“A Lousy, Ugly, Unjust World”: Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘The Slap’

'The Slap', Christos Tsiolkas

I should pause before opening another post with an observation about the Booker – quite how I managed to forget last year’s shortlist so totally as to think Brooklyn got on to it, I don’t know. One thing that is fresh in my memory, though, is this week’s announcement of the 2010 shortlist; and Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap followed Tóibín’s novel in failing to make the grade. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet also fell at the final Booker hurdle to much surprise, but in a sense The Slap‘s omission is the bigger shock. It seems, after all, to have caught the attention of people who don’t usually read literary fiction: it has been the second best selling novel in this country over the last two months, second only, naturally, to Katie Price’s Paradise.

In their rapid response to the announcement, the Guardian’s Claire Armistead and Sarah Crown characterised The Slap as a marmite book: you either love it or hate it. This wasn’t my experience of the novel, which began positively and ended less so. Tsiolkas has undoubtedly written a state-of-the-nation piece – his book is set in the Australia of John Howard, as it teeters on the edge of the short-lived hegemony of Kevin Rudd’s Labour Party, and chronicles the life of a heterogenous group of aspirational suburbanites. Its titular bodily contact occurs at a garden party when Harry, a Greek Australian and cousin of the closest thing the novel has to a central character, Hector, smacks the four-year old son of friends of Hector’s Indian wife, Aisha. The novel deals with the reaction of the party’s attendees to this tear in their cosy and sterile consensus reality, which comes to be defined by “the pettiness of people’s lives, the mundane sadness of what people did, mostly for money, sometimes for love or out of boredom.” [pg. 276]

William Skidelsky, again in the Guardian, was therefore on to something when he ascribed the success of this novel to its themes rather than its execution. The Slap has a visceral contempt for the hypocrisy of the modern middle class, and most of all for their piety. This Tsiolkas finds insufferable, and in Hugo’s parents, the working-class frustrated artist, Gary, and his traumatised, trendy wife Rosie, he crafts emblems for a certain hippie-liberal approach to parenting and to society. Skidelsky, though, is right to point out that Rosie and Gary are easily the novel’s least convincing characters, and Tsiolkas’s criticism of liberalism is thus fatally weakened. His depictions of the atavistic, self-destructive behaviours beneath that veneer – though more effective – therefore wind up in a sort of vacuum, and it becomes harder to see what The Slap is trying to say.

From his newly furnished verandah he had a clear view below to the sand and water. Four young girls in thin strips of bikinis were showering in the park. They had pert adolescent tits, they were blonde and lithe. Grinning, he pushed his crotch hard against the dark tinted glass of the balcony wall. He breathed long and hard, his eyes still focused on the girls below, who were now giggling and squealing, splashing water at each other. His penis lengthened and hardened, stretching against the lycra. Slowly, he rocked back and forth against the glass. Come on, bitch, he mouthed to himself. One of the girls had bent over and he let out a small groan at glimpsing her full, toned buttocks. Wouldn’t you want my cock up that hole, you little whore. [pg. 83]

That’s Harry, the novel’s slapper. This is the sort of writing which has raised the hackles of many, and in all likelihood the sales of the book. In the absence of a proper treatment of liberalism, however, and while Tsiolkas clearly finds Harry as reprehensible as might the reader, his misogyny and narcissism seem without alternative. At one point, Aisha’s frend, the screenwriter Anouk, condemns the generation below them: “They’ve been spoilt by their parents and by their teachers and by the fucking media to believe that they have all these rights but no responsibilities so they have no decency, no moral values whatsoever.” [pg. 270] Elsewhere, however, Hector’s father, Manolis, makes the same criticism of Anouk’s generation. If the creep of liberalism and relativist cultural values have caused this – Rosie’s insistence on breast-feeding Hugo well into his fifth year, Hector’s “loser trendoid taste” [pg. 120] for US TV shows like The West Wing – there is no countervailing alternative, let alone a proper treatment of the philosophy which has caused the problem. The Slap consequently attains a determinist air, taking on the qualities of the pornography it pretends to treat as an unwanted consequence.

So why marmite? In part because, despite its ultimate intellectual hollowness, The Slap can in its ferocity hit home. Take this review from Kimbofo: “because Tsolkias isn’t much older than myself (he was editor of the student newspaper at Melbourne University when I was an undergrad), the book has a distinct Generation-X feel: it’s about us 40-somethings coming to terms with growing older, and I’ve not really come across that in fiction before.” Kimbofo also seems to imply, and here the comparison is my own, that The Slap does for ‘Howardism’ what Money did for Thatcher; but the former novel lacks entirely the latter’s satirical bite. It is simply a depiction of bad things, rather than a proper thinking through of them.

Having said that, on the ‘hate it’ side of things I can’t help but think that A Common Reader is too harsh: “I found The Slap to be banal (in the sense of being commonplace and predictable) and crude, more like a script for a television series such a [sic] Mistresses or Footballers Wives than a serious novel.” In fact, Tsiolkas isn’t without his strengths: his pungency, the strength with which he rubs your face in filth, is a literary effect of a sort, and he has mastered it. The quotes I have taken from the novel might help illustrate the featureless quality of his prose, which is neither poetic nor particularly fluid, and barring a few well-drawn characters the novel’s voice changes tenor very little; but The Slap is also a stinging strike at the reader, and this sustained intensity is a technical achievement nevertheless.

