Christos Tsiolkas is a Melbourne writer and The Slap is a Melbourne book. It delivers a number of portraits of Melbourne types - the Greek car dealer; the Indian vet; the soap opera world; the gay teenager; the bogan mother and more. The portraits are all loosely linked to one another, deriving from a barbecue at which the horrid bogan toddler is slapped by the Greek car dealer. But the novel is not plot driven, it is 100% character focused. There is no great ending to draw it all together; the novel might as well be seen as a set of short essays.
The demographics, the reported movement of families around the northern and eastern suburbs was revealing. Melbourne is undergoing great social change right now - as it has probably done since its foundation. There is a reference to the soaring real estate prices, with a knowing assertion that a million dollar shoe box is still a shoe box - although more colourful language was used to make the point. The implication, clearly, was that the people living in it might have become millionaires but they are still what they ever were.
The Slap also charts the changing social attitudes in Melbourne. There are three distinct generations in the piece - teenagers; forty-somethings; and the grandparents. Each generation had thought they were the rebels; the trailblazers but then get swept aside by the next generation. It's all a matter of perception, and after reading old man Manolis's section one can't help but think that today's young rebels, rude, brash and arrogant have a somewhat easier life than their ancestors.
The Slap does a great job in giving life and expression to ordinary Melburnians. It offers a convincing vision and conveys a strong sense of place. It is long, involved and very much a slow burner. It probably isn't going to appeal to those looking for a strong story - which is a pity because that's what the cover promises. It may not seem relevant to people who don't know Melbourne; people who might not understand the social and racial interplay that is going on. And it certainly isn't Neighbours with its short, twee plotlines, weekly cliffhangers and easy resolutions. This is serious literature, weighty in both paper and meaning. But it may not travel well.
on 28 August 2010
If Christos Tsiolkas had wanted to name his novel after its most prominent moment or topic, then he should have called it `unpleasant people having repetitive, unpleasant sex' rather than 'The Slap'. The novel's titular event is barely a footnote to the plot, and Tsiolkas seems morally afraid to engage with the issue on any significant plane: 'The Slap' is neither emotionally nor intellectually demanding and offers no insight into the ethical conundrum posed by its blurb.
At a BBQ in Melbourne, Australia, a four-year-old boy named Hugo is acting every bit the insufferable, entitled, disruptive and unpleasant infant his parents have brought him up to be. In an effort to calm the rowdy and precocious boy, a man who isn't his father slaps him in front of the entire gathering.
The domestic corporal punishment of children is a contentious issue; even more so when the chastisement is delivered by a non-parent. In some countries (not Australia) it's completely illegal, and in most parts of the world the concept is associated with a niche of old-fashioned parenting, perhaps synonymous with the traditionalist right.
Child slapping has also received an unprecedented amount of media attention in recent years; it's an issue about which everybody has an opinion - even if you've not been a parent, then you've been a child - making it perfect fodder for the popular novel. Perhaps this universal interest accounts for the novel's ridiculous sales record; it's currently the best-selling book of the 2010 Booker Prize longlist, and according to some sources, it's sold a staggering 5000% more copies than its closest competitor, Room by Emma Donoghue. These sales figures can probably be attributed to the book's provocative subject matter; but if you were feeling particularly cynical, you could argue that 'The Slap' has sold so well because it's the only paperback on the Booker longlist.
The narrative is divided into eight very long chapters, each told from the perspective of a different witness to the slap. The first thing I noticed was the ethnic and cultural diversity of the cast of characters at this neighbourhood barbecue. The entire social rainbow is represented in 'The Slap', and the novel's dramatis personae reads like the fantasy guest-list of an equal opportunities officer: there's an Indian-Australian, Greek-Australian, Aboriginal-Australian, naturalized white Australians, a black Muslim, a Catholic, a Hindi and an atheist; young, old, gay, straight, single, married and divorced; with careers ranging from the unemployed to car mechanics, doctors, vets, writers, actors, waitresses, shop-keepers and carpenters. I'm not saying that such a sundry group of tight-knit friends doesn't or couldn't exist (if anything, I admit that `realism' is an elastic and ambivalent critical term), but the cast smacks of misguided political correctness.
Concordantly, the social and economic diversity of the characters exposes Tsiolkas' laziness as a writer; he resorts to the most basic exploitation of social conflicts in order to create dramatic tension. It's indolent, lacks depth and is border-line offensive in its reductiveness.
