On ‘Barracuda’ and shame

Over the last few weeks I’ve been making my way through the tome that is Christos Tsiolkas’ novel Barracuda. Though I’ve enjoyed essay’s Tsiolkas has written over the years, given my interests it’s absurd I haven’t got around to reading any of his novels before now. Like a lot of my reading this one ended up in the pile on my bedside table after my stepmum had thrust it into my hand while I was visiting my family in Wodonga over Christmas.

Barracuda has since been made into an acclaimed miniseries—given that and the success of the novel itself its plot is familiar to many, so I feel a little silly recounting it here. In short: a young, working-class man named Danny Kelly wins a swimming scholarship to a wealthy private school and after a brief moment on top of the world as a champion swimmer, has to rebuild his life after everything comes crashing down.

The book is, in many ways, about shame, about the ways shame can poison every part of your life and your being and how desperately hard it is to find a way through that. It is not, of course, a new subject for literature, but it is increasingly an interest of mine—my own writing tends more and more towards the subject, leading me down an emotional path I’m apprehensive about following.

About 200 pages in, when I began crying in cafes and on public transport while engaged in the book, I realised I had to be more careful about where I was reading Barracuda. I value the directness with which Tsiolkas engages with the subject matter, and it helps that he is gay, and is writing about a gay man. It allows me to connect with Danny in a way I am unable to connect with the straight male protagonists whose own shame has been so thoroughly explored in literature.

But it has forced me to engage with my own experience of shame in a way that can be dangerous. It doesn’t help that I’m in the midst of a lot of things changing. I’m leaving my job, my home, my friends to move up to Sydney; I’m thinking a lot about the future, about what I’ve achieved and where I want to be. Shame has already been on my mind—I’ve also had something published just today, in the queer magazine Archer, about the topic, as it relates to gay ‘pride’.

In this state of mind, primed to engage with my shame, reading Barracuda has been leaving me feeling like Sisyphus’ boulder atop the hill, or a ball held in an outstretched hand above the ground below: all potential kinetic energy, waiting for release.

My visceral response to the book (which I have just now finished, stupidly, on the train home) speaks to me of the value of talking about shame, of creating cultural and narrative space for it to exist, to be examined, and perhaps even diminished.

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