Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

My first thought on finishing The Slap was:  “This is going to be a popular book club book but a terrible choice as a book club book, and both for the same reason.”

The premise of The Slap is very simple and is set out in the first chapter.  Hector and Aisha, an Australian couple in their early forties with two children, are having a barbeque. Hector is Greek-Australian and Aisha is Indian-Australian.   It is their one big party of the year where they pay back all the hospitality of their family and friends and they invite lots of people who don’t know each other well and all of their children.  There is a lot of food.  The guests are diverse.  They invite Aisha’s friend Anouk, a childless unmarried Jewish woman who wants to quit her job as a television writer and write a novel.  They invite Aisha and Anouk’s friend Rosie, a former surfer party girl who now lives with her alcoholic, going nowhere husband Gary and their four year old child Hugo who Rosie is still breast-feeding.   To say that Hugo is undisciplined is an understatement.  Also invited are Hector’s Greek immigrant parents, Manolis and Koula, as well as Hector’s cousin Harry with his wife Sandi and son Rocco.  At some point Hugo throws (another) temper tantrum while swinging around a cricket bat in the direction of Rocco and Harry slaps him. Rosie is furious, files a police report and brings charges against the slapper.  Everyone in the novel has an opinion about the slap and Rosie’s reaction.

The reason that this will be popular with book clubs is that people who never bother to read the assigned book can show up and participate.  As long as they know the above premise they can participate in the discussion.  Everyone in the reading group will inevitably express their opinion about the slap and the prosecution and that will inevitably lead to long discussions about upbringing (their own and their children’s and other people’s children’s). Someone who has read the book will say “oh you’re just like [fill in the name of a character].”  This won’t be one of those gatherings where the book is talked about for ten minutes – I predict that the discussion will go on for hours. Arguments will ensue.  Some of them might be vehement.  Friendships could be at stake.   But in the end the book club group will pat itself on the back and say “look!  we talked about the book all night!”

And that is why it will be a terrible book club book.  Because no one will really be talking about the book, they will be talking about themselves.  So, really, why bother to read the book?   The host could just distribute the above as a hypothetical and discussion could ensue. 

But.   Anyway.

This isn’t a great book but it is a good book.  Tsiolkas creates a set of very believable characters.  They are complex.  Tsiolkas isn’t interested in black and white characters, he goes for the shades of gray.  His characters are dislikeable but no one is really evil although some are worse than others. It is interesting how he achieves the shade of gray.  The novel is divided into eight chapters each of which is told from the point of view of one of the people at the party.  The first chapter is told from the point of view of Hector, the host, and it details the events of the party.  The other chapters are not intended to give us the other characters’ alternate views of what happened.  Everyone agrees about what happened.  Harry, Hector’s cousin, slapped Hugo, the son of Rosie who is one of Aisha’s best friends.  Life goes on, including all the repurcussions from the incident, but the narrative constantly shifts viewpoint. Those who are fans of Maeve Binchy will recognize this structure  but Binchy never created such dislikeable characters.

And they are dislikeable not necessarily because of what they do as much as for how they are.  Here is where Tsiolkas is superb; he is omniscient with the character from whose viewpoint we are seeing the narrative and he shows us the secret thoughts of the character.  But he doesn’t tell us those secret thoughts in an aside.  He creates dueling dialogs.  There is the dialog in the head of the character, what the character wants to say, and there is the actual dialog, what the character actually says.  We see the rage and the exasperation and the ugliness that is hidden behind the veneer of what polite society expects. Thus, in the chapter called “Harry” we see the continuing narrative from the point of view of Harry and we are omniscient with respect to Harry’s thoughts but nobody else’s.   Here, Hector is talking to Harry about what happened.

Harry’s fists were clenched.  He felt the heat of the sun, the stretch of the sky, they were heavy weights descending onto him.  There was a hammer at his chest.  He felt his cousin’s hand on his shoulder.  he shrugged it off.

‘Harry, listen to me.  You’re a good man.  You don’t deserve this.’

‘But?’

‘But you shouldn’t have hit him.’

