In Merciless Gods, Christos Tsiolkas tackles his usual litany of themes across a range of short stories. What’s always been so captivating about his writing is his ability to take moments of mundaneness, depravity, danger, violence, love, lust, sex, frustration, anger, joy, and sorrow and lay them bare with a simple measure of precise words that make them all the more affecting.
So often described as a “confronting” author, the only confrontation is that these moments don’t always fall in line with conventional morality or reason.
Consider ‘Petals’, a rending story of an immigrant living out a prison sentence; the most sympathetic character in the story is a convicted paedophile. In ‘Sticks, Stones’ a mother’s disappointment in her son acting like a childish teenager blooms into complete disdain and rejection overnight. In ‘The Disco at the End of Communism’, a man travels to his brother’s funeral despite his complete disrespect for the dead man and everything he stood for and represented in their lives.
The stories are confronting, if only in their honesty. Tsiolkas creates characters and puts them in unusual, often abhorrent situations, and presents them to us to observe, with no judgement, no moralising, no grand statements about how these characters should react in an often-cruel world.
On the downside of this approach, it sometimes feels the misanthropy overwhelms the stories. This is probably only an effect of reading all the stories in quick succession.
Tsiolkas’ skill with his abrasive subject matter has always been to find the light in a situation where it’s possible. For all of Danny Kelly’s disagreeable qualities and actions in Barracuda, there’s the immense love of his family pulling the story back into a comfort zone. For all of the anger and bile in The Slap, the story still ends with young adults finding peace with themselves and enjoying their lives at that time.
In the zone of short stories, it’s harder to make that transition over time and explore the character’s growth throughout a longer narrative – as a result, the stories are often based around moments or small windows of time. The mother in ‘Sticks, Stones’ eventually loses her rage and grows fearful of her son’s safety when he doesn’t appear at a usual hour. Her hatred of him has been momentary, occupying a small window of time; there is still maternal love to consider.
The stories are not all misanthropic or cynical. The strongest of them is ‘Saturn Return’, detailing a man’s experience as he accompanies his partner on the journey to euthanize his partner’s dying father. Though the synopsis sounds grim, the story is a moving exploration of love, family, grief and sorrow told with a tenderness that imbues it with an almost hopeful edge.
As an overall collection, it seems the world of the stories in Merciless Gods is one that’s jagged and often harmful, but that the keys to surviving it can be found in the places and people around us if we know where to look.
At times, Merciless Gods reads like a Michael Haneke film. Its stories and characters are not necessarily likeable, and sometimes not all that identifiable. Some of the stories are steeped in absolute despair – ‘Porn 1’ chronicles a woman’s torment over discovering her recently dead son was a gay porn star, and then the devastation she encounters while viewing one of his films.
But the crucial difference is that Tsiolkas knows how to craft a story so well. Even with unlikeable characters or harsh situations, a cruel world bearing down on them and everyone in it (make no mistake, contemporary Australia still gets vivisected under his scathing knife), he’s still able to create a story that compels and moves you, gives you pause for thought, or makes you consider things a little differently than you did before.
Sometimes the most comforting thing about reading the stories in Merciless Gods is that they’re not a story you’ve experienced yourself. At the same time, it often hits home how similar a situation can seem, or how what some of the characters go through might have been you if you’d made a different decision that one time.
Despite the title, the book is not merciless. In fact, the relative brevity of each story may be a great introduction to Tsiolkas’ unique and bracing style. As a collection, it doesn’t command the same attention as some of his other work, but it’s still a great testament to his position as one of the strongest authorial voices in Australia. And on its own merits, it’s a fantastic collection of short stories exploring the world we live in through a whole array of characters who live it in very different ways.