However, despite their differing cultural heritages, the characters in The Slap all share the same, uniform personality. It's a psychological homunculus applied to every single protagonist. They are all (without exception); adulterous, quick to anger, violent, vain, profane, selfish and judgemental. The eight characters that the novel follows may as well all be the same person. They're not presented as anti-heroes, nor are they unpleasant in an appealing or curiously attractive way; they're just horrible, horrible people, and I thank God that Tsiolkas' vision of society isn't at all close to reality.
Supposedly, each chapter gives us a different viewpoint on the slapping of Hugo. I was hoping that, as the novel progressed, a complex discourse would develop; one that analyses the various moral and social implications of hitting children. But in truth, Tsiolkas has absolutely nothing to say on the matter; nothing in The Slap is enlightening, contentious, creative or insightful. The fall-out from the titular event lasts no more than fifty pages, and the writer doesn't contribute anything of interest to the debate. Only the two simplest of viewpoints are implicit in the narrative, and these the most garishly polar of the debate: `The kid deserved it' versus `nobody should hit a child'. What's more frustrating is that Tsiolkas refuses to express any kind of authorial opinion - lest he alienate a percentage of his potential readership, I imagine. The book is reluctant to fall down on either side of the child-slapping debate and thus lacks any argument or imperative whatsoever.
The prose can be defined by two stylistic idiosyncrasies: firstly, there's a constant use of expletives and secondly, an obsession with gratuitous sex.
I wish I could say the language was witty or shocking, but it's merely tedious in its verbose repetition. Every page of the book drips with profanity rather than insight; it seems that Tsiolkas can only articulate his characters' emotions with expletives; from happiness to sadness, everything is described in four-letter words. To say the novel suffers from a lack of linguistic breadth would be an understatement. Maybe this is how the average Australian speaks (which I doubt), but after 500 pages of it, I just had to let the pointlessly crude language wash over me, meaninglessly - surely this is not a good thing?
I found the novel's sex scenes to be equally pointless. I don't consider myself a prude, or squeamish, but the sheer amount of gratuitous sexual imagery in The Slap acts as nothing more than distracting filler. At times I was confused as to whether I was reading an attempt at literature, or soft-porn. Generally speaking, I discourage sex scenes in novels; unless they develop a plot, comment on themes or are in some way vital to character development, then I find them irrelevant. The language and imagery used to evoke sex in The Slap is cliché-riddled, ineloquent and unintentionally farcical. I don't want to see the characters having sex for the same reasons that I don't want to see Elizabeth Bennet slowly eating breakfast, or Jack Bauer voiding his bowels - it tells me nothing, it means nothing; I feel nothing.
Parts of the novel are also frustratingly difficult to read. There's a frequent confusion of pronouns, for example:
"Hector told Harry that he was in trouble."
The meaning of this sentence is ambiguous; is it Hector that's in trouble, or is it Harry? It isn't clear from the context and while I could forgive such a misguided construction if it were a one-off, this type of grammatical error is alarmingly common-place. Similarly, the second-half of the novel is riddled with typing and page-setting errors, take the following three examples:
`Brutal' she head [sic] her aunt say, `it's just brutal'.
`I'm going to put then [sic] kids to bed'
`Harry shouldn't have het [sic] that child.'
It's as if Tsiolkas' editors got bored half-way through the book (who can blame them?), and decided to give up. I find such a proliferation of typos in a printed novel to be utterly inexcusable and a detriment to the veracity of the medium.
'The Slap' is a complete failure; a book that promises so much but delivers so little. Supposedly, it's a heated and controversial novel about a much-debated moral issue; in reality The Slap makes no contribution to the child-slapping discussion. It offers no original insights or ethical commentary, and doesn't even do a good job of couching the debate in terms of its pros and cons. The actual event, `the slapping', is over in an instant and is soon forgotten about in favour of long, gratuitous sex-scenes and uninteresting personal disputes. I'm sure that the novel's ostensible subject matter will make it popular with a certain type of coffee-morning book group; but I'm also confident that, like me, most readers will be disappointed by the novel's refusal to engage with the issues at hand.
I cannot fathom why the Booker Prize judges saw fit to nominate this novel to their longlist. Don't read it. And if you happen to see Christos Tsiolkas walking down the street, feel-free to give him a much-deserved and well earned slap across the face.
on 18 February 2014
I'd seen this novel advertised everywhere.
And I'd read the almost universal praise: it's amazing, funny, thought-provoking, smart, life-changing, genius, original, a masterpiece--and every other gushing piece of praise you can think of. It was lauded as the year's greatest novel; if not the best of the millennium, which I've heard before about many other boring and pointless novels. Yet, in spite of this, I fell for the hype. I liked the short concept of the novel (A man slaps another person's child at a barbecue, and this one act of inappropriate violence affects the surrounding community), and I wanted to read more. I should have known better.