He wanted to cry.  Take back that moment, fix that moment, change that moment, so that he had never hit that child.  That fucking cunt of a child, that fucking animal of a child.  Panagia, he whispered to his God, I want that child dead.  He was back on the sand, the warm sun on the back of his neck.  He could hear Rocco’s laugh.  Rocco brought him back as he always did.

‘Okay.  Sure.  I’ll go and apologise to them.  Can you organize it?’

But it is not only what the various characters think about Hugo that is hidden by the social veneer.  It is the racial tensions and the sexual tensions and the socio-economic tensions that are also hidden.  Eventually this gap is unsustainable and characters begin to blurt out what they really feel.  Part of this novel is about how people hide their true selves.   People who like to read about likeable people shouldn’t read this novel.  People who are shocked by the above language shouldn’t read this novel.  There is no redemption for any of the characters in this novel. On the other hand, each character is driven by his or her own demons that are revealed to the reader slowly and they make the characters seem very real.  I felt that I had met people like this in real life.  They weren’t people I necessarily liked or wanted to spend time around, but they were real. 

Tsiolkas creates enough of a plot to make the reader keep turning the page but the plot is not the driving force. The court case is, in fact, resolved long before the end of the novel.  This is a character driven novel, and a study of Australian society.  Tsiolkas is, obviously, Greek and he does a very good job in creating the Greek community of Hector’s family and their friends.  One chapter is told from the point of view of Hector’s father Manolis and I felt that an entire novel could have been built around him.  The way that immigrants deal with a culture that surrounds them but that they aren’t quite embracing, the reality of aging and death, the exasperation with the younger generation, Tsolkias captures it all in that chapter.

This is an Australian novel and is some ways it seems very Australian but in others it transcends place.  Five of the eight chapters are from the point of view of characters who either are immigrants or the children of immigrants.  Hector and his family, including his father Manolis and his cousin Harry, are part of the Greek immigrant community.  Aisha is from an Indian immigrant family.  Connie, a teenager who works in Aisha’s office, was born in England.   The non-immigrant Australians are mostly minorities.  Anouk is Jewish.   Connie’s friend Richie is a gay teenager.  Hector’s friend Bilal is an aborigine who has converted to Islam, making him a double minority.  Rosie and Gary are among the few white Australians in the novel, and they are also at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, living just above the poverty level.  Gary is an alcoholic and Rosie is the daughter of an alcoholic who will not leave Gary.  If this were America, they would be overtly called white trash.  And yet Rosie, Aisha and Anouk are friends from their teens and at the beginning of the novel, at least, they still maintain the illusion that they have things in common and they care about what happens to each other. 

This novel is a reminder that Australia is as much of a “melting pot” as other parts of the world and, just as in our part of the world, the melting pot doesn’t really melt anything it mostly just results in a stew.

And that’s really what this novel is about.  Not the slap of a child, but the tensions of a multicultural, multi-ethnic world.  It is about the pull of family and the pull of friendship.   It is about the stress of being old and the stress of being young.   It is about transcending or not transcending your own upbringing.    It is about what makes a marriage happy (or at least tolerable).  It is about the importance or lack of importance of children in your life. 

And that is only scratching the surface.

It is not an entirely successful novel.  Some of the female characters seem to react to men not in the way that women react to men but in the way that men react to women (very visually).    Hector and Harry seem far more obsessed with their own bodies (diet and exercise) than most 40-something heterosexual men that I know.  I think the author meant to end the novel on a positive note with Connie and Richie and their friends looking forward to the future, but watching a teenager partying with his graduating highschool friends using parentally sanctioned drugs and hearing him declare it was the “best day of” his life didn’t really do it for me.  Probably the greatest flaw was that, although Tsiolkas tries to explain it,  I truly didn’t understand why Rosie was letting her child grow up to be so dislikeable.  (I give credit to Tsoilkas that he is able to portray Hugo as an absolute brat but also show that the blame for that is not his but his parents. The next time I’m tempted to slap a child in Starbucks I’ll instead imagine slapping his mother or father.) 

Finally, this book will probably offend people who are easily offended by bad language and obnoxious characters.    But anyone who has plowed through the writings of The Great White Men of the 20th century will not find this novel hard going.