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September 1, 2010

On having read The Slap

“One of the striking things about so-called literary fiction is that it tends to be not morally simplistic,” says Jonathan Franzen in his recent Globe & Mail interview, which means that Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap might be about as literary as they get. Though I’m not so sure that lack of moral simplicity is that simple. What kind of fiction does a book get to be when everyone in it is totally awful?

But let’s go back to the beginning. I heard Christos Tsiolkas on a rerun of Writers and Company, and liked the sound of The Slap: a story that takes place at a suburban barbeque in Melbourne Australia, where a man slaps somebody else’s misbehaving child. The novel explores the ripples effects of that action, and also deals with the cultural climate of that country: the sons of Greek immigrant communities, their wives whose families come from India, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed “Australians”, the aboriginees (and in this case he’s converted to Islam, and changed his name to Bilal).

I saw The Slap in a bookstore when I was on vacation, so I scooped it up, and arrived home to find that the book had been long-listed for the Booker Prize, and was being called “unbelievably misogynistic”. I read it anyway, because it had appealed to me, but also as a kind of experiment in reading something I wouldn’t normally read.

Tsiolkas defends his book by saying that a book isn’t misogynistic just because its characters are. Which I agree with entirely, but I think the book is misogynistic if the hatred of women it expresses is so unrelenting, so pervasive that when you get to the end of the book and consider an underlying message, that message is probably, “Mothers are the source of all the world’s problems”. Nothing in the book refutes this. Motherhood, so says every narrative strand in this enormous book, makes women “selfish, uninterested, unmoved by the world”. (Women without children do receive a get out of jail free card).

The women in The Slap are all intelligent, interesting people, but each of them is complicit in her own degradation. Each of them is slim and beautiful, married to brutish men who like to have sex with prostitutes. They also treat their wives like prostitutes when they have sex with them, and pretend their wives are the prostitutes. That their wives are also the mothers of their children inspires a bit of tenderness, but it’s usually fleeting. The word “cunt” gets thrown around a lot. These men hate their wives, and they hate their lives, but mostly they hate their wives. Seethingly. Every single one of them.

Also, everybody does drugs. Everybody. It’s kind of boring actually, pill popping as a plot device. Is this really suburban reality? Do I not see that kind of thing in my own life because I live downtown.

So why did I like this book? Because it’s a soap opera. Because Tsiolkas is a master of plotting, and I raced through this 500 page book to see what would happen next. Because, although I didn’t like the answers, the novel posed provocative questions about motherhood and feminism. Because the novel is divided into sections, each from the point of view of a different person who’d been at the barbeque where the slap was slapped, and so we’re taken farther and farther into the future each time from a different perspective. The story becomes so layered, and multi-dimensional. Because each section adds pieces that fill out the past, sometimes to completely horrifying ends. Because where do we put our sympathy– disturbing to consider. Who do we cheer for in a crowd like this? What does it mean that we too want to see the kid get slapped? Want to slap him? Because the ending was totally wonderful. Because each character was so vivid, and how get to know them from within and without. Because the novel was unabashedly of right now. Because it was unabashedly everything.

Though I think it could have been more abashed. Seriously, I’m not an idiot. I know that Huckleberry Finn isn’t racist, is what I mean, because anti-racism is its underlying tenet, but all I took away from The Slap was that women are everything that’s wrong with men, which is everything that’s world with the world. That men hate women, blame them for their ills and justifiably so. And there was nothing in the book that refuted this. What am I supposed to make of that?

In the Guardian piece, Tsiolkas responds to such criticism: “I would call them lazy readers. I think they are confusing the writer with the character. I think there’s a laziness now in how we read. We read for confirmation of who we are, rather than for a challenge of who we are.” Which I get at some level, and he’s managed that challenge very effectively, but I don’t think my reaction is purely personal. Or maybe I just don’t think I really need to be challenged about who I am as a person who is not a worthless piece of shit based upon my gender.

12 thoughts on “On having read The Slap”

  1. Gillian says:

    I’m glad you commented on this book so soon after I’d read it – and that you had a very different reading than mine. I loved it, too, for its now-ness, its unrelenting revelation of all a character’s shortcomings or biases, and for the structure, too, which made me think of Jane Rule’s ‘Contract with the World’ (one of my favourite books), where we have a different character showcased in each chronological chapter. What surprised me more than the pervasive use of the word ‘cunt’ and all the drugs was the sex! There was sex or masturbation in every chapter! I was impressed – that’s hard to do, believably, and sometimes it was brutal or over the top – and while this definitely is a soap-opera of a book, I have rarely seen so much sex in a book not decried pornographic. This book has seen so much press for being mysogenistic and while there definitely are mysogenistic characters in it, I didn’t come away feeling that women are the source of all problems/evils/strife.
    The characters in this book are detailed, although they border on cartoonish sometimes, and Tsolkas is skilled enough that I believed the characters truly believed what they believed and would have acted how they acted. I loved the chapter about the Greek father/father-in-law/grandfather and his reconnection with his expat friends.
    Overall I’m excited that Tsolkas wrote the book, that it’s got us talking, and that if these characters are any representation of thoughts held by real people, feminism’s fading into the background needs to be addressed and we have work to do.
    Thanks for reviewing it and allowing me a mini bookclud second – next meeting at my house?

