The Slap (2008) Christos Tsiolkas

227941-the-slap
‘…The boy’s face had gone dark with fury. He raised his foot and kicked wildly into Harry’s shin. The speed was coursing through Hector’s blood, the hairs on his neck were upright. He saw his cousin’s raised arm, it spliced the air, and then he saw the open palm descend and strike the boy. The slap seemed to echo. It cracked the twilight…’

This is a very powerful ‘slam’ of a book, which is, on the surface, a harsh and damning portrait of three generations of middle class Australians, from mainly Greek heritage. This novel is a brilliant portrait of dysfunction – a group of individuals who are struggling, desperately at times, to carry on and continue in lives of sometimes quiet and not so quiet desperation. The author portrays a group of people he clearly feels strong empathy with, but is also willing to expose to harsh scrutiny, for their manifest failings. They are consistently off balance; in a state of tension which frequently explodes into violence, narcissism or resorting to drug abuse or brutal sex. Tsiolkas’ achievement in this novel is to portray the interior angst of each character, as they battle conflicting desires and allegiances. This novel has been highly controversial and has had a very polarised critical response. Moments of fine self reflection and sensitive consideration of past events, especially in Manolis’ heartfelt chapter, sit side by side with casual violence, drug use and some brutally described acts of sex.

One excellent feature of this novel is the clever structure. By positioning the ‘slap’ barbeque and introducing all characters in the first chapter, Tsiolkas entices the reader into making critical judgements about an unappealing group of people in action. The rest of the novel is allocated to single chapters presented from the viewpoint of the key characters. So the reading process is one of gradually learning the backstory of these characters, and having to gradually reflect, reframe and possibly dismantle the initial readings of this cast. This is a challenging and painful process for the reader, but one that embodied the theme of avoiding shallow judgements and prejudices. How long can we hold on to our prejudices, in the presence of new information and self awareness?

‘Manolis struggled to find words. ‘I saw so many people from the past, and it made me ashamed of how long it had been since we had seen each other. Forgive me, forgive me, Dimitri…
Dimitri turned back to him, smiling…’I should ask your forgiveness for not coming to visit you and Koula. There, we’re even…Life went too fast and fucking death goes too slow…’

images

This ‘class’ of men are depicted as sex obsessed, egotistical and unfaithful in their relationships with their partners. Both Hector and Harry take excessive pride in their physiques, their sexual prowess and in their ability to be visually attractive to younger women. Manolis, the aged patriarch who possesses more nobility, still fantasises of sleeping with the young women of his dreams. Gary is an angry and frustrated anglo Australian, under enormous pressure from his own self hatred and the difficulties of being married to his fragile and obsessional wife Rosie.
The women vary more in being a differing spread of self obsession and manipulation. Hector’s veterinarian wife Aisha gains strength from her career, and refusal to obey all of Hector’s expectations of how she should act as his wife. Yet she finds her values under siege in a conference she attends in Bangkok. Sandy plays the fearful, repressed and obedient wife to the constantly angry and brittle Hector. Rosie reacts to her disappointment in Garry by developing and unhealthily indulgent relationship with her four year old son Hugo. Anouk, Hector’s sister, is a single career woman who is struggling with scripting for a soap opera, while nursing a desire to write literature of greater self expression and power. The younger characters of Connie and Richie get caught up in the cycle of unhappiness as each battles with their own issues of identity and sexuality.

Like any portrait of dysfunctional characters or people in turmoil, the reading experience is distinctly uncomfortable and disturbing, as is watching a car crash or train wreck. But what lifts this novel well beyond the level of a voyeuristic experience of watching ‘the others’ from a safe distance, is the tone of respect the author pays to each character, no matter how much he may see them as self destructive. Tsiolkas gradually undermines any sense of superiority and disconnection we may feel after reading the dramatic first chapter where ‘the slap’ occurs. The following chapters, each narrated from a different perspective, forces the reader to reflect on the hasty judgements made in the first chapter, when we are presented with a roll call of all characters at the barbeque.
This is a timely novel in a social and political context where we are sometimes urged or dog whistled to believe stereotyped views of people, who are not of our social class, personal experience or political affiliation. Tsiolkas shows us that ‘the other’ is in fact ourselves, and in a context of increasing social segregation and exclusion, this is a timely challenge.

This finally, was love. This was its shape and essence, once the lust and ecstasy and danger and adventure had gone. Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together.

3 on bench

4 thoughts on “The Slap (2008) Christos Tsiolkas

  1. I really enjoyed this review Mark. The Slap has so many layers and themes, it’s hard to know where to start on it, you’ve done this very eloquently.

    1. Thanks Vicki. This was a difficult review to write as it has quite a flat narrative but yet creates a powerful portrait of ‘dysfunctional’ characters who are doing their best. We are somewhat horrified at aspects of their lives, appreciate their resilience and applaud Tsiolkas’s unflinching portraits.

  2. I love the book’s structure and wondered how it would translate into the ABC series, but I loved what they did with it. I found after reading the book that I thought about so many social situations I had been in and how we all bring our personal ‘filter’ (of values, life experience) to everything we see. It’s the classic interaction, person A says: “wasn’t it terrible at the party when XYZ happened” and person B says: “no, it was hysterically funny” and person C says: “I didn’t see anything happen at all”.

    1. Thanks for the comment Kimberly. I loved the earthiness and the physicality of the TV series. But the book of course provides much more about the full characterization and internal dilemmas faced by each character. On my first reading I saw Tsiolkas creating characters in a fixed social milieu. But on rereading I noticed much more the subtle changes and honest confrontation each character, to varying degrees, has with the monsters in their characters. For me, Tsiolkas’ great achievement in this novel is to dramatise the difficulty these characters have in changing, virtually correlating with the pain they cause to themselves and their families. Absolutely, we do bring our protective social filters to everything we see. And how lovely it is when we can be with people who are just ‘there,’ without intense agendas, and with full personal presence. Despite our best intentions of being honest, kind, generous and selfless in our social interactions, the demons can emerge when we are tired, stressed, have something bothering us, or have core values challenged or provoked. My triggers seem to be injustice, cruelty and pretence. This is where our internal reflections, meditation and discussion with trusted friends is essential. I would love to be at the post party coffee with your three people. I would try to find the perceptions that they have in common. A skim latte please. ☺ ps invite Anouk, Aisha and Manolis, my favourites.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s