A slap in the face to modern niceties
Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap has scandalised the middle classes with its critical examination of everything from intergenerational breakdown to the pieties of multiculturalism.
I bought The Slap on a ‘three for two’ offer in a pre-holiday Waterstone’s spree, and devoured it on the Autoroute du Soleil. Christos Tsiolkas’s gallop over the seedy underbelly of Australian suburbia raised a number of questions in my mind, but I have to say that none of them was: ‘Is it art?’
I returned from France to find that The Slap had made it on to the longlist of the prestigious Man Booker prize, and that ‘is it art?’ was the question on everybody’s lips. Some critics praised the tightness of the narrative; others slammed the quality of the writing. Allegations of misogyny and offensiveness were thrown in Tsiolkas’ direction, while one early blog review astutely describing the book as ‘a Satanic version of Neighbours’ swiftly attained re-quote fame. Neill Denny, editor-in-chief of the Bookseller, told the Guardian that there ‘hasn’t been a divisive book on taste grounds’ in the Booker line-up for years – and by the time I’d finished debating the book with my friends on Facebook, I felt pretty divided myself.
The Slap is a bestseller – indeed, the decision to ‘select more commercially feasible titles’ appears to be part of the reason it made it on to the Booker longlist in the first place. So it’s got to have something about it, right? On the other hand, the Booker judges didn’t shortlist it – presumably in recognition that Tsiolkas’s oeuvre belongs in a different order of fiction from previous prize winners. On literary grounds, there’s a lot to criticise it for; on taste grounds there’s a lot not to like. But for all these flaws – perhaps because of them – The Slap says something about modern life that you rarely get in the banal world of the beach read.
The story – by now well-known – revolves around a family-and-friends barbecue in suburban Australia, at which a man hits a child who is not his own. Over the ensuing months, the reaction caused by ‘the slap’ reverberates through the barbecue-goers, prompting their own soul-searching and impacting upon their relationships with one another. The slap’s victim (Hugo) is an angelic-looking three-year-old with a monstrous temper, which most of the characters attribute to his mother’s over-indulgence – she is still breastfeeding the child, and self-consciously uses her obsessive love as a reason not to discipline him. But the mother (Rosie) has her own problems: caught up in an impoverished marriage to an over-sensitive, under-employed alcoholic (Gary), she indulges Hugo not out of pride but because she fears for her future.
The slap’s perpetrator (Harry) is a wife-beater who fantasises about teenage girls and has more money than taste, but whose precious only son was (possibly) about to be walloped with a cricket bat by the three-year-old, while all the other adults stood passively by. From the beginning of the story, the question of whether the kid deserved the slap becomes a faultline. The older generation (broadly) thinks he did, the teenagers think he didn’t, and the middle-aged characters are distracted from taking sides by their own self-obsession and their opinions about Harry, Rosie and Gary.
As by now will be clear, there are many, many characters in the book, whom Tsiolkas tries to bring to life by giving them each a chapter of their own. Most authors struggle with this technique, and Tsiolkas is no exception. The aim is to give us a direct insight into the experience and attitudes of the variety of individuals involved in this drama, starting with Hector, the barbecue’s host – a middle-aged man of Greek descent, currently embroiled in a mid-life crisis symbolised by his affair with a teenage girl (Connie). Connie has a chapter, as does her best friend, the gay-and-confused Richie; Hector’s wife Aisha, the super-competent Indian vet; and Hector’s parents, caught up in the confusion of living out their old age in a culture light years away from their native Greece. Aisha’s friend, the childless, Jewish Anouk who writes soap opera scripts (Neighbours, maybe?), has a chapter, and so do Harry and Rosie.
The upshot of trying to deal with several main characters is that Tsiolkas does justice to none of them. They are all one-sided and brittle, their life stories and their dilemmas briskly summed up in brutal paragraphs. None of the characters is sympathetic, and the outcome for all of them is a bleak sense of personal compromise and inadequacy. There are some frankly ridiculous sub-plots. But while this all makes for less-than-brilliant novel-writing, the end result is an energetic social commentary, in which insights into some of the peculiar characteristics of contemporary culture are articulated with a startling directness.
