Bill curates: Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Tsiolkas is an author I admire and enjoy and yet I have not read The Slap. I remember that it caused quite a stir when it came out and if I was the sort of person who went to dinner parties I’m sure I would have joined in the discussions it gave rise to (I smacked my own children, but not other people’s). This is my third and final selection from May 2009. Notice how short it is. I wonder when her reviews began to get longer.
Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap, Allen & Unwin, 2008

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My original post

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

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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So, Bill likes Tsiolkas too, but, from his comment on my review of Damascus, it seems that that book’s subject matter doesn’t appeal to him much. Given Bill hasn’t read The slap nor Damascus, I’m guessing he’s read the earlier novels, which I haven’t – and should rectify.

Oh, and re length of reviews. I love that Bill noticed that. I started by wanting to keep my reviews to 800 words, but now my goal (not rigorously adhered to) is 1000-1200.

Anyhow, are any of you Tsiolkas fans and, if so, what is your favourite?

72 thoughts on “Bill curates: Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap

  1. Loaded and Dead Europe. And I own The Slap and Barracuda, so one day. I studied Loaded for the unit I did on Australian Grunge. I really should find my essay and turn it into a review.

  2. I gulped this book down when I read it. Literally could not tear my eyes away and think I even said to my husband – “Cook dinner, I have to keep reading.” And then he read it.

    Yes, it was a book that generated an enormous amount of discussion among friends and other readers. I had very little kids at the time, so it was topical.

    What I think is so well done (and this is Tsiolkas’s skill in all of his work), is that all the characters are unlikeable and yet, you keep reading. Why? Do we see something of ourselves in these sometimes abhorrent people? Are they doing things that are within the realm of possibility in our suburban lives? It’s a fascinating book on many levels and I love it for the uncomfortable questions it raises.

      • I can’t recall that bit or the context however I’m always interested in how Tsiolkas frames racism and judgements about class. It’s possible that I’m cutting him too much slack because I’ve heard him speak many times and find him incredibly compelling.

        • I know exactly what you mean… you listen to him talk and he seems such a lovely person, so you wonder how these ugly things come out of his pen!

      • It probably wasn’t much fun to write that character either, to spend all that time drafting uncomfortable situations and ideas, but I think his intention was to make readers uncomfortable, so doesn’t that mean he did a very GOOD job? 🙂

        • Hmm… I’m not sure… there’s a lot of writing about which is meant to make people feel uncomfortable because it’s thought to make them think about their own behaviour. In other words, it’s didacticism in a different guise.
          Since I have never met *anyone* who rejoiced over 9/11, and would very quickly unfriend *anyone* who rejoiced over terrorism of any kind in any place, that character didn’t make me feel uncomfortable at all.

        • That’s a really interesting comment Lisa, “didacticism in another guise”. It’s made me stop and think about “didacticism” and fiction in general. I’m thinking that, looking at it this way, most fiction that has a message could be seen as didactic? Take That deadman dance or Too much lip. Couldn’t they be seen as didactic, by this definition, because they want us to become uncomfortable about historical and contemporary dispossession and treatment of indigenous Australians, and therefore about how we think and behave in regard to these truths?

        • I’m not sure about a dictionary definition of didacticism, but I’ve always thought of it (and meant it in this context) as an overt, and often patronising) intent to teach a moral lesson, where the person teaching it knows what ‘the right thing is’. I’ve never got that impression from either Lucashenko or Scott but rather that their stories come from a place of sharing a PoV and/or ideas that Indigenous people will recognise and non-Indigenous people will be interested in, and choose to think about. I take your point: there are, I agree, Indigenous writers whose work is confronting and intended to make people feel uncomfortable (I’ve just read one for #IndigLitWeek) but I wouldn’t include Scott or Lucashenko among them.
          (I wish we had a word like Pakeha to use instead of the clumsy ‘non-Indigenous’!)

        • I think balanda is the word used by Lucashenko’s characters in Too much lip, but with do many languages it’s hard to know whether we can use it generally. But I agree.

        • Yes, that’s the trouble. In the book I’ve just read we’re called Waibala by the Darug people.
          But I don’t see why they couldn’t get together and make one up. After all, that’s what the Maori (and Lucashenko’s mob) must have done in the first place.

      • Coming in late here, but there’s a wonderful moment in Michael Muhammad Ahmed’s The Tribe where a character turns up at his western Sydney school on the morning of 12 September 2001, and is shocked that other students are cheering. But again, that’s context, and what teenagers do can’t be held against them in perpetuity …

    • Fascinating discussion, which I’m only just reading. I’m really with Kate – not surprisingly – on this one. There must be something wrong with me but I felt the characters were pretty human. While I don’t think I know many people like them, I think their failings are within the “realm of possibility in our suburban lives”. He managed, in most cases, to help us understand why they felt the way they did and did the things they did – the temptations, the fears, the ambitions – and I think that’s critical for us to understand as we traverse the world and the people in it. So, like Kate, “I love it for the uncomfortable questions it raises”.

      I detest violence – physical and verbal – and I think Tsiolkas does too, but he shows again and again how near the surface it is.

  3. Have made passing pejorative reference to this book so will not add to that.
    Noting that other of your followers comment on the characters’ being less than appealing, I agree. The difference between them and me is that when I don’t like anyone in a book, a movie or a TV drama, I stop listening or looking. The Slap didn’t prevent me from doing that.

    • M-R I certainly won’t watch characters I don’t like, though I seem to be less prescriptive when it comes to reading. No, that’s not true. But it’s generally situations or bad writing that stop me reading.

      • The main thing that puts me off reading is cliched writing, stereotyped characters and predictable plots. I’m not really put off by unpleasant characters or ideas. Oh, and I am put off by gratuitous violence, that is, violence for escapism, and by psychopath/sociopath behaviour (but most of that is in genre fiction that I don’t read).

  4. Hi Bill and Sue, I am not a fan of Tsiolkas, but I have read some of his books – I stopped reading Damascus. I find his characters are stereotypes and are there to shock. However, in saying that he does have a writing style that encourages me to keep reading him most of the time. I did enjoy his study of Patrick White and his novels. It probably helped, that I am a fan of Patrick White.,

  5. What an excellent piece to retrieve from the vault!
    I read most of The Slap aloud to my partner on a long car trip. I stopped because, according to what I wrote at the time, ‘she refused to have me read any more, not just because of the sex and the tediously undifferentiated obscenity of much of the dialogue, but because she just didn’t want to go where the plot was signalling its intention of taking us.’ I read the rest in silence, and ended up impressed, but haven’t read any other of his books. I do plan to read Damascus.

    • I suspect Sue only writes excellent pieces. It’s all a bit daunting! Interesting that your partner was able to discontinue listening without wanting to know (oe maybe confirm) the ending. My partner read to me on one of our trips across the Nullarbor with the kids (who entertained themselves for four days down the back somewhere) but I’m afraid to say I no longer remember what book.

      • Daunting indeed! My partner has an amazing ability to put a book down anywhere from 50 pages in to the halfway mark and beyond. I don’t understand how she can do it. Even if I’m bored, I almost always want to know what happens. I read Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs to my family while we were driving around the Northern Territory – I remember a shocking moment when I looked up from the book and saw that we were travelling through extraordinary country of which I had been oblivious for I have no idea how long.

        • A vivid illustration of why we’re banned from looking at our phones while driving. And here’s to all the women who share the driving, of whom Sue of course is another. There aren’t very many of you (or there aren’t very many men who will give up the wheel, he admitted guiltily).

        • This made me laugh. I had a rule when we were living in the USA, and our son had a Game Boy. He was not to play the Game Boy when we were driving through national parks. One such park was Big Bend National Park and it is a big one. There’d be this plaintive cry from the back seat, “are we out of the park yet?” (A variation on, “are we there yet?”)

        • And yes, Bill, you are right, I do share the driving. Interestingly, it’s better if Mr Gums sleeps while I drive (as he often does) because otherwise he can start to criticise (not that there’s much to criticise!), whereas when he drives, I’m determined to stay awake just to make sure he doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel (which he’s not likely to do, as we usually only drive 1.5 to 2 hour stints!)

    • Thanks Jonathan. Some books aren’t so great for reading aloud I think. I like that you continued reading and were impressed. I’ll be really interested to see what you think of Damascus.

  6. I have not read this and I have not seen the television adaptation. It sounds very interesting. How people react to events like this can make for very compelling fiction. I might give the television version a try if I can find it.

  7. I watched the adaptation of this but never read the book. I did think the show was very good and we did indulge in some dinner table talk about it, although it was over scrapbook pages rather than plates of food! I wanted to slap the earth mother herself, as well as her child. There were many things about her that got on my nerves…

  8. I think Tsiolkas has great skill in creating believable characters with lots of depth. Interestingly though, no.one here is discussing whether we should smack children.

    • Well, that little boy was behaving insufferably. And the young actor in the mini-series did a brilliant job of it! But the smack didn’t change his personality one bit (and it’s true that the lack of attention the adults on the scene were paying to the children was significant too).

      I feel like it’s very revealing that it isn’t a smack/don’t smack discussion though, because I never felt like the slap was actually the point, even though it was the crux of the social situation, but that the point was how we approach/deny/exacerbate/defuse conflict and disagreement. How the characters allied/diverged and challenged/supported..it was all so interesting.

  9. Saw the TV series. Being a masochist, I watched all episodes, hoping that the irritation the first episode had generated would go away. It didn’t. I don’t intend to read the book.

      • You’re right on both counts. But I grow old, so as well as rolling my trousers, I have spurned masochism for hedonism. I’ll read books I expect to enjoy. (This of course begs the question of what you enjoy in a book, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time.)

  10. I read The Slap and loved it. I thought the TV adaptation superb; the production values were incredibly high and I thought it remained faithful to the story. I’ve read Loaded, Merciful Gods (short stories) and Barracuda. (This where I get to show off & admit I was one of only a handful of people to attend a dinner in his honour upon UK publication of the latter and I had a long and very interesting (drunken) chat with him. I recently went to a book signing here in Fremantle when Damascus was launched and reminded him that we had met in London; he gave me the world’s biggest hug. He is a lovely, charming man.) I have Damascus lying in wait, but am partly put off by the religious subject matter because I have zilch religious education and think a lot of it will go over my head. Hearing him talk about it was interesting, though.

    • How good is that, to say “I had dinner in London with Christos Tsialkos”, not to mention “a long, drunken chat”. Makes it hard, but, for you to say anything bad about his writing. Looks like The Slap is either love it or hate it, I really do have to read it for myself.

      • I wouldn’t have any problem saying anything bad about his writing. My journalistic training / experience taught me to critique the work NOT the person / company that created the work. Fortunately everything I’ve read by him so far I have much admired, but he’s definitely a Marmite/Vegemite writer: you either love him or hate him. His language is crude, grungey, in-your-face; his characters often misogynistic, aggressive, violent. Tame is not in his vocabulary.

        • Crude, grungey, in your face. Definitely my sort of writer. I think one of the reasons I’ve held off on The Slap is that I expected the writing to be more middle of the road.

    • What Bill says about dining with Tsiolkas!

      But, too, I agree with you about the Tsiolkas I have read. I was put off Damascus, as I think I said in my review, but I do have some grounding in the Bible from my youth. It affected my reading of it but, the more I think about it, I’m not sure it’s necessary to have.

  11. I enjoyed The Slap, was bored by Barracuda and haven’t managed to finish another Tsiosolkis book since. I thought the TV series was even better than the book, particularly the character of Manolis (who was the one I liked most in the book as well). On the whole they were an unattractive bunch all round I thought.

    • It just occurred to me to search on ‘The Slap audiobook’. DuckDuckGo came up with both The Slap and Barracuda as audiobooks from A*#*^*n so that might be the way I go. You add to the impression I’m getting that Tsiolkas doesn’t do attractive characters.

      • I think that’s probably the main reason I don’t read his books apart from The Slap, Bill – I have to like SOMEONE in a book, otherwise I just don’t care what happens to any of them…

        • I just downloaded another Tsiolkas, Merciless Gods. Of course it may take me a while to actually listen to it, but I’ll keep your comment in mind and try and determine a) if the protagonist is likeable and b) if being not-likeable is a deal-breaker.

  12. Pingback: The Slap, Christos Tsialkos | theaustralianlegend

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