15 June, 2009

'The Slap' - Christos Tsiolkas

The book everyone's talking about. That's the word on the street about The Slap. For everyone to be talking about it, the book must have an element of controversy, and that is one indisputable feature of Christos Tsiolkas' fourth novel. It's not controversial in that it tackles taboo topics in a radical way. Instead, it's got everyone talking because it's about us: it's about a group of people of different races and generations living in inner Melbourne, now, talking about the social issues that you can read about in the paper today.

Private vs public education, drug taking (in your forties and at school), losing your virginity, career vs family, feminism, misogyny, parenting, permissiveness, social and personal responsibility, morality in relationships...and, quite honestly, that is just the first chapter.

The book is written in eight long chapters, each one from the (third person) perspective of a different character. The critical event occurs in the first of these, when a man slaps a misbehaving child at a barbecue. Each chapter is distinct to that character's persuasions and environment, yet each still progresses the story without rehashing what we've already witnessed. Tsiolkas' greatest accomplishment lies in so completely realising the distinct character voices. His key characters are male and female; from multiple generations: either still at school, in their forties with young or no children, or elderly grandparents; and of varying backgrounds: Greek, Anglo, Indian.

If they share a commonality it's in a penchant for strong and frequent swearing, taking drugs and having a complex sex life. Almost no-one in the book is faithful to their partners. When one character has an affair, their lover rationalises it by declaring they are 'not interested in the morality of our actions'. Nice way to feel good about doing something bad. The majority of male characters have a decidely unhealthy opinion of women. The book's second section is told from the perspective of the 'slapper', Harry, and it was a challenge to wade through the muck of his hateful, misogynist life and come out the other side able to breathe again and carry on with the book.

The two teenage characters in the book enjoy a remarkable level of permissiveness from the adults in their lives, allowing them to indulge in almost as much sex and drugs as the adults. It's an interesting contrast, given that many of the characters regard that same permissiveness, when lavished on a toddler, as the root of the problems that led to the slap. Similarly, the middle-aged adults seem at liberty to permit themselves indulgences - whether to take illicit substances or as to how they treat their family - but not always to permit others the same freedoms.

Any student of writing, however, knows that fiction is not an exact reflection of reality. For art that holds a mirror up to who we are, turn to documentary. Fiction, by its nature, must embellish and exaggerate. Hence, while Tsiolkas' book presents us with 'real' Australia, racial and gender stereotypes are amplified; sex is never straightforward - everyone is unfaithful and most have had relationships with significant age differences; men are not simply blokey, but misogynistic to the extreme; women are not only mothers, but wilfully submissive to their partner's domination. The teenagers in the book are not only grotesquely comfortable with sex and drugs, but universally have exceptionally permissive parents.

The book doesn't purport to source goodness or a truism of humanity in each of the characters. They are each massively flawed - and some critics argue too much so for the enjoyment of the reader - and in this way only do they combine into a single reflection of who we are. Tsiolkas doesn't scratch the surface of social issues; he comes in with a bobcat and digs up the whole frontyard, flowers and all, until we're down to the pipes. Picking up on any one of the issues he uncovers, however, beats talking about renovations around the dinner-party table.

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