Christos Tsiolkas‘ Loaded follows Ari, a nineteen year old of Greek heritage and a sexuality he is not entirely comfortable with, in the hedonistic events of one night out in Melbourne. Although he has no problem with his desire to sleep with masculine men, he feels some discomfort in labeling himself as gay; it’s not just his sexuality that he dislikes defining, but his entire self, his racial and cultural heritage, his taste in music. He refuses the delineations of identity that society, his family and his peers want him to define himself by. He eschews work and study, and becomes frustrated and impatient when people seem to demand that he “do something.” Caught between the traditional Greek culture of his immigrant parents and his position in contemporary Australian society, and not feeling at ease in either, Ari struggles toward finding a place where he can just be himself without outside constraints or imposed definitions.
Speed is exhilaration. Speed is colours reflecting light with greater intensity. Speed, if it’s good, can take me higher than I can ever go, higher than my natural bodily chemicals can take me. [...] On speed I feel macho, but not aggressive. I’m friendly to everyone. Speed evaporates fear. On speed I dance with my body and my soul. In this white powder they’ve distilled the essence of the Greek word kefi. Kefi is the urge to dance, to be with good friends, to open your arms to life. Straight, I can approximate kefi, but I am always conscious of fighting off boredom. Speed doesn’t let you get bored.
Ari’s voice is undeniably passionate, confused as it is. He is full of adolescent generalizations about people who aren’t like himself, and he is not afraid to voice them. Though his experience of life is troubled by numerous conflicts, he cannot seem to see the same ruptures at work in the lives of others, choosing instead to take a simplified view of everyone else. Even Johnny, Ari’s openly gay friend whose relationship with his father is complex, doesn’t receive much sympathy from Ari. When Johnny appears as Toula, his drag alter ego, Ari refuses to acknowledge or address him as Toula, instead insisting on calling him Johnny. While there remains a friendliness between them, and a closeness, but these little things make up the sum of Ari’s personality. Even Ari’s sexual partners, even objects of intense desire, do not receive much thought especially after the physical act of sex has taken place. Then, for Ari, all mystery has gone. He has known them physically, so as Ari surmises, he has known them fully. This is all he has wanted them for, true, but the dismissal is abrupt and complete.
Inherently Melbournian, Loaded is divided into four sections – East, North, South and West – each representing time spent in the suburbs in the corresponding parts of Melbourne. As Ari articulates his frustration and rage, he manages to also pin down the divisions between different parts of the city – from the standards of living, the types of people who congregate there, what that represents and how it relates to his own experiences of life. Here is where the novel had so much power for me, though Ari’s outlook is much more cynical and pessimistic than mine. Like the divides that ravage his search for identity, he sees the divides that separate the city:
The West at night, as you drive over the Westgate Bridge, is a shimmering valley of lights. In the day, under the harsh glare of the sun, the valley reveals itself as an industrial quilt of wharfs, factories, warehouses, silos and power plants. And the endless stretch of suburban housing estates. The West is a dumping ground; a sewer of refugees, the migrants, the poor, the insane, the unskilled and the uneducated. There is a point in my city, underneath the Swanston Street Bridge where you can sit by the Yarra River and contemplate the chasm that separates this town. Look down the river towards the East and there are green parks rolling down to the river, beautiful Victorian bridges sparkle against the blue sky. Face West and there is the smoke scarred embankment leading towards the wharfs. The beauty and the beast. All cities, all cities depend on this chasm.
Rife with a drug fueled frenetic energy that doesn’t let up, Loaded kept me up to the early hours of the morning. The complex issues of immigrant identity, second generation immigrant children, sexuality, racial tension, desire and family are all explored in a youthful, vivacious, unrelenting prose that hums with the energy of late nights, pills and booze.