  2. Gillian says:

    bookcluds are like bookclubs but a bit sillier.

    1. Kerry says:

      Um, could we have the next bookclud meeting right here? Can you explain to me how misogyny wasn’t the foundation of the novel. I would love a good argument for that, as I would like to feel more comfortable liking this novel as I do. I want to be its enabler, if you know what I mean. Or with your point re. feminism– have you just accepted the misogyny and been able to move on? How? I did love the part about Anouk thinking in regards to her friends that maybe she WOULD like to be a mother, but NOT their kind of mother, and that these days there isn’t any other choice. Interesting…

      But really re. the sex, drugs and violence– are these *really* real people? Apparently Tsiolkas would say its my class bias talking that I’d think otherwise, but I give people in general a bit more credit than that.

      Anyway, anymore thoughts?

  3. Frances says:

    Kerry: Thanks for this review.
    I had several issues with this book – and one of them IS class related. I’m afraid that I’m going to be long-winded here. It’s about the Greek mens’ swearing, which I cannot believe is characteristic.
    Now, I’ve only brought this up with academics, who have each said, “Oh, but they worked in factories when they arrived in the 1960s”. I haven’t worked in a factory, but as a student at that time I had some pretty lowly occupations, and I never heard anyone swearing this way, or anything like it. “Bugger”, “bloody” were a bit extreme, I would think that “mthrfckr” was unheard of.

    Ok, maybe in some quarters swearing was more common…was it? Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Poem on a Subway Wall”, (1965?) suggests not. Here in Australia, using most of these words was a criminal offence: even after it became more common, in the 80s I knew of a young man of lowly occupation who was thrown into gaol overnight because he was overheard by police quietly saying “fk” to a friend. It is inconceivable to me that these Greek men did not know that these words were regarded as obscene and disgusting, or that they would use them at all, especially among their families.

    The class issue? When I have queried this, the assumption by the academics is that people of lowly occupational status such as factory workers have low values and low standards.

    Oh, and a bit of trivia I enjoyed: – I may have misread this, but as I recall, the book opens with the hero going off with his shopping list, including eggplants. 25 or so pages later he is staring at his garden, considering how they will use up all their ripe eggplants.
    This book annoyed me no end… what was the point of having the over-protective mother begin as a neglectful mother of her baby? She had to embody all maternal wrong-doing?
    Gnash, gnash, gnash…

    1. Kerry says:

      Thanks for your comment. It’s a troubling book, isn’t it? And it annoyed me too, but not so much that I wanted to throw it against the wall. It did ask some good questions, and yes, probably it just the all-absorbing plot… I will have to check out the eggplants.

  4. And now — suddenly, having avoided all the Booker-chat somehow — I’m desperate to read this novel: what terrifically interesting questions to have raised!

  5. Gillian says:

    do read it – I think our comments prove its worth: any book that prompts conversations (and virtual bookcluds) is okay if just because we’re talking. True, misogyny abounds, and left hooks at motherhood, possibly unrealistic swearing, and SCADS of sex, but I think the point is that this is very compelling book because it is a soap opera, not because it’s an honest depiction of something true. It’s a version, Tsolkas’ version, and funny and irreverent and AWFUL here and there, but it’s got us going, hasn’t it? I thought Anouk’s section was weak and pat and wrapped-up and slightly unbelievable because she’s meant to be a smart, interesting woman who ends up being neither. A little distance from the book has left me feeling a little less enthusiastic and a swiping off a slight feeling of residual filthiness at having read and enjoyed it. I wish I knew what bugged/compelled me about it so I could bottle it and sprinkle it on boring books.
    What I did like: that weak parenthood was questioned (we are very PC about parenting – it seems like we’re only allowed to object to or consider harshly in literature neglectful or abusive parenting) and I don’t just mean the parents of the child who was slapped – all the parenting in this book needs to be scrutinized. Anyway… I’m all excited all over again so I’ll stop. Thanks for the chat!

  6. Gillian says:

    Oh, and feminism? I think this book proves we need to keep being feminists – work’s not done yet. But that’s a topic for another bookclud, I think.

  7. kara says:

    um, i don’t know what you people are talking about. frances, i don’t know WHAT world you’re living in, but nobody goes to jail because of swearing. i come from an academic family, i’m at melb university, and my tutors swear! if you think that ‘strong’ language is ‘bloody’ and nobody says motherf*cker, you need to get out more. so swearing, really isn’t that weird, or that the greek men don’t ‘understand’ it’s offensive. it’s that they don’t care, like a lot of people don’t.
    i feel like you’ve all COMPLETELY missed the point of the book: it’s SUPPOSED to be racist, and shocking, and misogynistic. and of COURSE it’s exaggerated, that’s what a book does.

  8. Kerry says:

    And Kara, I think you’ve missed the point of our questions about the book.

  9. Elena D says:

    I can see I am 5 years late but I just happened to come across the book last week and read it through the easter holiday. I was suprised to find so much talk about misogynism. It’s true I thought the author kind of failed when trying to portray women’s point of view, but I actually thought he did worse when trying to talk outside his own generation and speak for teenagers and old Greek men. I did like the book anyway because I thought he did get one very fundamental aspect of human nature right, through this jumping from character to character our own inability to communicate becomes as obvious as it is inevitable.

    1. Kerry says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’d be interested in go back and visit this book again, see if my point of view has changed.

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