Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap is less of a tightly skewed exercise in punishing libertarians than James Ley in his ABR review would have us believe*, and more of a satanic version of Neighbours, borrowing where required from its far sexier and more richly cinematic relative Love My Way, and swapping most of the Anglos for their real northern (and increasingly eastern, western and southern) suburbs neighbours.
2010 Update: See also Venero Armanno's review in The Australian, which will give you a better idea of what you're in for than this review and discussion.
I can't recall an Australian novel that has so perfectly encompassed the Australian middle ground while at the same time veering so far away from presenting traditionally white-bread characters.
It's often said that the best politicians are those who can instinctively divine the zeitgeist of their country's centre. For the ones who can't, I would place The Slap as mandatory bedside table reading. It's a perfect social document of what Australia is today. More importantly, it's also one hell of a read.
For my part, I adored this book, though I'm not crazy about some of the Vaseline-lensed sex sprinkled throughout, which is borrowed quite happily from pulp romance, along with some rapid-fire dialogue that would sound awful even on television. That old porn writer Hanif Kureishi is less mechanical in this department, and with feeling (though I have not read Loaded, so don't know what else Tsiolkas does better either.)
I could not put The Slap down, walked around the house with it and had it finished pretty quickly given that the house was full of people, people talking to me, eating with me and generally doing stuff. It grew on me in much the same way Love My Way does if you are having the DVD-fest, though it is rather different in tone.
I thought Tsiolkas displayed masterly control of the multiple threads of narrative, probably doing a better job than anyone in the country. I was disappointed in his editors - Moorabbin with ONE B, and some neologisms that should not have got through (Mulitfarious, anyone? perhaps from the Latin root muliere, maybe something to do with women...?)
The interesting thing about this book was its effortless blend of well-observed local detail ("I shot a man in Vermont, just to watch him die"), with the hyper-realism common to soap opera, but rarely well managed in novel form. Like the folks who wrote the end of Mullet, Tsiolkas knows this story has to be bigger than real life, soap without the bubbles: dirt, blood and a few broken teeth left in the bath when it's emptied. Yes, some silly things happen: but they do not have to be believable to make the book move and live and have its being, and his control of all threads is mesmerising - he never lets go. I don't think I've really explained what I mean there, but let it be.
I was moved to tears at least twice, firstly by the chapter on Connie's father, and on another chapter on the ageing Greek grandfather, Manoli, visiting his dying friend on a whim after a funeral.
We do need someone in this country writing anger, too, and again I beg to differ with Ley; instead of being weighted against the raffish failed bohemians Rosie and Gary, the anger is spread around this book like an infection (my evidence for this needs to be withheld though, for fear of spoiling the book for others.)
A lot of our novels are damn pretty, unfortunately. Funny, though, that this also happens elsewhere, so that someone like Richard Ford leaches anger slowly through his work and then gets really mad off the page. The stress of writing pretty can't be very good for one's emotional health, if Ford is anything to go by.
And the last chapter simply sings, resurrecting what I understand of Loaded (really must read that now), for a last run around the block, shall we say, before Christos has to really grow up. As Ley noted also, he writes magnificently about teenagers - there's a great little shoplift of cigarettes in the middle which simply shouted "Coles" to me. A very exciting book, much more to my tastes than Dead Europe, which was incredibly well written and conceived, but terrifying. Simply terrifying.
Whatever will he do next?
Update - November 2009
I am still receiving comments on this review, which is the most visited post on this blog. I would just like to say, given the number of negative comments I have received here about this book, that sometimes it is helpful to go to a writer's other books as well if you want some perspective on a work that you find disturbing or that makes you deeply critical.
The Slap is a departure from earlier concerns for this writer, which is why I am interested in it - after sex and drugs (Loaded), the sources of violence and racism in Europe as seen by an Australian traveller (Dead Europe) and the vagaries of suburbia (The Slap), I still wonder, what next for this talented writer? I'll certainly be looking for his next book, but this blog is not just here to give readers with a somewhat conventional notion of what a book should be 'about' a voice. I guess I'm a bit disappointed that fewer readers were able to engage with it on this level, and feel I have encouraged some venting of deep antagonisms towards the work without being able to direct readers to view it more constructively. That's probably my fault, and I apologise for that, but would encourage any of you who are unhappy with The Slap to make some time to go deeper into Tsiolkas' other work and try to understand two things: firstly, why it is his voice we're hearing about these issues, and not someone else's, and secondly, why some of us are annoyed by that. For example, why can't a gay man write about the possible roots of male violence for a general audience? why are people being upset by that?
I think The Slap is a remarkably successful, if occasionally unwieldy, exercise in not writing a television soapie as a novel, and I hope it leads a wave of incisive, adventurous suburban writing over the next few years - I would recommend Cate Kennedy's The World Beneath, quite a different book, but noted by reviewer Kerryn Goldsworthy as having a 'beady-eyed' perspective on contemporary society, to anyone who wants something to compare The Slap to.
Comments on the post will be closed by the end of November (all posts on this blog are now set to have comments closed after a year), as this is the most read post on this blog and if discussion continues, I will have to read it again!! Only time will tell how this book and its many audiences evolve. If you would like to talk further about it after the end of this month, I would encourage you to consider starting a blog yourself...
*October 2011. By the way, Ley's review, cited above, has aged very well, unlike this annotated hodge-podge.