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.

07 June, 2009

Cafeklatsch III: Fuel, Red Box III, Big Dish

Fuel: 4 Margaret St, Moonee Ponds; 03) 9375 4499
Red Box: 317 Sydney Road, Brunswick; 03 9387 8699
Big Dish: 70 Wales St; Ph TBC

Who would have thought that Moonee Ponds is only as far from Brunswick East as the city is? Probably anyone who'd taken the time to look further west on a map than Melville Rd! Puckle St, leading from Pascoe Vale Rd down to Moonee Ponds Station is dotted with cafes, bakeries and restaurants (lots of Thai and Indian), along with a mix of franchise and independent stores.

Tucked around the corner, immediately across from the station, is Fuel (and, just a few doors up, Holy Cannoli - review hopefully to come soon). This is a gentle cafe, which manages to squeeze enough tables and chairs into an angled space to accommodate families, couples and friends doing coffee, but still give the wait staff enough room to wend through with coffee after coffee.

The menu covers most brunch cravings. French toast with bananas in caramel sauce was hard to go by, but it was a savoury kind of morning, and with the corn fritters (above) - served with avocado, bacon, salsa and sour cream - already claimed by one of my brunch partners, baked eggs it was.

So the breakfast trend of 2008, I'd eschewed baked eggs for a while. Fuel's version comes with chorizo, mushrooms and white beans in tomato sugo. I thought at first that they'd been extraordinarily generous and plonked not two, but three, eggs atop the sugo. The middle mound is actually a dollop of sour cream (the online menu proffers mozzarella - a much better option). And let's be upfront: these aren't, in fact, baked eggs. They're two poached eggs atop baked accompaniments. And while we're there, it wasn't so much a tomato sugo as the kind of tomato sauce that comes with tinned spaghetti.

Nomenclature aside, this was an enjoyable breakfast. One thing I don't like about baked eggs is the way they keep cooking in the hot plate, offering a too-brief window to enjoy a runny yolk. At least this presentation eliminated that problem. In such a deep serving dish, however, there was all too much sauce for the yolk to mix with. Great chorizo, in any case.

Speaking of generous serves, Red Box is a cafe that believes in feeding customers for the day, not just a meal. A soup-of-the-day of sweet potato and ginger was an effective anecdote to the impending cold that likes to niggle around on these cold June weekends. Smooth, warming, piquant, and about a litre more than I could eat! Just the buttered bread would have carried me through most of the afternoon.

And as for their burger...it's almost self-defeating, it's so towering. It's worth the effort to push it down to mouth-size, but you could make stock with the amount of juice that dribbles out from the lamb and beef pattie.

Big Dish has entered the inner north cafe scene with a very small splash. Tucked away on a quiet Thornbury street, it feels more country foodstore than suburban cafe. Our visit there was unphotographed, which is a shame, as their very commendable food is elegantly presented.

They've mastered baked eggs, or rather claypot eggs, as they appear on the menu. The pot comes to the table with the capsicum-sweet sauce bubbling around two free-range eggs, expertly positioned in the middle, so they're not still cooking in contact with the sides. Le Madre sourdough completes the dish.

Fruit toast, dense enough to keep SG going until dinner, is presented on a wooden chopping board. Unmissable (especially for $7.50) are the crumpets with warmed honey ricotta, delicately spiced poached fruit tumbled on top, and the whole lot drizzled with pomegranate molasses. Absolutely delicious.