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Christos Tsiolkas, The slap (Review)

May 14, 2009

You could easily give yourself away when reviewing Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, The slap. For example, do you align yourself with the uncompromising, emotional earth mother Rosie or the rational, cool and collected but somewhat more willing to compromise Aisha? Do you rail against the liberal use of expletives, the relaxed attitude to recreational drug use, and the focus on carnal appetites more often in their ugly or elemental than their loving guise? Do you engage in the private versus public school argument? These are the sorts of things that confront Tsiolkas’ readers.

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

In simple terms, The slap explores the fallout that occurs after a young child is slapped by an unrelated adult at a family-and-friends barbecue. This slap occurs in the first “chapter”, reminding me of Ian McEwan’s books which also tend to start with an event that triggers a set of actions and reactions. However, unlike McEwan, Tsiolkas does not build up a strong sense of suspense about “what will happen next”. In fact, the actual slap storyline is resolved about two-thirds of the way through the novel.

Rather, the book is about its characters and their relationships as spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend. At face level, most are not particularly appealing. They are often intolerant, narrow-minded and/or confrontational – just as you begin to like, or at least understand, them they do something that changes your mind.  And yet, in all their imperfections, they do engage.

The book has an interesting though not unique structure. Like Elliot Perlman’s Seven types of ambiguity, the story is progressed through a sequence of different, third person, points of view covering three generations. This shifting of perspectives and stories has the effect of moving our focus from the plot to the content.  And the content ranges broadly across the things that confront families and marriages – love and hate, family versus friends, anger, loyalty, compassion and forgiveness. It has moments of real venom, but also of real tenderness.

Not surprisingly, violence features heavily in the book. Tsiolkas shows how pervasive violence is in western middle class society. Through the various characters’ stories we see a wide range of violent behaviour from domestic violence through consensual but aggressive sex to those seemingly casual expressions of violence such as “I wanted to kill her” about a person who annoys. We also see how deeply ingrained prejudice against “other” is, whether that other be racial, religious, cultural, sexual orientation or socioeconomic. In Tsiolkas’ world it feels as though only a thin veneer of civility covers our more primitive selves and the reader is never quite sure when or whether these selves will break through and wreak havoc. It is to the credit of the characters, and by extension us, that they rarely do, but we are left in no illusion that they could.

A critical aspect of the structure is whose perspective starts and ends the novel. Interestingly, again perhaps emphasising the minimal importance of plot, these are neither the slapper nor the “slappee”. In fact, the final voice is given to someone who starts out on the edge of the main action but is gradually drawn in. As an involved outsider, with issues of his own, he is able to resolve (as much as they can be resolved) the secondary plot lines and, as a person on the brink of adulthood, he can offer a sense of hope to what has been a pretty gritty story.

Wallace Stegner, the great American writer, wrote in his book, Angle of repose, that “Civilizations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations”.  This, taken at a more personal level, seems to be the point of the novel for as Aisha says in the second last chapter, “This finally was love … Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together. In this way, in love, she could secure a familiar happiness”.

POSTSCRIPT: In 2011 The slap was adapted for television, for the ABC, and closely followed the novel’s narrative style with each episode being viewed through the eyes of a different character. The scriptwriters are, I think, a quality bunch:  Emily Ballou, Alice Bell, Brendan Cowell, Kris Mrksa, Cate Shortland. Interestingly, Tsiolkas is not among them.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2009 4:12 am

    Sue, I agree with what you say about the ingrained prejudice against the Other, but do you agree with Tsiolkas’ premise that western middle class society is as violent as he depicts?
    Lisa

    • January 4, 2010 12:40 pm

      Just thinking about this again today, Lisa, because my son commented on what he thinks is an increase in people attacking other people – he had friends who were attacked in Darling Harbour (more or less out of the blue). They’d noticed a group in which an altercation was going on and stopped to decide if anyone needed help. They decided no help was needed and moved on – not long after they were attacked from behind with one being tossed into the water. And then in yesterday’s paper was a report of a bunch of youths attacking another. He pointed it out to me. I asked whether he thought it was an increase or more reporting? Or what he thought was behind it. He had no answer other than the observation. What do you think?

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    May 14, 2009 4:37 am

    I found his concept quite shocking and he has (I hope) exaggerated it as writers often do to get their message across, but I think he has a point. It’s not so much that I have personally experienced physical violence – the closest (besides being slapped as a child!) I have come to it was when our son was punched in the face in a shopping centre by a school bully (no longer at his school) when he was in year 10. In the physical scheme of things it wasn’t major but in the impact on his attitudes it was big. I think there’s a lot of aggression out there and I absolutely hate it – there’s such little tolerance and patience. People are aggressive on the roads, people call each other names, people give each other the finger for the smallest of issues. I’m not sure that this is new but I think it’s there and I think Christos confronts us with it. I particularly like the way he popped in those seemingly casual things people say “I could kill her” etc to emphasise his point I think that there is a bit of a continuum. Is that too negative?

  3. March 12, 2010 7:46 pm

    Great review! Thanks for telling me about it.

    Interesting that you picked up on the similarities with Elliot Perlmann’s book.

    As to violence in society, you should try living in the UK. It’s there, simmering all the time under a veneer of polite tolerance. I think it’s more pronounced in the younger, not-so-well-off generation. My theory is that it is built-up aggression from an inability to express oneself properly (by which I mean emotionally) and a lack of connection with nature/the environment. It also results from cramming more and more people into smaller and smaller living spaces. When you’re all living on top of one another, it’s easy to lash out when someone treads on your toes or plays their music too loud. And often this violence just comes out of nowhere, in our streets, because someone looks at you the wrong way or says the wrong thing. The news is rife with it.

    • March 12, 2010 9:08 pm

      Interesting comments kimbofo – and as I watch The Bill (as you can see I do watch TV!) I can believe you!

      I’m sure crowding and low-socio-economic factors exacerbate it but my sense is that the speed of life results in all sorts of people being aggressive…in even small ways. I can’t help thinking there’s something more endemic going on and that’s what I felt Tsiolkas was showing – because even the well-to-do people in this book were violent/aggressive in some way.

  4. March 12, 2010 10:28 pm

    Oh definitely… the pace of life, the inability to switch off and relax, the noise and stress of every day living affects us all. I went through a phase of being angry all the time. I hadn’t noticed it, until I started cycling and felt the tension drain away through physical exercise. I realised I’d been living with pent up agression for years, but exercise released it and made me feel enormously better — more human, more tolerant.

  5. June 30, 2010 5:59 pm

    Reviewed this myself sometime last year, and still get irritated at the thought of it!!

    Absolutely loathed the male characters, all except the young gay guy. Characterization was beautiful, and very effective!

    I hate to say it, but it’s a great book club book, especially for the controversy it creates!

    • June 30, 2010 7:36 pm

      It is isn’t it? I hated the fact that it generated buzz because of “the slap” – so simplistic. You know, everyone’s talking about “The slap”. I suppose that’s partly what literature is about – getting people to think – but the responses tended to stay with the issue of parents slapping and that was a shame.

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