Skip to content

Christos Tsiolkas on success and failure

February 26, 2014

I will soon post my review of Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel Barracuda, which is about a young man who fails in his quest to become an Olympic swimmer. It tears him apart. In tonight’s news, here in Australia, we heard that one of our successful Olympic swimmers is going into rehab for addiction to Stillnox. Another recently went into treatment for depression.

Tsiolkas’ Danny didn’t make it the way these Olympians did, but I wonder whether their (apparent) suffering has the same roots as Danny’s – the loss of a future. Danny lost it because he “failed” (in his eyes) at a crucial moment. For post-Olympians (as I’ll call them), it seems to be more about what to do after they’ve achieved the goal. Danny thought that his future was set, but even if he had achieved his goal, would it have been?

Here’s Danny:

He flexed his right hand, opening and closing it, stretching his fingers till he could feel the tingle, then clenching them in tight. Sometimes in the garden he came across dried-up plum kernels from fallen fruit that had been buried all winter and then resurfaced. He’d pick up a kernel, it would be shrivelled, the colour of the soil, and it would disintegrate into dust in his hand. That was the future, that’s what had become of it.

His hand open and closed.

He’d had a future. It had been as hard and as strong as the stony heart of an unripened plum, so strong it would have taken a hammer blow to crack it. He’d had that future for years but it too had crumbled into dust. His theory was that you only got one future to dream. He’d f****d it up. He’d failed and now it was gone.

Only one future to dream? Therein lies the rub, perhaps, regardless of whether you succeed or fail (in sport or other single-minded endeavour)?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim KABLE permalink
    February 26, 2014 23:38

    Am somewhere early stages into reading this book – put down in order to read several other books of greater immediate interest – am I avoiding Barracuda? Not sure I like the lead character Danny and his juvenile set (he is a juvenile – I think too set in his views for one so young, though) against his new school and swim club members – and the strange relation with his girl friend. Early days/daze? I’ll be interested in your thinking.

    • February 27, 2014 03:03

      Ah Jim, that’s interesting. Tsiolkas can engender extreme positions I think. If you aren’t liking it in the early days I’m not sure you’ll like it in the later. I’m not sure you need to like Danny to like the book – though I did empathise with him for all his many faults. Not liking the characters was one of the main criticisms of those who didn’t like The slap. Did you read it?

  2. February 27, 2014 02:01

    This one’s not out here in N. America yet…but it’s on my list.

  3. February 27, 2014 03:48

    Very interesting! I suppose if you spend you whole life focused on achieving one thing and fail at it it must be devastating. And should it be achieved then what next? It must be such an unmoored and lost experience. Sort of makes me feel a bit better about my lack of focus!

    • February 27, 2014 04:05

      Haha Stefanie .. Love your response. But I think it’s true. Of course many manage the switch but quite a lot do struggle I think … Tsiolkas captures the struggle well and I found it believable.

  4. February 27, 2014 06:40

    Not a Tsiolkas fan (surpriiise! – not). I can’t adapt to reading stories when I strongly dislike characters. Has Tsiolkas ever written about anything that actually functions OK? – probably not. His thing is The Struggle, I believe.

    • February 27, 2014 08:10

      It certainly is the conflict … I don’t really care whether I like the characters in a book but I know a lot of people do. But in fact I quite like many of Tsiolkas’s characters even if I don’t like everything they do. They’re human. There were some in The slap that I detested … Harry, for example. I think that was the name of the cousin. You probably wouldn’t like Perfume then …

  5. February 27, 2014 09:41

    Not a big fan of this writer or of the subject but do have great sympathy for those who fall into the clutches of Olympic fever and damage their own lives and those of others.

    • February 27, 2014 14:17

      Thanks eagoodlife … I think, really, it’s not just Olympic fever, that he’s dealing with as I suggest at the end of my post. What about mountaineers who just have to climb that mountain regardless of the the cost to their lives and those of their families? Who leave their families without a father (it’s usually male) or with a father with limbs or digits missing? I think we focus on the Olympics because it encompasses so many sports but I think we are wrong to see that the Olympics as the only endeavour that gets people in its clutches and damages lives. Artists and writers too can bring their families down because they must follow their muse. I understand that two issues brought this idea to Tsiolkas – one was to do with sport and the other to do with his own feelings after the huge success of The slap. How to cope with that? As you can see, I don’t think we should pass Tsiolkas over too quickly – I think I’ll be writing another post, after my review goes live!

