemporary fiction inevitably reads itself as priggish and scolding, and proof of Tsiolkas’s point.

It is difficult to know how seriously to take this. For one thing, the narrator’s argument is undermined by the novel that he is writing, which is included in the fabric of the text. Titled Sweet Thing, its protagonist is an ageing ex-porn star returning from Australia to his country of birth, and it is very much about sexuality and class, uneasy moral decisions and the ways in which our histories persist – though the narrator ascribes his character’s experiences to “accident” rather than politics. So too does the extremity of his assertions often vacillate – at one point he describes the “striking handsomeness” of a Yuin man as a result of his “cojoined” ancestry, and adds: “I know it has been a long and exhausting and ugly battle, and yet I can’t help having an heretical thought: it was all worth it to have produced such singular beauty.”

At its heart, though, 7½ is a book that is contending with our moment in history, where crisis seems to follow disaster after catastrophe after tragedy and it’s impossible to switch off. The narrator’s response, by and large, is a turning inward and a turning away – turning instead to beauty and love. This is important, vitally so, but Tsiolkas’s narrator always frames his choice as a binary – beauty or politics, the sensual or the societal, imagination or ethical engagement.

Yet these aren’t mutually exclusive categories. They can and do coexist, and the boundaries between them are never clear – and the narrator’s insistence otherwise undermines the position that he takes.

  • 7½ by Christos Tsiolkas is published by Allen & Unwin (A$32.99). It is out on 2 November


Fiona Wright

The GuardianTramp

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