Reviewed: The In-Between, Christos Tsiolkas, Allen & Unwin
The In-Between is Christos Tsiolkas consciously yoking himself to Australian literature in a historical sense. It begins with an epigraph from Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, another novel by a gay Australian writer which is about time and change more than it is about the relationship between two people, even if it is anchored by their marriage and the making of a homestead on stolen land in New South Wales. This slipping of self and time is exactly where Tsiolkas’s novel locates itself.
Perry and Ivan are two middle-aged gay men who meet for a date. Perry notes ‘a glimpse of the youth he once was’ in Ivan’s smile. Each arrive with their ghosts, their histories, and the sense that they must disclose and discharge them. Perry was in love with a married man for fourteen years; Ivan assaulted his ex-boyfriend who ripped him off. Tsiolkas upends narrative convention by carefully presenting the sources of conflict, then simply moving beyond them. The reader never witnesses their culmination: we follow Perry and Ivan’s first meeting, and years later an international holiday together where they spread the ashes of Perry’s former lover. This is Tsiolkas’s way of demonstrating that the couple’s romance is subordinate to the sense of time passing. Between their meeting and this later act of mourning, they come to live together, presumably to negotiate fidelity, though we do not see it happen. The change is already incorporated.
This is not to say that The In-Between is one of those ‘plotless’ books. What does happen are the granular exchanges of much smaller events that make up lives. Ivan makes an offhand remark about a woman’s sexual assault he hears on the radio on their first date, which Perry challenges him about shortly after. In answer, Ivan reveals that years earlier his daughter was sexually assaulted, pressed charges, and never cried at the trial of the man who assaulted her. He says this makes him unsympathetic to rape victims: ‘Ivan often wonders if there is a chemical response to martyrdom that gives women a rush equivalent to the frightening elation a man feels when challenged to violence’. Lines like these lend a prickliness towards women in the book not attributable to a specific character; a nebulous undercurrent emerges though it is given their voice.
Later, Perry drinks too much at a dinner party with rich liberal friends, and the wine-soaked conversation goes awry. He worries about the impression the more conservative Ivan makes. Ivan is a grandfather and Perry does not have children; even with the queer company they keep, this gives Ivan a kind of authority that Perry does not possess. The allegiance of another cisgender man, a friend’s partner, wavers depending on whether he is speaking in front of the women, or Ivan and Perry only. Tsiolkas’s rendering of this scene is particularly acute: by painting this party in wealth and hypocrisy, he demonstrates how difficult conversations end up determining how we position ourselves in regard to others in our lives.
Throughout The In-Between, the fallibility of bodies are often squared up against the environment(s) the characters find themselves in. The novel is at once crass and delicate—there is unashamedly queer sucking and fucking and illness and death and boundless love. Yet Tsiolkas is not naïve to the ways that LGBTQIA+ representation is monetised: ‘Across from the station a rectangular screen bursts into the neon sparkling colours of the rainbow, the word PRIDE emerging from the glitter in bold sans serif before being replaced by the logo of an insurance company now emblazoned across the rainbow flag’. Even as a comfortably out gay man, when Ivan panics in the bathroom on their first date, he ‘insults himself: “Pede, pousti, poofter.” His breath clouds the mirror, and he finally feels released.’ This portrayal of queer lives—as oscillating—is all the better for how un-pinkwashed it is.
The men’s presences in the book loosen as it goes on. There are asides into different perspectives; a neighbour across the street, someone on a bus. These were, for me, an unwelcome distraction from the intensity of Ivan and Perry’s perspectives, which goes some way to showing how well-crafted they are. I felt towards those minor perspectives as you may feel towards a difficult family member—frustrated, but I did not want to be without them. As a childless queer, I sometimes feel unmoored from expected life narratives. But Tsiolkas shows us with The In-Between: life may also be something like this—it hurts and brings joy all the same.