Review “The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas
I bought this novel The Slap by acclaimed Australian author Christos Tsiolkas late last year as a birthday present to myself. I had heard so much comment about the novel that I wanted to read it. It was also short listed for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award and was winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, two more reasons for wanting to read it. There had been considerable media hype since its publication.
I resisted reading it for some weeks, keeping it on hold until our beach holiday just before Christmas. In the few days before starting to read it, I read Tim Winton’s The Turning. I reviewed that book yesterday. I thoroughly enjoyed Winton’s collection of stories set in Western Australia and picked up The Slap with enthusiasm. I was enjoying a prolonged holiday of reading, and, at almost 500 pages, this was a work I could really lose myself in over the holiday break.
From the first page I was not only disappointed, I was furious, revolted, disgusted and appalled – sometimes all at the same time.
The premise is brilliant: a group of people living in Melbourne gather for a backyard barbecue. All is going well until one of the younger children behaves abominably and one of the adults slaps him. Trouble is – the adult is not his father. The novel is in eight parts, each told from a different person’s point of view of the same incident. Each section covers the life of the person relating the incident, the events before and after “the slap” and their reactions to the event. It affects each in various ways, and for many different reasons.
In my opinion, the only other strength of this book is the characterisation. Tsiolkas has drawn eight major characters (as well as a few minor characters) brilliantly. By the end of each section you feel that you really know the person thoroughly. In fact, you could meet any one of them at a barbecue or at the pub this weekend.
From the very first page Tsiolkas sets out to shock the reader. There is frequent very coarse language, something I find very objectionable. It is also unnecessary. If it is in character, and used for the purpose of shocking the reader, then it may have a place, used occasionally. After the first two or three pages of this novel, it no longer shocks; IT IS VERY IRRITATING. And very poor writing. Couldn’t the writer think of another word?
I find the same thing in many movies and television shows these days. Otherwise brilliant films like Four Weddings and a Funeral are very much the poorer for all the coarse language. Writers: if you want to shock the viewer do it very sparingly, otherwise it no longer shocks. It is just lazy writing!
Two major themes of the novel relate to drugs and sex. It would seem to anyone from another city or country, on reading this novel, would conclude that everyone living in Melbourne is either regularly out of their brains on drugs, or out of their pants in yet another bizarre sexual activity – or both! Sure, this probably reflects the lifestyle of about 0.1% of Melbourne’s population, most of them crammed into the characters in this novel. It occurred to me that whenever the plot was wandering, or getting weak, Tsiolkas would decide to throw in more about drugs or sex. In sections it borders on the pornographic. Again, lazy writing in my opinion. This book reads like a set of interesting, well written characters in search of a good plot!
This novel has been praised for the quality of the writing. It has won awards and prizes. It has sold many copies and done very well for the author.
I have read many reviews of this novel, many of them praising the book and placing it on a very high pedestal indeed, saying, in effect, there should be more high quality writing like this in Australian literature.
Such reviewers wouldn’t know good literature if it bit them on the nose. If this is indicative of the fine level of Australian literature, it is a major concern. Thank goodness we have the likes of Tim Winton who writes brilliantly. I look forward to reading more of his works. I’m sure I’ll never read anything else by Tsiolkas.
Offer: Anyone want to buy a ‘read-only-once-and-never-again’ book?
It wasn’t the language that disappointed me, Trevor: it was the book itself.
(if you are interested, my v brief review is on my blog, Dec 16th. My issues don’t coincide with yours, but we reach the same conclusion).
Thanks for visiting Frances – and for leaving a comment. I read your review with interest. You’ve touched on several issues that I didn’t which is good. I could have gone on, but my review above was already over 700 words and getting too long as it was.
I managed to read the first section of this book. I’m not sure I’ll bother to finish. People write out of what they know. I suspect that many writers exist inside small communities which share outlooks that many others don’t. So they think they are writing “truth”.
Thanks for commenting, Ken. I find it fascinating – and not a little irritating – that “truth” comes in so many guises these days. Well, it’s probably not changed all that much over recent millenia. For example, two people standing side by side can give quite different accounts of the same event.
We all bring the sum of our past experiences, prejudices, opinions and points of view to any given situation. And how we interpret that situation is “truth” in our own mind.
So truth comes in many forms and disguises; that’s what makes the claim of Jesus that he IS the truth so excitingly bold and outrageous and yet comforting at the same time.
Thank you, thank you! I am so glad I am not the only person in the world to dislike this book. I don’t think I even made it to the end of the first section before giving up. I didn’t care enough, or indeed at all, about any of the characters to waste precious reading time on them.
Thanks for your comments, Nat. It’s always good to find someone who agrees with you.
Only a few minutes before your comment came in I was irritated to read the news that this novel has been long listed for the 2010 Man Booker prize. The publisher was quoted as saying they were delighted, seeing the book is selling well in many countries in the wake of much literary acclaim. I feel as if I’m very much swimming against a swelling tide of positive acclaim. Obviously either I’m very wrong – or many critics are seriously deluded – or they wouldn’t know a good book if it bit them on the backside.
Don’t know what I’ll do if it wins!! I’ll try not to slit my wrists! LOL.
The whole idea of the book is to make the middle-class angry; to get a reaction out of them and make them think out of their conservative shell. Looks like it may have worked.
Thanks for your comments J.
You may well be right – but in my opinion it still doesn’t make it a well written book.
That’s an interesting comment from J….I hadn’t heard that one before. But, in that the literary community applauds it, and in that they are largely middle class, I guess Tsolkias failed in that attempt. I’m still trying to work out what there was in it to disturb the middle class.
He says that he himself was angry about Hansonism when he wrote it: I expect that is why the Australian mother who sues is not only overly protective, but she also started out neglecting her baby. That is, she is guilty of all maternal crimes.
I still find the language objectionable, not per se, but because everyone happily accepts that this is how the “lower classes”, ie factory workers, spoke in the 1960s: which I think is a slander…or libel?… I get them mixed up. A canard, at least.
I’ve never worked in a factory, but I’ve worked at that time in some very ordinary jobs, and never came across the language used here. (It was, in fact, a criminal offence at that time, and much later than that). I don’t think that, by and large, the language used here was even known then in those just post-Chatterly days. Remember Simon and Garfunkel and the four letters on the subway wall? That was about as bad as language got.
I found the poor and uneducated to have standards and values, and I find this an awful slur on them. So, I find a horrible classist snobbishness in the general acceptance that the men learned this language in a factory.