The novel flips between many different characters, from chapter to chapter, showing everyone's lives and also their point of view on the child-slapping incident. And after awhile, I realised this wasn't really a novel--it's an overinflated soap opera drama. It's boring, pretentious, and the writer is as one-dimensional as his characters. They're all the same: foul-mouthed, depthless, and horny. There was no real differentiation between them, not even in their use of language. The more characters I was introduced to, the less I wanted to read on.
Plus the conversations littered throughout were pathetic; they were contrived, stifled and wooden and I felt like the author was forcing me to read through a written agenda of his own political diatribes. I don't care about his views. I don't care about this book. The real person who should have been slapped is the author, for wasting my time, my life, and my money.
But if you like boring, "literary" dramas, then this will probably be your thing.
It's a masterpiece, apparently.
on 29 May 2013
Yes, it's quite shocking and visceral. Yes, the characters are unlikeable. But I think it's quite an accurate portrait of modern suburban society in maybe any Westernised city in the world. Who knows what really goes on behind those curtains, at those barbecues? What people are really thinking while they're being outwardly polite to you?
People ARE casually racist, people swear, people have bad sex, people commit adultery and have abortions.
I found it quite fascinating as a portrait of multiracial Australia, I have never been to Australia and I guess my idea of Melbourne comes from Neighbours, where everyone is white Anglo-Saxon (or at least they were when I used to watch it). This book certainly casts Neighbours in a whole new light...
Ok so some of the stereotypes were a little overdone, particularly the extended breastfeeding mother. At first I baulked at the crude way she was criticised, but people really do think things like that about women who breastfeed toddlers (who by the way don't always have dysfunctional children!). Yet the chapter about Rosie was so well drawn in the way it explained her decisions and background. I also really liked the chapter about Manolis (the old Greek dad), which was quite poignant. Harry was horrible, Aisha was shallow, Hector wasn't much better - but don't we all know people like that?
I think it's well written, funny and gripping. And I don't read "trash" novels, I read good stuff generally, it's taken me a few years to get round to this one.
on 7 February 2011
If nothing else I found this book hard to put down. I was bemused/amused and a little shocked by the amount of chapters that seem to start in the bathroom, or beneath the duvet, but it starts that way, so I guess I had been for-warned. I don't know Australia and I can't say this book made me want to, just as I was left with no desire to meet the characters. However I didn't read it for a scenic journey, or a lovable cast. I read it for its fairly upfront commentary on society, and in that it delivers. The rightness/wrongness/fact-of the act of the slap is never concluded, instead various view points are held up. That said one does feel that the author goes along with most of the characters in maybe believing that the fairly ghastly Hugo had what he deserved. As a non-parent I liked the unsentimental view of children, and the concept that perhaps women who choose not to have children are fundementally different from those who do struck a chord.
By the 5th narrative I was a little tired of the changing view point and would have preferred slightly less characters, that said as someone who dislikes multi-narrative books this one held me for a long time. It is a book I'd recommend to some without caution, but would hesitate to share with those of a more sensitive or 'prudish' nature. It would make quite a good book-club book in that people seem quite divided on how they feel about it, and it does raise discussion points
on 26 January 2011
I don't know Melbourne. I don't know Greek or Arab communities. This opened a whole new, different world to me. It is not a perfect book, but different, good for stimulating book group discussions no doubt.
I found it challenging and thought provoking, and those thoughts evolved with each change of perspective through the 8 characters. My sympathies and loyalties shifted. Walk a mile in another man's shoes!
I was interested in the different slants on class / racism, but it was unsettling because I wasn't always sure of where there was inherent racial prejudice, and where it was class or just individually focused.
Counting Melbourne as the 9th perspective, I couldn't "see" it. I filled in the blanks with my experiences of Sydney & San Francisco, but haven't been to Melbourne and there wasn't enough description of place, almost as though the author thought we knew it as well as he does. By comparison, he gave us a strong descriptive sense of place for both Bangkok (briefly) and Bali, and I've never been to either.
I struggled with the names, and was annoyed that everyone was introduced at the barbecue without enough description to enable me to remember who was who. I had to keep flicking back to the barbecue scene again and again to remind myself who was who. Somewhat annoying.
Overall, I liked it, didn't love it, but wanted to talk about it, share my view of each character and hear other's comments. A real book for sharing and discussion, that lived on in trains of thoughts in my head too. And there aren't many books which stretch the braincells that much.