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September 10, 2014

Book Notes - Christos Tsiolkas "Barracuda"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Christos Tsiolkas's Barracuda is a profound and marvelously dark novel.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"This disturbing yet satisfying story by Commonwealth Prize winner Tsiolkas (The Slap) examines themes of class consciousness, family conflict, loyalty, and friendship. The often harsh, sometimes brutal novel about the fine line between love and hate, pain and pleasure, is infused with language so beautiful that it takes one's breath away."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Christos Tsiolkas's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Barracuda:

The joy of music has always been in my life. My mother recalls that as a young infant I would find my way into the recess of their brand new three-in-one stereo and curl myself up next to the turntable so I would be closer to the music. The music I first heard as a child were the Greek laika (popular) songs that both my parents loved to sing. And, of course, there was Elvis Presley, the one non-Greek singer whose music found its way into our home.

Later, as a young kid, I was also seduced by the pleasure of disco, how it was impossible to simply sit still and listen to the music, that one's body had to become part of the listening experience. A few years later, as an adolescent, punk rock and the dissonant electronic proto-minimalism of New Wave expressed all that confused, rage and questioning that I was unable to put in words. But I never lost my love for dance music. I was fortunate in my early twenties to move into a shared household with a young woman from New Jersey who had fled Reagan's America. She introduced me to hip-hop (and I have never looked back) and also made me really listen to Bruce Springsteen (haven't looked back from him either).

The early eighties were a good time for a music freak to come to adulthood in Melbourne, Australia. Punk and post-punk flourished in the inner-city pubs, and great community radio stations started up, neither private nor state-controlled, funded entirely by subscription, that played every type of music imaginable. Volunteer DJs would spin a dream soundtrack that would move from Nina Simone to The Slits to Patti Smith to New Order to Curtis Mayfield to Grandmaster Flash to Ike & Tina Turner to Miles Davis and back to Nina Simone, often in the same hour. I still love radio, and in Melbourne I have a regular Tuesday night gig on 3RRR, a community radio station, where along with two friends, I get the chance to play music and discuss music for two wonderful, indulgent, pure hours. That gig is an oasis of peace in my week.

I can't live without music but when I am writing I find it distracting to listen to singing. Possibly because as a writer one of my tools is language, I prefer not to have lyrics interfere with my own work. And anyway, I have an enormous store of verse-chorus-verse in my memory that I can draw on whenever I need. I came late to jazz and to classical music but increasingly those two genres form the soundtrack to the actual physical labour of writing: they typing and the scrawl of words on a blank page. When writing my new novel, Barracuda, I was rediscovering the great jazz album, "A Night in Tunisia", by Art Blakey and the Messengers. I had also just read Alex Ross's wonderful, literate, and fun introduction to 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise, and his writing introduced me to the melancholic sweeping romanticism of Sibelius. I hope some of the diligent exuberance of Art Blakely found its way in the descriptions of swimming in Barracuda (of how you have to really work to soar so effortlessly); and I hope that if there is a sad tenderness in the book, it came from being immersed in the soundscapes of the great Finish composer.

The main character in Barracuda is Danny Kelly, a working-class kid with an astonishing talent as a swimmer. He will dream of Olympic gold and that dream with break him. Understanding that failure, remaking himself, is hopefully what makes him a good man. From the outset I knew I wanted his parents to be lovers of music, rockabilly aficionados who love early rock and roll, who adore rhythm and blues. Danny's house is filled with music. Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind" is their song, and it was such a pleasure to find a place for it in the book. It is a song I have listened to a thousand times and I hope it will be a song I am listening to at my end. I have countless version of James' singing that song, various bootlegs and live versions, but it is the Chess original that is still my favourite. I can't work out its magic, how it is both controlled and abandoned, how it is vulnerable and defiant, all at the same time. I love too that it seems so effortless, that it makes me swoon every time it is on. It is the best vocal performance ever recorded and I'll swear to that right to my end.

Danny gets a scholarship to a rich private school and in that new world he feels a despised interloper. I was searching for a moment that would encapsulate how much of an outsider he feels. In the early nineties I was living in Perth, Western Australia, the most isolated city on earth. The day we heard of Kurt Cobain's suicide, the whole city seemed to have found its way into the city centre. There was a busker singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" acapella. A circle formed around him: there were white kids, Aboriginal kids, two old drunk men, there was a group of musicians loading their gear after a gig. Perth was a city divided by ugly racism and class distinctions but on this night we all sung along with the busker at the top of our lungs. The Nirvana song forms part of a pivotal moment early in the book where the young Danny can't admit to his love for the band to his school-friends: he doesn't trust them, can't understand their codes and behaviour, and so feels he will betray something if he reveals the extent of his love for Nirvana. That band is one connection he has to the working-class world he knows he has now left behind. In a sense I was reversing that precious and rare moment of unity that I experienced in Perth the night that Cobain died. It seemed right that in not allowing Danny to feel connection in that moment I could convey something of the depth of this young boy's alienation.

Barracuda is not really about whether Danny Kelly does or does not become an Olympic swimming champion. Right from the beginning of the book we know that he never succeeds. In the course of his being broken by that failure, Danny commits a violent and ugly act. The book is about how he finds a way to genuinely make atonement for such ugliness. The chapter of his undoing all takes place over the night of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a night I remember vividly: it felt as if the whole country was participating in one big party. That year, A Guy Called Gerald had released an intoxicating and chilling house track, "Fever (Or a Flame)." Like the best of house music it is constructed through a few simple elements – a gently propulsive and repetitive bass track, a recurrent snatch of vocal, a snaking and elusive melody that you never can quite catch hold of, it always feels like it is just out of reach. The force of the track begins in the stomach, invades one's body and as you dance to it you feel like you are chasing it, that the music is always one step ahead of you. It seemed the absolute right track to soundtrack Danny's nightmarish descent on that night. I still love the danger of that track.

Danny is a character who is scared and suspicious of words; my work was in trying to give expression to a character that is inarticulate. This is why music forms an important subterranean layer to the novel, and why it was crucial that his parents love music. The emotions expressed through a shared love of music can sometimes articulate all those things that we find impossible to put in words. In the book, Danny and his mother undertake a road trip from Melbourne to Adelaide. Part of the conversation between them is written through the music they listen to. On that trip they hear that Nina Simone has passed away. The love that is strong and unshakeable in Danny's family can't save him from the nightmare he makes of his life: that is part of the challenge and difficulty of love, that even having it there are always those moments we must face on our own. But the love is nevertheless real and sustaining. Their shared sadness in Nina Simone passing away is part of that love.

The joy of music will always be a part of my life.

Christos Tsiolkas and Barracuda links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Financial Times review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
The Monthly review
Sydney Morning Herald review
Telegraph review
Toronto Star review

Guardian profile of the author
Independent profile of the author
Time Out Sydney interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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