Unusually, A Common Reader is writing a bad-tempered review. I can’t see how The Slap could attract any other sort, because its a truly “feel-bad” novel with almost nothing to recommend it. Usually a Booker long-listing is some sort of recommendation that a book may be worth reading. However, I found The Slap to be banal (in the sense of being commonplace and predictable) and crude, more like a script for a television series such a Mistresses or Footballers Wives than a serious novel.
The style of writing reminds me very much of British crime writer Martina Cole, who’s work contains an equal number of unpleasant characters who also spend their time abusing each other. At least Martina sets out to shock: her readers know what they are getting, but with its Booker long-listing, surely The Slap is supposed to be something rather better?
It’s a long book (483 pages). Round about page 250 I found myself getting cross with myself for choosing to read a book solely because of its Booker status, but I persevered to the end through further episodes in the lives of this miserable crew. The Slap is not particularly well written – while it held my interest, it didn’t make me feel good about myself for carrying on with it – this is not an uplifting reading experience! There are no surprises in it, no character development, nothing to make you feel that the author has any fresh insight into the human condition. For me, a “good book” will make me feel sorry when it ends and sad to let its characters go – with The Slap I heaved a sigh of relief that I would never have to think of any of these people again.
The story is very simple. A barbecue is being held, and when two children are fighting, the father of one of them slaps the other child. The parents of the slapped child are outraged and report the matter to the police. Each subsequent chapter follows one of the various characters during the period leading up to and immediately after the trial. Most of the characters are unpleasant in a wide variety of ways, the only exception being an indigenous Australian who has converted to Islam (but even he seems to have no desire to contribute to the resolution of the grievance but only to protect his family from its effects).
What does The Slap say about the human condition? That humans have no capability for self-awareness, that we act entirely to suit ourselves with no thought for others, that we are bound by our upbringing and our native culture and cannot conceive of ways of thinking other than our own, that we are dominated by our physicality, defined by our need for gratification whether through sex or drugs.
There is no culture in Christos Tsiolkas’ world. It is a place of binge-drinking, illicit and often violent sex, the quest for revenge for even the mildest slight. Its an entertainment culture of mindless existence with no thought for anything beyond parties and pubs. All the characters are like spoilt children, wanting to get their own way and having no thought about the effect their actions may have on others. Its nihilism would work if the writer had the skills to present some sort of comment on the lifestyle depicted, but it seems to be nihilism for its own sake, an unremitting stream of negative actions and emotions revealing the hell of human existence with none of the literary style which would make the reader feel there was any point in reading about it.
The author seems to hate his characters and has created a set of stereotypes on whom he can vent his spleen – the self-made businessman who goes home and beats up his wife, the drug-taking teenagers, the earth-mother ageing hippy who breast-feeds her three-year old, the conference attenders who screw around while high on speed, the drunk neer-do-well with pretensions to be an artist. Its a world populated by cardboard characters who all act so totally predictably.
There are innumerable sex scenes in this book, but the sex is usually brutalising, and in typically porno style, the women apparently enjoy it – after one particularly exploitative session the man apologises to his wife and she replies, “but I like making love to you” – thanks Christos, but some of your readers didn’t exactly enjoy reading about it! On another occasion an adulterous wife invites her husband to treat her like a whore because she feels she “deserves” it. I don’t think Christos has a high view of women, and the concept of tenderness or consensuality seems alien to him (and why on earth does he have to go into the details of condoms discarded on hotel room floors or the shape of semen stains on soiled pants? – too much detail!).
Most of the writing is straightforward narrative and when he occasionally launches into descriptive passages he find something unpleasant to write about –
His liver’s fucked, Gary had warned her, but she would have known that at once. His skin was corpse-grey; raw red and purple sores marked his arms. He wheezed when he spoke and every few minutes his body would double over in racked, tortured coughing, resulting in thick, globby phlegm he would spit onto the ground or into a tissue.
Even the landscape is somewhere you’d never want to visit –
The unrelenting flat suburban grid of the northern suburbs surrounded them. The further they drove, the more Rosie thought the world around them was getting uglier, the heavy grey of the sky weighing down on the landscape, crushing down on them. The lawns and nature strips they passed were yellowing, grim, parched. The natural world seemed leached of colour. She thought it was because this world was so far from the breath of the ocean, that it was starved of air.
When he moves on to the older characters I hoped for some insight, some critique of the younger generation which seems to be bent on tearing themselves apart, but I found no respite from the unpleasantness. When 68 year old Maonlis is confronted by a daughter in law who speaks her mind, we read –
He straightened his back. He must have looked fierce because instantly she perceived her mistake and recoiled from him. He wanted to grab her hair, pull her face to the table, beat her as if she was a little girl.
I’ve written enough about The Slap. Its a nasty and unpleasant book, with no redeeming features in my view. Everyone else seems to think its wonderful – good luck to them, but for me its my “worst read so far” of 2010.