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This review is from: The Slap (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 21-30 of 142 posts in this discussion
In reply to an earlier post on 27 Nov 2010 15:00:55 GMT
I was determined to read everybook lonlisted for this year's Booker; otherwise, like you, I wouldn't have bothered finishing it either.
Posted on 27 Nov 2010 21:02:21 GMT
I love this review. It is so accurate. The Slap is sooo bad. It shows no insight into any aspect of life as I know it. D McGilvray
Posted on 8 Dec 2010 13:19:05 GMT
Great review! Brought a much needed smile to my face. Thank you.
Posted on 1 Jan 2011 10:42:53 GMT
Amazon Customer says:
What an excellent review. I must admit I read many reviews on Amazon but rarely post my own and I found yours most insightful.
I have just been given this book by a friend because she was unwilling to read it herself due to the subject matter (the child slapping incident). Judging by the reviews it would appear that the novel title refers to be just a throwaway incident in comparison to the rest of the tawdry content.
I have just read Room by Emma Donaghue and found it to be beautifully written and it appeared to be (in my mind) well researched too. I will probably continue to read, and finish, The Slap but I have a strong feeling that it will be one of those books that leaves a nasty after-taste and will, almost certainly, never be re-read.
In reply to an earlier post on 1 Jan 2011 16:36:43 GMT
S. A. Dodwell says:
Don't bother: put The Slap in the bin now, and read something a little more rewarding. Like others who have commented here, I too am astonished that such a poorly written book should have made the Booker longlist. I read the book to its bitter end - and wished I hadn't bothered. The expletetives, the sex, the drug-taking, the two-dimensional characters become more than a little wearisome after almost five hundred pages. Mr Tsiolkas needs not only a decent editor, but also a change of profession, I'd say.
In reply to an earlier post on 1 Jan 2011 16:46:34 GMT
@ Sam Kimber; many thanks for your kind words. I also enjoyed 'Room'; and. despite its OTT setimentality, found it to be a much better novel than The Slap.
Happy New Year.
In reply to an earlier post on 7 Jan 2011 11:34:01 GMT
can I use it too, please?! I have been so disgusted by this book that I would have binned it about 200 pages ago (I'm still stuck in the middle.....) if it wasn't a book club book. My book club is so lovely though, that I'll stick with it for the pleasure of hearing their comments.......and letting them read yours!
In reply to an earlier post on 7 Jan 2011 12:03:13 GMT
Last edited by the author on 7 Jan 2011 20:25:31 GMT
Feel free to use my review; I'm very flattered that you think it's worthy. I also would never have finished the book if I hadn't been a little obsessed with reading every 2010 Booker prize nominee. I used to have this misguided philosophy that I would never let a book defeat me; but I've realised recently that life is too short. If this book wasn't part of my 'Bookerthon' I would have given up about half-way.
In reply to an earlier post on 14 Jan 2011 09:54:32 GMT
B. E. Cole says:
It's not that bad. You've got a bandwagon going here girls. Anyone else want to climb aboard?
In reply to an earlier post on 15 Jan 2011 22:12:26 GMT
Excellent review. Wish I had written it and with your permission will be quoting it to the person who gave me this book for Christmas. I wanted to slap the author.