The erudite and opinionated Tsiolkas is somewhat at odds with the Australian literary landscape: a queer Greek-Australian intellectual who broke into mainstream readership with The Slap and has been wrestling with notoriety ever since, never more than with 7 ½.
There’s ½ of a novel here (which comes after 7 others) and ½ of a metafictional reflection on the role of the artist (much like Fellini’s 8 ½ then).
That half-novel is Sweet Thing, a story of class, sex and morality in which an ex-porn star returns from Australia to the US to spend a few nights with an ageing fan in exchange for a tidy sum.The metafictional part concerns a character names Christo – by all descriptions a version of the author – who isolates in a sea-side shack to write Sweet Thing, and wonders in the process about the role of the writer in these times we live in.
Christo has been writing for years about Identity, Race, Politics, History and Sexuality (all capitalized), possibly from a place of outrage and certitude. Finding himself in a world mired with outrage and polarized certitude, he turns inwards, embracing beauty and sensuality – starting with his own burgeoning desires growing up - as a way back to purpose.
In one chapter, Christo has an argument with a friend about the value of his writing. It’s a virtuosic and brutal moment of vanity, honesty and friendship and a superlative piece of prose, a brilliant reminder of why we should care.7 ½ is an intriguing and worthwhile experiment, a good fit with the pandemic years during which it was written (though perhaps one only afforded commercially successful writers).
Both parts are in dialogue with each other, yet I felt neither went far enough. The novel yearns for completion, the memoir for authenticity. If Christo is only a version of Christos, what are we to believe? If this novel is about doubt and ambivalence, why do Christo’s assertions feel so unequivocal?
In every reader perhaps exists a version of the book they’re reading: the version they were hoping for. They’re entitled to that version, certainly not owed it. In mine, Tsiolkas uses the project to learn to live with – and own up to – ambivalence, a place where beauty and politics do co-exist, even if not harmoniously, as I believe they have in his towering body of work.