Monday, July 5, 2010

'The Slap' by Christos Tsiolkas

Here at Slightly Read we (meaning I, but 'we' sounds so much more authoritative) have noticed that copies of The Slap seem to have been flying off the shelves in bookshops. Reviews have generally been kind too, and the Irish cover features highly effusive quotes from respected authors like John Boyne and Colm Toibín; the two men nearly tripping over themselves with desire to tell us what a must-read this is.
So why was I left feeling so underwhelmed?

Firstly, the narrative structure of this book is extremely frustrating. The 'slap' of the title forms the starting point of the book as a man - Harry - slaps the child of Rosie and Gary - a properly dysfunctional pair of gobshites. The story is told from the perspectives of eight people who are at the barbecue where this event occurs. There is no apparent reason for this tactic and it renders the book somewhat like a collection of short stories on a theme, rather than a novel. The story progresses as each new section starts, meaning that we never get to discover how one character, who might have been central to events in the previous section, feels about or even reacts to key developments as they occur. Further to this, there are three (arguably four) characters whose sections are more or less incidental to the central plot and do little to shed new light on any character but themselves. If Tsiolkas was intent on examining a broad cross-section of Australian society up close in this manner he would probably have been better served with a book of short stories. One presumes that was less commercially appealing.

Secondly, the characters Tsiolkas chooses to focus on seem somewhat arbitrarily chosen. Why do we need to hear from both handsome,Greek Australian, reluctantly middle-aged Hector and Harry when they are both philandering husbands, casual drug users and obnoxious boors with little to separate them? Unless, of course, Christos Tsiolkas finds something particularly interesting in rogueish Greek men? Why do we hear from ageing, weary Manolis but never his long-suffering, even longer-complaining wife Koula? Why hear so much from damaged, childish Rosie but nothing from her alcoholic, delusional husband Gary? Why no section devoted to aboriginal Bilal, whose conversion to Islam makes him, in my mind, the most interesting character in the book?

Thirdly, the sections where Tsiolkas describes sexual acts and masturbation come across as prurient rather than realistic, giving parts of the book a silly, soft-porn feel. Which is fine, if you're only aiming to write silly soft-porn.

And fourthly, doesn't listing this book's flaws in such a manner make me sound like your mother lecturing you while listing your misdemeanours on her fingers? The Slap is fine, and will continue to sell well for the next few months or so, but unless you happen to be particularly concerned with the faults of modern Australian society I don't see any great reason to go with the hype and buy this book, as it won't really give you anything that hasn't already been better done by numerous authors.


Rosie said...

i like when you read books so that i don't have to.

Radge said...

I had it in my hand yesterday evening, read a couple of paragraphs and put it back down. Glad I did now.

Good work on this site, by the way.

Andrew said...

Cheers. It's not that the book is awful, it's just that I think it has about as much relevance to the life of the average Irish person as an episode of Gift Grub would have to an Australian.

Conan Drumm said...

Interested in your response to this, on the issue of setting.
One of the ways of telling the best literature from the rest is that - whatever the culture, period or setting - the reader has revealed to them some universal truth about what it is to be human. That said, I think some writers, consciously or unconsciously, employ a sort of distancing technique which mirrors the alienation experienced by their protagonist. I wonder if that was at work in this book? This can make for a dislikeable read, depending on where the reader is 'at' themselves .

Rosie said...

next review: A Preparation for Death by Greg Baxter.


Andrew said...

Conan - I've probably carped on about setting a little bit too much here. You're right, when a book is really well-written it really doesn't matter in the slightest where it's set. It occurs to me that I gave a far more favourable review to a book set in ancient Egypt than this one. I guess The Slap just didn't feel well enough written to me to transcend its location. But to be fair to Tsiolkas, he probably didn't expect his book to become an international bestseller. I think he was once a sopa opera writer and I certainly felt that the culture he refers to would have felt even more anathema to me if I hadn't watched Aussie soaps in my younger years. Despite knowing lots of Australians and having visited the place.

Rosie - but that would mean buying the thing.

Conan Drumm said...

"next review: A Preparation for Death by Greg Baxter.... please."

"- but that would mean buying the thing."

Haha, it had crossed my mind.

speccy said...

I really disliked this book. I do think the author was trying to critique Australian society and to demonstrate alienation, but what came across was a group of horrible, crude characters, about whom I cared little. When this was reviewed on 'the view' it was interesting that the 2 male panellists raved about it, while the woman couldn't get past the language. I thought she may have been over-reacting, until I read it.

Rosie said...

my aunt said the same, Speccy.

g'wan, Conan. take one for the team.

Rosie said...

oh! no need! The Indo have done it for us!

Andrew said...

Hi Speccy. That's just it, the characters were all immensely dislikeable. Except, I suppose, for the teenage ones, which suggests that Tsiolkas must believe there is some hope for Australia after all. The language didn't bother me in itself, though the fact that both male and female characters always refer to the vagina as 'cunt', suggests that either Tsiolkas is a little hung up on that word, or Australians are even more coarse than I had realised.

Rosie - Thanks, reading that review I felt like Shrek wallowing in mud. Just wallowing in it, mind.

Conan Drumm said...

Yup, the more I read about that book the more I wonder about Penguin Ireland's editorial sensibilities.

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