It seems to me that Melissa Denes in the LRB has taken the book’s pulse best of all: “With so many internal disagreements about loyalty, fidelity, sex, motherhood (for Tsiolkas, being a father is something you do, while motherhood defines you), it’s a pity the novel is so one-dimensional, everyone’s responses so similar, the language so uniform.” This is indeed Tsiolkas’s great weakness – his inability fully to round out his suburbia. Transgressive literature must not merely be shocking: from Vladimir Nabokov to Bret Easton Ellis, novelists have managed to discomfit their readers without abandoning complexity. Nor is Tsiolkas’s sex and violence terrifically ground-breaking: there are sex scenes as graphic in Angela Carter, violence and hate as vivid in James Ellroy. Tsiolkas might be furious, but he isn’t fresh.

Denes also correctly cites Tsiolkas’s adolescents as his best achievements in The Slap. Both have their own chapter. The young homosexual, Richie, begins his in a fatalist frame of mind: “[he] believed the world was spiralling out of control, that it had dislodged from its axis, that the ether could not expand fast enough to contain the implosion, that it was all leading to a violence, catastrophic and, for the human species if no other, a deservedly sadistic end.” [pg. 428] Of all its many characters, theories and voices, then, The Slap shares its outlook best with an adolescent boy. The Booker panel was probably right to let it slide.

6 comments
  1. Tom C said:

    Thanks for the mensh. “his pungency, the strength with which he rubs your face in filth, is a literary effect of a sort, and he has mastered it” – well, its not all that difficult. The Sun and the Daily Star achieve a similar effect most days.

  2. danhartland said:

    Tom – heh. I don’t disagree (in fact I’m certainly closer to you than to Kimbofo), although I’d say the sustained onslaught Tsiolkas achieves is a remarkable feat of stamina, nevertheless. There’s a (very) twisted integrity to it.

  3. Very interesting post. I read The Slap when it first came out in Australia and though I had misgivings about the overall bleakness (though this novel isn’t as bleak as his previous work), I did admire Tsiolkas’s ability to move between genders, ages, and ethnicities. You’re right that it’s not a perfect work, but I’m just bloody glad that Tsiolkas isn’t afraid of asking the hard questions in his fiction, especially when Australia seems to be becoming more and more conservative no matter who is in power. PS In a few places in the post – title and tags, potentially in other places too – you refer to ‘Christian’ Tsiolkas. I’m sure Christos wouldn’t be happy about that! (Sorry for pointing this out.)

  4. danhartland said:

    Nigel – that’s what I guess for rush-posting! I’ll make the changes..

    Meanwhile, I wasn’t as convinced as you that Tsiolkas managed to slip between voices so effortlessly – did Aisha’s Indian heritage really affect how she expressed herself, or how she thought? Why was the Muslim character denied his own voice? We’re told a lot that The Slap is a pluralist novel, but on the level of the actual writing I’m not so sure it is.

    So we agree that taking on these questions so fearlessly is a Good Thing – but is that enough, or should we look at execution as well as intent?

    • Nigel said:

      It’s been at least 18 months since I read it, but what has lingered with me is the pluralism. It would be interesting to re-read the thing to see if the voices are as diverse as I recall.

      It’s also interesting that many people are saying how poorly it’s written. Earlier this year Tsiolkas allowed an early draft of the first chapter of The Slap to be published in literary journal Overland, and it showed how rough that first draft was, and how much polishing the author had done to get the manuscript to the standard it now is. Whether it could have been even more polished prior to publication is that eternal question for any novelist.

      But I maintain that there’s a high level of artistry in the final product, and that artistry is having a point (or thesis) and bringing that point home while giving the reader a satisfying experience.

      • danhartland said:

        On pluralism – I’d agree that one of the most notable things about the book is how heavily it features immigrant communities, and how broadly disparaged is the community white Westerners tend to think of as the dominant one. My point isn’t that – laudably – Tsiolkas fails to encompass a polyglot society. More that his prose is utilitarian – perhaps it imparts information didactically rather than poetically.

        Which leads to your other point. I don’t think The Slap is badly written. I think it’s baldly written. That is, I get what its telling me, but I don’t feel it in the prose. That’s fine, it’s not what Tsiolkas is trying to do – but does that compromise the totality of his statement? I like you rather appreciated the fact that Tsiolkas had chosen to tackle the issues he had, and, as I said to Tom above, also agree that there is artistry and technique in the method Tsiolkas uses to do so.

        What I’m less sure about is this artistry question. That is of course a subjective judgement. The Slap may be deceptive; but it read to me straight-forwardly, transparently. That’s all of the good – more writers could do with learning how to do it – but isn’t it also craft rather than art? (Or am I being specious?) I guess what I missed was allusiveness.

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