For example, Tsiolkas uses the bewildering array of cultural backgrounds belonging to attendees at the barbecue as a device to touch on some of the disorientation fuelled by multiculturalism. As Jane Smiley notes in the Guardian:
‘[A]ll the characters in The Slap are touchy, and that seems to be part of Tsiolkas’s point – in the Australia of the twenty-first century, multiculturalism has won. People of all ages, all ethnic groups and all political persuasions are interconnected and intermarried, and, at least some of the time, they just can’t handle it.’
Hector’s elderly parents most clearly articulate the sense of being out of time and place, variously bemused by their Indian daughter-in-law, the controversy caused by the slap, and the fact that children don’t play out on the streets anymore. But there are other motifs: for example Bilal, the Aborigine-turned-Muslim, known as Terry back in the days back when he drank too much and got into fights.
Bilal makes everybody uncomfortable: they admire him for sorting his life out and turning away from the empty promises of Western culture, but they don’t share his attraction to Islam and they feel threatened by what his newfound spiritual enlightenment says about them. Anouk articulates in a ‘blasphemous thought’: ‘he had been young and aggro and now he was pious and boring’. When Bilal formally severs the friendship between his wife and Rosie on the grounds of wanting to avoid contamination by the chaotic poor white trash that her family represents, the tension involved in trying to reconcile two such contradictory cultures is laid bare.
The core theme of the book is intergenerational relations and, again, the book is clunky when it tries to deal with the complexity of the characters’ relationships with one another. But there are some astute little vignettes: caricatures, yes, but for those of us immersed in modern parenting culture, not too hard to imagine ‘for real’. The furore revolves around Harry slapping a child who is not his own, bringing to the fore the question of how far the generational responsibility to discipline children is limited by the idea that only certain individuals – parents, professionals – have the ‘right’ to administer that discipline. Or maybe nobody has the right:
‘Hugo pulled away from Rosie’s teat. “No one is allowed to touch my body without my permission.” His voice was shrill and confident. Hector wondered where he learnt those words. From Rosie? At childcare? Were they community announcements on the frigging television?’
The book concludes by returning to this theme, this time with the teenage Richie dominating the narrative. Richie takes Hugo out to the park; on the way home they stand next to an old man while waiting to cross the road. Hugo is sitting on Richie’s shoulders, and suddenly, deliberately spits.
‘[Richie] noticed the look of abrupt shock on the man’s face. Panicking, he wondered if the old guy was about to have a heart attack. He was ready to order Hugo to the ground when he saw the old man wipe away foam and spit that was sliding down his cheek. The shock had left him, there was only disappointment on his face now, and an unbearable, condemning resignation. Hugo let out a peal of laughter. “Got ya”, he taunted.’
The Slap tries to bring out the sense of bewilderment experienced by the older generation in the face of a culture surrounding children and youth that they indulge and facilitate, but of which they neither approve nor understand. As such, the visceral quality of the characters’ responses, and the crass way in which they formulate their opinions, is in keeping with the harsh and disjointed culture that they inhabit. It makes for a thought-provoking, if unnerving and at times unpleasant, read.
The Slap’s elevation to Booker status has done it few favours, inviting comparisons between the best of modern literature and creating expectations that the novel does not meet. I enjoyed it as a spiky commentary on modern society, in the vein of Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full), or Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper and others too numerous to mention). It’s not as good as Wolfe, whose delight in the ‘human comedy’ of modern life allows his searing, scathing insights to escape the misanthropic bleakness to which Tsiolkas is prone. But it’s a thousand times better than Picoult, who churns out worthy formulaic novels to the beat of every liberal anxiety going, from ‘saviour siblings’ to child abuse to teenage suicide.
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