Reading through numerous reviews of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap helped me clarify why it’s such a particularly strong novel; not because they’re uniformly positive, but because almost all that I’ve read take a strong line on the book – I’ve yet to come across a review that didn’t engage wholeheartedly with the novel, which tells the story of a suburban barbequeue where the unthinkable happens: a man reprimands someone else’s child with a slap.There are reviewers who’ve seen it as a keenly observed meditation on Australian society, multiculturalism, on a par with the big names of American fiction like Roth and Updike. More than one reviewer, on the other hand, has seen it as a mean-spirited mysoginistic soap opera*. Just as the characters in the novel react to that dramatic moment based upon a multitude of factors (gender, age, race, professional status, sexuality and more), so too the reviewers have grappled with it revealing as much about themselves, perhaps, as the book under scrutiny.
For my part I was hooked. There’s a drama from the start, thanks to the title. All the short and seemingly mundane descriptions of his characters are building up to that violent moment, giving us a clear picture picture of who they are, all the better to examine their reactions later. It’s realistic, and for some tastes too crude; the second line of the book, for example, is ‘he let out a victorious fart, burying his face deep into the pillow to escape the clammy methane stink’ – but it perfectly captures various things about the character**, Hector. He’s impossibly pent up, constantly searching for release (and in fact, later in the book, he crumbles under the pressures of family and fidelity).
The story is told in eight chapters, told from the perspective of a different character – four men and four women, who span age and ethnicity gaps. It’s a technique that works well, but is also perhaps the downfall of the novel. It works well because it gives him space to develop clear and believable characters – by the end of each chapter you feel like you’ve been in the company of a flesh and blood person, and one you know intimately. He decides, though, to have a narrative that is constantly moving forward, so we don’t get to see the same event through different perspectives. This, then, means that we have clear and concrete characters – and when it works it works brilliantly. When it fails, though, the characters for all their details and credibility show themselves up as tools for the author to approach the moral dillema at hand.
Halfway through the book there is an exceptional chapter, where we see the world through the eyes of Manolis, an ageing Greek patriarch – the uncle of Harry, who is – for want of a better word – the slapper. Most of the chapter concerns itself with his memories, as he attends the funeral of a friend with whom he had long lost touch. It’s a haunted and moving piece of writing which manages to touch on the difficulties of ageing, of coming from a very specific culture and living in a multicultural society. For most of the chapter the slap of the title is absent from his thoughts – it is only towards the end, when he is called upon to try to heal the rift in the family that it has created, that he addresses it directly. It’s worth reading the book for this chapter alone, with its ghosts and memories that at moments send shivers down the spine.
In fact it’s clear from the characters that Tsiolkas’s sympathies lie with the old and the young, as he castigates his own generation for its materialism, its loss of direction and its hypocrisy. Accusations of misogyny are misguided, though plenty of his characters are like dictionary definitions of the term. Hector and his cousin Harry are wealthy, handsome, and succesful by all the usual markers of society, and yet they are thoroughly despicable. But it’s not just materialism that he shakes a finger at – Rosie the mother of the slapped child, and her alcoholic husband Gary (who interestingly doesn’t merit his own chapter) are bohemian spirits, who scorn the standards held by society, but their egotism and needs have meant that Hugo, the slapped child, has been raised with no moral compass, no boundaries establishing what is right or wrong.
This, then is where the novel falls down – it has put up a set piece allowing Tsiolkas free rein to lash into his own generation, which is not a bad thing in itself, but by taking extremes he has removed an essential element of the novel – doubt. While it’s hard for any reader to take the side of either Harry (the slapper), or Rosie (the mother who prosecutes him) that doesn’t mean that a reader’s own moral perspectives are challenged. It’s as easy to say that both are horrendous (but realistic) characters – end of story.
*Would the term ‘soap opera’ crop up as much in reviews if Tsiolkas were not Australian? I can’t imagine any British novelist being tarred with the same brush.
**using farts as a literary device may seem too much, but it reminds me of a line by Irish Poet Brendan Kennelly, when during a lecture he remarked something along the lines of ‘what is love? what is marriage? it’s not having to get out of the bed to hide your farts’