Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Real Slap's Still in the Closet

I wanted to like this book. I really did. It sounded so intriguing. Reviewers either adored it or hated it - there seemed not to be a moderate reaction among them.

And then there were the prizes. Not only did the novel win Christos Tsiolkas the Commonwealth Writers' Award for Best Novel 2009, it made the Booker longlist this year as well.

Stephen Romei, editor of The Australian Literary Review, called it "a rare quadrella in publishing: a page turner that sells a lot of copies, gets great reviews and then wins literary awards".

So where did we go wrong, The Slap and I?

Okay, there's a dynamite narrative hook at the start - the slapping of a brattish four-year-old (who is still being breastfed, incidentally) at a barbecue in suburban Melbourne.

Within a day the parents of the slapped child have the slapper arrested. But then the plot broadens, spooling out over nearly 500 pages in its ambitious attempt to lay out modern, liberal, multicultural Australia across the rack.

Several factors traduce the book's ambitions. There's the soap structure, for starters; with each chapter, Tsiolkas shifts his point of view to a different character who was present at the barbecue - a Greek immigrant in his 70s, an ex-hippy-turned-suburban-mum, an adolescent girl in the first flush of love, an Aboriginal convert to Islam.

Most of these characters are unpleasant in a wide variety of ways, but that's not the problem - they're cardboard cutouts that talk in cliches. Although suburban violence and anger is one of the book's key themes, everyone seems to get angry in exactly the same tone, even in the same words. Perhaps this is Tsiolkas's point, but the repetition means he doesn't make it very effectively.

Characters are constantly describing how they long to smash their fists "into the face staring back at him" or to smash the kid against the wall", or "to smash a cricket bat...once, twice, a hundred times into the little fucker's head, made him pulp and blood."

Or, just for variation: "Harry did not take his eyes off the cunt. If he could only smash his fists into her pretty face."

Then there are the sex scenes, which are cringe-making. This is porn sex, really, a seemingly endless loop of thrusting cocks, grateful cunts, moans and groans. No matter how hardcore the experience, Tsiolkas's women lap it up - after one particularly relentless session the man apologises to his wife and she meekly replies, "but I like making love to you."

Tsiolkas, who is gay, told an interviewer from the London Times that he relied on advice for these scenes from three women writer friends, one of whom read an early draft and told him: "The women are orgasming like men. Women don't come that quickly. Dial it back."

Blimey. So this is the dialled-back version.

And the prose is too often clunky. On holiday in Indonesia, one character is struck by the "gentle smiles" of the locals, the "cheer and fearlessness of the children". Or: "She did not look her age but looked fantastic."

Somewhere within The Slap there's a thoughtful state-of-the-nation novel trying to get out, one that highlights the casual racism that lurks within Australian culture; the tensions within an uneasily assimilated multicultural society; the contradictions of liberalism.

But the quality of the writing too often lets it down. And, although Tsiolkas assembles a diverse cast, what he doesn't do is make their ethnicity or class count for very much, or investigate in any detail these different worlds.

He's good at plot twists and turns, and that's what kept me reading until the end - on that level, the book delivers the same kind of satisfaction one gets from a well-crafted airport thriller. But "a tour de force...a novel of immense power and scope"? (Colm Toibin)

Slap me and wake me up. I must be dreaming.

Melissa de Villiers

1 comment:

  1. You might be interested to know that Christos Tsiolkas did rather well in being nominated for Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award 2010.