Synopsis: Man slaps boy. Mother sues man. The fragile and interdependent settlements of modern suburban life are disturbed.
My Take: “The Slap” is clearly a very special book. As the editor of The Australian Literary Review, Stephen Romei, has noted, the book has realised:
“a rare quadrella in publishing: it’s a page turner that sells lots of copies, gets great reviews and wins literary awards”.
In short, everyone loves it. And so do I. In fact, I loved this book so much that I was even disappointed to see it lose out to my favourite author for this year’s Miles Franklin Award.
“The Slap” is a brilliantly characterised book. Tsiolkas tells his story of the repercussions of the eponymous slap from the perspectives of eight vastly different, but very keenly observed characters. A middle aged, second-generation Greek Australian and his second-generation Indian Australian wife, a young, gay teenage boy, an orphaned teenage girl, an immigrant Greek grandfather, an unmarried Jewish soap-writer, a struggling, young mother with an alcoholic husband and a wealthy second generation Greek father. Tsiolkas speaks with an equally authentic voice from the perspective of each of these characters – an extremely dexterous piece of authorship.
Tsiolkas’ characters are not only ring true, but they are representative of the truth of the inhabitants of Australia’s suburbs – a rich and complex mix, far from the homogenous middle-class drones of lazy caricature. In this regard, I particularly liked Reeling and Writhing’s description of the book as
a satanic version of Neighbours … swapping most of the Anglos for their real northern (and increasingly eastern, western and southern) suburbs neighbours.
One thing that has irritated me about the book though is the reviews. Many of the reviews of “The Slap” seem to fixate on the book being a critique of ‘modern suburban Australia’ or ‘Late Howard-era Australia’ as though this was some subject desperately needing critical deconstruction. For instance, the Readings review states that the book “condemns Melbourne’s middle class” by highlighting the fact that “its acute mediocrity is vastly outweighed by the depths of its anger and frustrations”. Other reviews similarly argue that the book is ‘angry’ and ‘yelling.. in general frustration’ about the state of suburban Australia.
I’m not trying to swim against the stream here, I loved “The Slap” like everyone else, but I just didn’t see this at all in this book. I think “The Slap” is very honest, keenly observed and frames its moral questions well (in particular loyalties to family, friends, culture etc) but I think people who read this as a screed against suburban life are projecting onto this. The anti-suburbs take is a lazy and simplistic analysis that doesn’t do the book justice. My take was that the book was on the whole quite sympathetic to the characters and quite non-judgemental about the foibles and failures of the characters. I didn’t think it exposed immoral hypocrisy, just a valueless and often overlooked complexity in people’s lives – even suburban lives.
I take this view despite the fact that from what I’ve seen, even the author of “The Slap” would probably agree that the book embodies a critique of suburban values (even if I suspect he would disagree with some of the more simplistic critiques). I get the feeling that Tsiolkas would like to offer a generalised critique of some form of broader suburban values, but his skill as an observer of characters won’t let him. You can see this tension in a fantastic interview with Tsiolkas at Literary Minded where the author notes:
It is too simplistic and facile to place all that is unsettling or ugly or uncomfortable in contemporary Australia on John Howard’s shoulders and not to see the continuity in politics and practices between Keating, Howard and Rudd, for example. It seemed to me that a significant change occurred in Australian society over the last twenty years that has seen a withering away of traditional notions of Australian class and of a supposed ethos of egalitarianism. That was a very conscious decision to set the novel in the backyards and bars and coffee shops of a new middle-class which does not necessarily look or sound anything like the middle-class that usually inhabits the pages of Australian fiction or is on our cinema and television screens. This is a middle-class as much wog as it is anglo, a middle-class that emerges as much from the working class as it does from the world of universities and the eastern suburbs. This shift in the cultural landscape of urban Australia is about money, the global economic boom of the nineties and early twenty-first century, and because it is about capital and status the values embodied in this shift are conservative and materialistic.
While Tsiolkas argues that ‘money’ has caused a shift in contemporary Australian values away from egalitarianism and in favour of materialism, in almost all cases, the character’s reactions to the seminal Slap are driven by their personal, cultural, familial and fraternal histories. They are driven by their (differing) affiliations and obligations rather than aspirations.
Ultimately, I think Tsiolkas better describes the underlying theme of the book in the same Literary Minded interview when he states that:
What I hope is that a reader of The Slap comes away trying to understand some of this complexity, whether it comes to questions of race and culture, to questions of gender and sex, or to attitudes to younger or older generations. But you can’t lead a reader to any conclusion. Again that comes down to a question of trust, a trust that I believe is crucial: a faith that the reader of your work is intelligent, questioning, an ethical human being.
Tsiolkas definitely does trust his readers and allows them to come to their own conclusions about the novel in a warmly open manner. Ironically, readers that really do ruminate on the messages of the novel might even reach a different conclusion than he seems to have done.
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 child care? Were they community announcements on the frigging television?