Barracuda is the writer's fifth novel and follows the previous four, especially The Slap and Dead Europe, in conducting a loud and provocative argument about what it means to be Australian. Half-Greek, gay and dubious about sport, Tsiolkas has the perspective of a triple outsider and, in both the Olympics opening ceremony scene and at a tense meal that takes place on Australia Day, characters challenge, with blistering invective, the image of the nation promoted by its politicians and marketers. In words that make John Pilger seem like a spokesman for the tourist board, a friend of Dan's concludes of her country: "We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and we occupy this land illegitimately and we're toadies to the Poms and servile to the Yanks."
Novelists may of course disagree with their characters, who may also dispute between themselves, and what makes Barracuda a profound work of fiction rather than an anti-government pamphlet is that the attractive aspects of the Australian character – wit, vigour, optimism – and the astonishing beauty of the light and landscape are also given their due: characters who try to leave Australia are generally drawn back.
One of the most striking themes is what a devil of a lot of plastic there is floating around in the sea. In the past few years the World Federation of Scientists, he writes, added plastic contamination to its list of planetary emergencies. "Also on the list: missile proliferation, cultural pollution, and defence against cosmic objects." Some of this plastic washes up by the ton on remote beaches; much never comes ashore. Vast currents such as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre swirl around, and in their becalmed centres floating material accumulates. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a thousands-of-miles-wide wilderness of plastic water bottles, old trainers, TVs, and foam packaging material in various degrees of disintegration. Plastic, Hohn writes, is "intended to be thrown away but chemically engineered to last. By offering the false promise of disposability, of consumption without cost, it has helped create a culture of wasteful make-believe, an economy of forgetting."
This is as much a literary as an environmental expedition, though. It isn't a book that bludgeons you so much as seeks to seduce you in – invites you to drift companionably alongside the author and his Floatees. It won't be for everyone: it's a baggy and structureless piece of work, and some will find the whimsy wearing. I liked it. At its best it is sublime, and if at its worst it's pseudy, it is at least self-mockingly pseudy. Here's something original and eccentric and multi-faceted that tells you a good many interesting things about the world – and then, not having an index, maximises your chance of forgetting them. That is, in a way, in keeping.