      • February 28, 2014 10:51

        Well of course even we bloggers can become obsessed! You may have seen the beautiful ‘short’ of Tim Winton’s on the ABC about an obsession with stigma, ability and perceived disability, now there’s a writer who really understands how to pack a story to the rafters with meaning, depth and promise, but then we knew that! No writer deserves to be passed over.

        • February 28, 2014 10:57

          No I didn’t see that, eagoodlife … but he too is a great writer about modern times. There were moments when Barracuda reminded me of Breath, which I thought was a powerful book about masculinity, risk and expectations. Not the same angle as Tsiolkas but sides of the same coin (if that makes sense).

  6. meg permalink
    February 27, 2014 11:36

    I didn’t like the Slap because of the characters, and I think Tsiolkas stereotypes his characters. I haven’t read Barracuda, will, but in no hurry. You can have many failures in life, and just as many wins. The problem is when the desire becomes an obsession and people can’t see other paths to follow after the failure.


    • February 27, 2014 14:21

      Yes, that’s it Meg, it’s not just about sport though I think that was his springboard but about single-minded pursuit of any goal or, as you say, obsession.

      I suggested to my reading group that Barracuda is tighter than The slap. I liked The slap. I think it was misread to some degree and I did think it was a bit predictable in places, such as Aisha at the conference near the end. I’m not sure that it was stereoptyed so much as exaggerated to make the point, but perhaps that’s almost the same thing?

  7. February 27, 2014 13:32

    Couldn’t get into the Slap after two tries. Hated the TV series, watched the first one. The kid drove me nuts. haha. My husband and I only mentioned today about the two swimmers who are having post Olympics difficulty. It must be so hard to spend 20 years focused on one thing and then win or lose, it’s over. Some manage post Olympic life,others don’t, much like anything really. Not been inclined to read Barracuda but as author is my country man, I do like to follow his career. Saw him on ABC Book Club and quite liked him as a person.

    • February 27, 2014 14:23

      Thanks Pam. I hear he is a really delightful person, from a few people who have met him including one of his publisher’s reps. The slap was pretty confronting, but I thought it was brave (to be corny) and said some important things about our society.

  8. February 27, 2014 23:46

    My thoughts went to Barracuda after the recent news as well. Though Danny failed before his Olympian career began I can imagine that had he achieved his dreams he would have eventually succumbed when it all ended as our heroes have anyway.

    • February 27, 2014 23:49

      Oh welcome, shelleyrae. Yes, I agree. I think that was (is) the risk, and I think Tsiolkas is well aware of that, don’t you?

  9. chillcat permalink
    March 1, 2014 19:33

    I’ll be interested in reading this as there seems to be a thread of single-mindedness (perhaps not quite to the point of obsession) in this family. I’ve seen many single-minded musicians lower their expectations, and wonder how the path will be for my soprano daughter – I think that’s a field even more cut-throat than writing or swimming!

    • March 1, 2014 22:32

      Oh good luck to your daughter, Catherine. It’s a challenge isn’t it, because you often have to be obsessive to succeed in artistic or sporting pursuits, but you have to be ready for not succeeding (at all, or to the level you’d like).

  10. buriedinprint permalink
    March 2, 2014 05:27

    Interesting! I’m certainly curious. Though I’m also certainly behind in his work; I’ve JUST picked up a copy of The Slap.

    On the topic of swimming in particular, I loved Leanne Shapton’s lyrical memoir, Swimming Studies, which includes some of her artwork alongside her experience of the sport and the competition alongisde. On the topic of Olympic athletes in particular, I really enjoyed Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage (a reference to the sense of the body as a bone cage, the sense of dislocation sometimes necessary to compete at that level). I suppose one of the things that struck me about both books is that I am not in any way a sport-y person, but I found the stories so engaging regardless; it sounds like this one might work the same way.

    • March 2, 2014 09:18

      Oh thanks, BIP, for those othe titles. Yes, I agree. Not only am I also not sport-y, I really don’t like swimming but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to read about other people’s passions and interests! In fact, in a way it’s why I do! I have absolutely no interest in surfing but I’ll never forget Tim Winton’s Breath. But, of course, the writing has to get me in … As Tsiolkas’ and Winton’s do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: