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?

Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus (#BookReview)

Book coverI have reviewed (and enjoyed) two of Christos Tsiolkas’ books since blogging – The slap and Barracuda – so I was of course interested when Allen & Unwin sent me his most recent release, until, that is, I saw its subject matter. Biblical history, or historical fiction set in biblical times, are not really big go-to areas of interest for me. However, it was Tsiolkas so, finally, when its turn came, I dived in.

What did I find? I hadn’t read reviews, but I had heard that it was pretty violent, and it certainly is in places. Indeed, it starts with the stoning of a woman – but it wasn’t gratuitous or dwelt on. The actual stoning was over in a couple of sentences, and, given Tsiolkas is a serious writer, I decided to trust that he was going somewhere interesting.

Damascus – the title referencing Saul’s (Paul’s) epiphany regarding Christ on the road to you know where – uses the story of Saul, his acolytes, and people he knew, to explore the first few generations of Christians and, through them, the foundations of Christianity. The media release which accompanied my copy says that the novel “explores the themes that have obsessed Tsiolkas as a writer: class, religion, masculinity, patriarchy, colonisation, exile.” Class is the first one to raise its head in the book, and is the one that encouraged me to keep going, because the book reminds us of Christ’s teachings about equality. A few refrains run through the novel, but the first one that captured my attention was “The first will be last, and the last will be first”. It is this teaching, this original Christian belief, that most infuriated Christianity’s opponents. That slaves, for example, should be treated as equal, should sit down at the table with others, was an affront. Given Christianity’s problematic history, I loved being reminded of this fundamental point.

The book, for me, explores two main issues. One is this Christian value of equality – accepting all people as worthy of love and attention. It dominates the first part of the book. However, another issue also raises its head fairly early – through another refrain that ends with “Truly, he is returning” – the Christian belief in the Resurrection. This theological concern occupies much of Saul’s thinking and dominates the book’s ending. In Angela Savage’s YVWF conversation with Tsiolkas, he said that he doesn’t believe Christ was resurrected. He doesn’t believe in an eternal kingdom, but that finding how to live a good life has to be worked out here and now. He therefore chose to include the character of Thomas, the doubter from the Gospel of John, to suggest another direction in which the church could have gone. His Thomas appears in the novel as the apocryphal twin of Jesus, thus giving flesh to the dichotomy between these two world views. This dichotomy is also neatly embodied in the love another of the book’s main characters, Timothy, has for both Saul and Thomas.

So, these were the two themes that kept me interested in the book, but what about the actual experience of reading it? Like many Tsiolkas’ novels, it is a multiple (or “roving”) point-of-view novel. It has a complex structure, comprising two chronologies, as you can see in the following list of the book’s parts:

  • Saul I 35 Anno Domini
  • Hope Lydia, Antioch 57 A.D.
  • Saul II 37 Anno Domini
  • Faith Vrasas, Rome 63 A.D.
  • Saul III 45 Anno Domini
  • Love Timothy, Ephesus 87 A.D.
  • Saul IV 57 Anno Domini

One chronology tells the life, thoughts and inner conflict of Saul, while the other explores the impact of Saul on others. Lydia appears in the biblical book of Acts as the first woman Saul brings to the new religion; Vrasas is his jailer in Rome and has a hatred of those he describes as “death-worshippers”; and Timothy, his companion in the Bible, had a pagan Greek father and a Jewish mother and so embodies, Tsiolkas said, “between world-ness”.

All this is rather complex, and if you don’t know your biblical history you need to concentrate hard on who is who, and where they are going, on the various belief systems and their suspicion if not hatred of each other. You also need to go with Tsiolkas’ view of Saul as a flawed man struggling with his own temptations, his lusts, pride and envy. Tsiolkas’ Saul is a man not a paragon, one who struggles even as he tries to bring the new religion to people on his travels. Here he expresses guilt over his love for Timothy:

Saul falls to his knees on the stony ground. He is sin, he is evil. The storm inside him rages and scorns. He will never conquer the serpent that coils around his loins–its poison floods his heart and mind. What arrogance to believe he is loved by the Lord! How vain to think that he has been chosen by the Saviour. (p. 264)

Inner conflicts like this are well-known, I believe, to Christians.

One of the major joys in reading this book is the characterisation. Lydia, whose first baby is abandoned on the mountains because she is an unwanted girl, is a powerful, but moving character who shares her life as a wife in a seemingly typical merchant family before she takes to the mountains herself. Vrasas, on the other hand, is a brutal character. His section is called, ironically, “Faith”. His faith is a brutal one, and his section contains some of the most brutal scenes in the book, starting with a sacrifice. The aforementioned Timothy, who loves both Saul and Thomas, is a particularly engaging character. His section, “Love”, contains another brutal scene, the punishment of a Jesus-follower by a pagan cult. Timothy, in a way, helps resolve the theological conflict between Saul and Thomas. He sees, I think, the essence of what they both believe. He comes to realise that the point is not the second coming, the cataclysm – though he believes it will come – but the love and hope that are conveyed in the Christian message.

Now, as you have probably realised, Tsiolkas, being Tsiolkas, does not hold back in his graphic descriptions of the brutality of the times. This is not a namby-pamby story but a gritty, mucky, one. It will offend some people in its physicality and viscerality, and it will offend others for its perspective on some much-loved biblical characters, but it is also suffused with one of the main metaphors of Christianity, light. When Saul is grappling with his conversion, “he marvels at the solace of light, the joy it brings him”. It’s a hard-won conversion. At one stage, conflicted by what Ananias’ group is saying, he prepares “to condemn the wicked circle” only to feel “that the light has gone.” Gradually, Ananias teaches Saul to see that Yeshua’s “words were a light” and that this light helps his followers shed darkness, hate, bitterness, cruelty. Light metaphors recur throughout the novel, sustaining characters whenever they feel its presence.

Damascus is not a novel for everyone. Its confronting exploration of the early Christians, alongside the complex history of times that many of us are no longer familiar with, make it a challenging read. However, I related to Tsiolkas’ heart, which aligns with Saul’s “misery at what the world is. At what the world can do”. If only we could recover those original Christian values of loving our neighbour, of treating every person we meet with equal respect, so much of that misery would be gone.

Christos Tsiolkas
Damascus
Crows Nest: Allen  & Unwin, 2019
423pp.
ISBN: 9781760875091

Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (online): Road to Damascus (Christos Tsiolkas with Angela Savage)

Book coverToday I attended several sessions of the first Yarra Valley Literary Festival, which the organisers turned around and converted to an online event with the arrival in our lives of COVID-19. I plan to write up a couple more sessions over the next week, when time permits, but you can also check Lisa’s blog for her posts.

I was looking forward to this session, because Damascus is my current read. I also wanted to see interviewer Angela Savage (whom I’ve reviewed here, and who comments here every now and then) because she is such an engaged writer, herself, as well as a supporter of writers.

Now, I must say that although I’ve really liked the two Tsiolkas novels I’ve read, I was not really looking forward to reading Damascus. Biblical times are not something I gravitate to, and I had heard that the novel contains quite a bit of violence. However, although Damascus does indeed start with something violent – the stoning of an adulterous woman – I was engaged immediately. The violence was neither gratuitous nor laboured, and Tsiolkas’ writing just got me in (again). I’ve read about a third of the novel and the subject matter, the origins of Christianity, is keeping me interested, because I’ve started to realise why it is worth reading. Tsiolkas is focusing particularly on Christianity’s commitment to equality or egalitarianism. Given the way organised Christianity seems to have lost much of its way in our times, it seems a good time to consider its founding values.

So, the conversation, but with the proviso that I did miss bits due to much of it being broken up by connection/transmission problems somewhere.

I’ll start by saying it was a lovely conversation, held between two people who obviously know each other well. That’s one of the lovely things about these writers festivals – you get to see the camaraderie that exists between some writers, and discover some of the ways they support each other. In this case, it came out that Savage had read some of Tsiolkas’ drafts and had had discussed them with him. She praised him for the time he takes with his work, for the way he honours his art.

The first questions explored some of the novel’s background. Tsiolkas said he’d spent five to six years on Damascus, and was terrified when it came out because it is quite different from anything he’s done before. However, he’s fortunate, he said, to have a supportive publisher in Jane Palfreyman, albeit she too was nervous about this one!

While he doesn’t call himself a Christian now, he did grow up with Christianity. He was interested in how much of what we know about Christianity has come through the interpretation of Saul/Paul, and he talked about his interest in Paul, from his adolescent understandings of being rejected by an admonishing Paul to his more mature comprehension when he returned to Paul after a personal crisis. That Paul, he realised, had suffered too. He said that (Biblical) Paul’s aim was to teach people how to live while “waiting for the kingdom” or eternity (which he thought was going to happen any day now.) For Tsiolkas, this has translated to “am I really leading the life that will enrich me?

From here Savage asked him about his characterisation of Paul.

Tsiolkas talked about his research. Saul/Paul was a Jew who left his faith to follow a strange scandalous religion. Tsiolkas talked about exploring the differences and similarities between Paul’s world and ours, and the challenge of finding his own way to Paul. He knew he wasn’t writing a hagiography, because the reality is that we are human. What is remarkable about the Christian story, he said, and what the Greeks and Romans could not understand, is the fact that through Jesus the sacred becomes human. However, the book also wasn’t going to be “a kicking in the guts”. It also wasn’t intended to be heretical or blasphemous (though some might see it that way!)

He needed to give Paul a battle, and so we have in the book sins like lust, greed, vanity, pride.

This brought us to the question a novelist begins with. For Damascus it was what was it in the Christian belief system that changed the world?

Savage then asked him about the novel’s structure. She loves, she said, how he structures his novels – and if you know me as a reader, you will know that structure is something that fascinates me. I have read enough of the novel to notice its non-chronological, four-points-of-view structure – which Savage called a “roving point of view” – so I was keen to hear his answer.

Tsiolkas said that structure is important to him as a novelist. It provides him with a blueprint which stops him getting lost. Voice and structure are the first things he thinks about. He was lucky with Paul’s voice, because of Paul’s letters. The three other voices are:

  • Lydia, representing the history of female participation in the church, something that was later wiped away. (Lydia, from a dye-making family, appears in the book of Acts as the first woman Paul brings to the new religion.) Tsiolkas talked about how he had wanted the female voice to be a slave, given Christianity was largely reviled because it accepted slaves, but he couldn’t find the voice and had no models from his research to draw on. He emphasised what a radical moment this acceptance of slaves was, and, as I have already noticed in my reading, he said that the novel’s refrain, “the first shall be last, the last shall be first”, makes this point. Anyhow, he struggled until suddenly Lydia came to him in the early hours one morning, and he just started writing her. I love stories like that.
  • Thomas, representing the doubter that he wanted in the novel because he, too, is a doubter. He chose Thomas from gospel of John, because, like Thomas, he doesn’t believe Christ was resurrected. Tsiolkas believes there is no eternal kingdom, that working out how to live a good life has to be worked out here and now. This idea offers another direction in which the church could have gone.
  • Timothy was Paul’s companion in the Bible. His father was pagan Greek and his mother Jewish, so he embodies “between world-ness”.

Savage, noting that it’s not a blasphemous book because it has such a respect for the values, asked about its reception. Tsiolkas said the way people have engaged and have wanted to have a conversation about it has been heartening. He’s been “blown away” by people’s generosity in responding to it.

There was a Q&A but I’m going to end on Tsiolkas’ wonderful answer to the question about his personal faith, because it’s an answer that is more broadly applicable I think. He said that the only answer is to hold doubt and faith together. If you know me, you’ll know that this sort of almost paradoxical answer suits me to a T.

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online)
9 May 2020, 9:30 AM – 7:30 PM
Livestreamed

Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda (Review)

Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

The best way I can describe Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel Barracuda is to liken it to what Tsiolkas would define as a “good man”, tough on the outside, but tender within. I don’t know how Tsiolkas does it, but he manages to reach into your heart while at the same time confronting you to your core.

On the surface, Barracuda is about success and failure, specifically in sport. The plot concerns Danny Kelly aka Psycho Kelly aka Barracuda who is a talented swimmer. He receives a scholarship to attend one of Melbourne’s elite private schools and be coached on the swim team. Danny, with his Scottish truck-driving father and Greek hair-dresser mother, is not the normal demographic for the school and feels an outsider from the start, but he knows – or believes, at least – that he can be “the strongest, the fastest, the best”. However, things don’t go according to plan and Danny, who had poured his all into a single vision for his future, is devastated. The novel explores how a young man copes with such a major blow to his self-image, what happens when his expectations for his future are destroyed. Tsiolkas examines the social, political and economic environment in which Danny lives and the role they play in what happens to him, but he also delves deeply into the psyche, because what happens to Danny can only be partly explained by external forces. In the end we are, as Danny comes to realise, responsible for ourselves and our actions.

Contemporary writers annoyed him

Barracuda is quite a page-turner, but it bears slow reading, because it is a carefully constructed novel and some of its joys come from considering what Tsiolkas is doing. There is an amusing moment in the book when Danny, now in jail, becomes an enthusiastic book reader – primarily of 19th century novels. When the librarian asks:

‘Why are you always buried in those old farts?’ Danny would accept the teasing good-naturedly for he knew it was apt. Contemporary writers annoyed him, he found their worlds insular, their style too self-conscious and ironic.

I say amusing because there’s a self-consciousness in Tsiolkas’ style and I can only assume that he is having a little dig at himself. The novel’s structure reminded me somewhat of Evie Wyld’s All the birds, singing (my review) because both start at a point in time and then, in alternating chapters (sections), radiate forwards and backwards from that point. Tsiolkas, though, follows this structure a little less rigorously than Wyld, and he combines it with a change in person. In the first half of the novel, the sections moving backward are told in third person (limited) through the eyes of Danny, while the sections moving forward are told in first person through the eyes of Dan. This effectively enables the growing, maturing Dan to disassociate himself somewhat from his old self, although the dissociation – or perhaps the reintegration – of the two selves have a long way to go when the book opens. In the second part of the novel the point-of-view is reversed with the third person used for the older Dan, and first person for the younger, perhaps suggesting some progress towards the realignment of the selves? I need to think about this a bit more! Not only does this book warrant slow-reading, but rereading wouldn’t hurt either.

He couldn’t bridge the in-between

A significant issue for Dan is managing the two worlds he finds himself in:

It’s like two worlds were part of different jigsaw puzzles. At first, he’d tried to fit the pieces together but he just couldn’t do it, it was impossible. So he kept them separate: some pieces belonged to this side of the river, to the wide tree-lined boulevards and avenues of Toorak and Armadale, and some belonged to the flat uniform suburbs in which he lived.

When the two worlds conflict, Danny feels split open, cracked apart. “No one could ever put him back together”. And so, he starts to occupy what he calls “the in-between” but that leaves him silent, and alone. This dissection of worlds, of  “class”, and of anglo-Australia versus immigrant Australia, is an ongoing concern for Tsiolkas. We came across it in his previous novel, The slap (my review) and we see it again here. Tsiolkas is not the only writer exploring this territory, but he’s one of the gutsiest because he’s not afraid to present the ugliness nor does he ignore the greys, the murky areas where “truth” is sometimes hard to find (though he doesn’t use the word “truth”).

While Danny is the main conduit for teasing out the tensions in society between two worlds, other characters also reflect it. There’s Danny’s childhood friend, Demet, whose working class migrant background is challenged when she goes to university, and his school friend Luke, a nerdy ostracised boy at the elite school who, with his Vietnamese mother and Greek father, is also “half and half”. These characters manage to traverse their worlds more easily than Danny, but Tsiolkas shows that it isn’t easy.

His father was a good man

Barracuda is about a lot of things. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tsiolkas taps into the zeitgeist of contemporary suburban Australia. But I might explore that in another post, because this post is getting long and I do want to end on the theme that struck me the most, that of defining “a good man”.

Throughout the novel, Danny meets many men – his father, grandfather and coach, in particular, when he’s a boy, and his lover Clyde, old schoolmate Luke and brain-damaged cousin Dennis when he’s an adult. As an adolescent, and somewhat typically, Danny loves his grandfather, rejects his father, and dotes (until he “fails”) on his Coach. Adult Dan is more circumspect about men, but sees good qualities in Clyde and Luke, while still rejecting his father. None of these men, though, seem able to break through his destructive self-absorption. However, late in the novel, living a self-imposed lonely life, albeit one now committed to helping others, Dan has an epiphany. In a confrontation with his father, he suddenly realises:

His father was a good man. It struck him with a force of revelation, exultation, light flooding through him. His father was a good man. His father was the hero of his own life.

At this moment, he realises he wants to be a good man. He also starts to get a glimmer of what a good man is, and it has nothing to do with being the strongest, fastest and best.

I have more to say about this book, and so will do a follow-up post rather than write a longer essay here. Meanwhile, I know there are readers of this blog who do not like Tsiolkas. He is, I agree, a confronting writer. His characters are not aways easy to like, and he doesn’t shy away from their grubbiest (that is, unkind, violent, sexual) thoughts, but for me he has some valid concerns to share and I want to hear them.

Christos Tsiolkas
Barracuda
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013
515pp.
ISBN: 9781743317310

Christos Tsiolkas on success and failure

I will soon post my review of Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel Barracuda, which is about a young man who fails in his quest to become an Olympic swimmer. It tears him apart. In tonight’s news, here in Australia, we heard that one of our successful Olympic swimmers is going into rehab for addiction to Stillnox. Another recently went into treatment for depression.

Tsiolkas’ Danny didn’t make it the way these Olympians did, but I wonder whether their (apparent) suffering has the same roots as Danny’s – the loss of a future. Danny lost it because he “failed” (in his eyes) at a crucial moment. For post-Olympians (as I’ll call them), it seems to be more about what to do after they’ve achieved the goal. Danny thought that his future was set, but even if he had achieved his goal, would it have been?

Here’s Danny:

He flexed his right hand, opening and closing it, stretching his fingers till he could feel the tingle, then clenching them in tight. Sometimes in the garden he came across dried-up plum kernels from fallen fruit that had been buried all winter and then resurfaced. He’d pick up a kernel, it would be shrivelled, the colour of the soil, and it would disintegrate into dust in his hand. That was the future, that’s what had become of it.

His hand open and closed.

He’d had a future. It had been as hard and as strong as the stony heart of an unripened plum, so strong it would have taken a hammer blow to crack it. He’d had that future for years but it too had crumbled into dust. His theory was that you only got one future to dream. He’d f****d it up. He’d failed and now it was gone.

Only one future to dream? Therein lies the rub, perhaps, regardless of whether you succeed or fail (in sport or other single-minded endeavour)?

Christos Tsiolkas in Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue

Meanjin Canberra Issue 2013

Courtesy: Meanjin

I indicated in my recent review of Meanjin‘s special Canberra issue that I would write another post or two on the issue. This is one of those posts. It may, in fact, be the only one, for who knows where the spirit will lead me next? Right now though, I want to devote a post to the second last piece in the volume, “Me and my country, Where to Now?”. It’s a conversation between writer Heather Taylor Johnson and Christos Tsiolkas whose novel The slap was one of the first I reviewed in this blog. While the novel was well received critically – won awards and was short/longlisted for others – it was not universally liked. The Wikipedia article on the novel quotes Commonwealth Writer’s Prize judge, Nicholas Hasluck, describing it as “a controversial and daring novel”. It was that …

Before I continue, I should say that this piece has a fairly tenuous link to Canberra – Tsiolkas lived here for a short time in the 1990s I understand – but its inclusion is justified, I think, for the relevance of the ideas it covers. I don’t plan to summarise the whole conversation, interesting though it is, but pick out a couple of points that got my attention – and they mostly relate to The slap.

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Johnson commences by asking Tsiolkas about the mini-series adaptation of The slap. While recognising that the mini-series was not his work, but the work of those who had “translated and transformed” it for another medium, Tsiolkas talks of his overall intention:

I felt a certain responsibility with the screening of the series, a hope that whatever criticism people had of it, that it would be understood as an authentic voice of contemporary, multicultural urban Australia. I share the frustration of so many people of immigrant heritage in this country who have rarely seen their lives portrayed with any complexity or realism on the Australian screen. I also know that there would be people of that experience who either don’t read fiction or can’t read fiction in English and for whom the moving-image media are the only source for story and representation. I wanted people to be angry, frustrated, enraged by The slap, but I also wanted their arguments with it to be based on an appreciation that the representations were neither patronising nor sentimental. My own view is that the series succeeded in doing that.

Although focused on the miniseries, this statement is also, I think, a manifesto for the novel. It’s a warts-and-all story of people, most of whom happen to be immigrants or minorities in some way, getting on with their often flawed lives.

One of the themes that came through to me in the novel was that of violence. I felt Tsiolkas was saying that violence lies just beneath the surface of many human relationships. Later in the conversation he talks about the principles and philosophies, the “politics”, that drive him – feminism, racial civil rights, sexual liberation, post-colonial and communist. A complicated and, as he admits, sometimes contradictory bunch of ideas. He says:

I think that one of the drives I have in my writing is to express the complexity and violence of this tension. It means that though gender and sexuality are among the themes and ideas I explore in all my work, I can’t give myself over to a liberationist idea that the transformation of the individual can resolve these tensions and contradictions.

Hmm … this is pretty complex thinking methinks and I’m not sure I was able to articulate his ideas at this deeper philosophical level, but I sensed something going on and this helps explain it (to me, anyhow). He continues to say that he believes that “sexuality and the body constantly undermine our attempts at mastery and transformation”. This brought to mind the terrible recent rape cases in India and some angry discussions I’ve just read on Facebook about the current court case concerning the gang rape of the 16-year-old girl in the USA. We are not making much progress.

There is so much in this conversation that I’d love to talk about, such as his comment that much “Anglophone and European contemporary literature is moribund”. He argues that the most electric writing is coming from outside the Anglo-European centre. That must, I suppose, pose a challenge to him given his background. But, I’ll move on.

Johnson asks him about controversy, particularly in relation to The slap. Again his response is complex, but his main point is that “I want to pose questions that are unsettling or troubling”. One of the things that bothered me about the conversations surrounding The slap was that people focused on “the slap” itself  – as in do you or don’t you hit a child, particularly one not your own – and not on the social, cultural and, yes, political issues inherent in the relationships involved. The fact that “the slap” plot is resolved way before the end of the novel tells us that this issue of hitting a child is not Tsiolkas’ main point. In fact, he says in this conversation with Johnson that “the language of moral absolutes … may be having a pernicious effect on much of contemporary writing”. And then he says:

I have given up reading blogs because so many people are dismissing work because they ‘don’t like the characters’ or because the resolution of a book is not neat, is not easy. We are reading for confirmation of ourselves rather than to challenge ourselves and I think that is a real danger.

He has more to say on issues that interest me – including Aboriginal dispossession and public education – but I think I’ll finish here, because I need to think …

in Meanjin 1, 2013, The Canberra Issue
University of Melbourne
pp. 178-188
ISBN: 9780522861938

(Review copy supplied by Meanjin)

Christos Tsiolkas, The slap (Review)

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.