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.