Review: The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

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.

 

106 comments to Review: The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

  • Todd

    Ditto. I wanted to slap the author. Then I wanted someone to slap me for spending money on this enormous waste of time and paper.
    Such a shame that a really intriguing concept is so completely wasted here. This would have been a brilliant short story in the tradition of Cheever.
    But no…it’s a really poor, really long, really tiresome read instead.

  • Tom

    Todd – thanks for visiting. I agree – a short story would have been much better

  • Debs

    Recently read this book while on holiday and struggled to finish it. I found that the author has a very dim view of heterosexual relationships and in places the book made me feel angry about his judgemental view. I would not recommend this book to anyone nor would I consider reading anything else by this author. I cannot believe it got so many rave reviews.

  • Tom

    Debs – thanks for visiting. As you see from other comments, lots of people agree with you!

  • Martyn

    Hi Tom.
    You clearly don’t ‘get it’, which is a shame. Are you serious that you only want to read a book where your associations with its characters are positive?
    Also, if you want to be taken seriously, please correct your use of “who’s” instead of “whose”, and insert the numerous apostrophes which are missing from “it’s” (e.g. “It’s a world…).

  • Tom

    Martyn – thank you for your helpful comments – a useful counter to the other people who largely agree with me. I only found one wrong “its”. Proof reading is not my forté

  • Flip18

    Also struggled with this one. Maybe there are cultural differences but I found much of the gutter langauge completely unnecessary. Sexual encounters were base; designed to promote a response? Most did not fit with my perception of what many reviewers have tried to write up as a ‘modern’ tale. It reads, sadly, like some attitudes from decades ago but with a BBQ. The only convincing aspect was my instant dislike for the recipient of ‘the slap’! I really wanted him to finally realise his behaviour was not right. and instead felt like I was the odd one out by not feeling accepting of taking a drug or alcohol overdose. Still wondering why it’s phenomenal or short-listed.

  • Just letting you know, Tom, that I take your reviews seriously and I know many other people do too.
    Lisa xo

  • Tom

    Lisa – thanks Lisa – you don’t publish on the ‘net without attracting the odd negative comment. Thanks anyway. Tom

  • Tom

    Flip18 – thanks for visiting. You are with the majority on this one as you see from other comments. I agree, the slapped child certainly made me feel he deserved it (with fiction you can say what you like!). The whole short list that year was of poorer quality than usual

  • Lia

    I feel so relieved to read your review. I’ve been slogging my way though this book for 2 weeks now and I just don’t have any inclination to pick it up of an evening. I just feel miserable and depressed reading it. Don’t like to leave a book unfinished but not sure I should waste any more precious minutes on it!!

  • Emma

    Relieved to have read this review and know it’s not just me, so thank you.
    Was drawn in by the Booker long listing too and even the woman at the counter was pleased with my purchase. “Everyone raves about that one”, she told me.
    But I’m 180 pages in and was contemplating ditching it. All of the characters are so loathsome I have no interest in finding out what happens to any of them.
    Googled reviews to see if it might be worthing hanging in there but have decided I have better books to read and no time to waste.

  • alison

    I couldn’t agree more. My book club disastrously chose this rubbish as our next book. I’m half way through it and am losing the will to live. A nasty mysogynistic narrative populated with one-dimensional character who I couldn’t care less about. It’s a mystery to me why this book has had such good reviews and it’s interesting that so many people here disliked it so much. I will perservere to the end, but I can’t wait to consign this turgid, unpleasant read to the charity shop.

  • Feyza Howell

    A truly awful book. I rarely leave books half way, but have done so here. All that self-righteous, blatant hypocrisy? Not a single character develops? Unbelievable situations, unconvincing motivations, and a child who truly deserved to be slapped (along with his parents!)
    Moreover, depictions of Greeks as such shallow and disconnected people offends me, and I am a Turk.

  • Tom

    Feyza – thanks for visiting. Sorry for delay in approving your comment as I’ve been away

  • Tom

    Alison – this book has had more adverse comments that any other I have written about. It seems to have attracted a great deal of loathing. Should make for a fun book group evening!

  • Tom

    Emma – thanks for visiting. As you see from the comment list to this post, most people seemed to hate this book. I found it quite compelling however, – perhaps like watching a car crash – you want to avert your eyes but find it difficult to do so

  • Tom

    Lia – thanks for visiting. I hope you’ve got over this miserable book by now! It really is awful isn’t it

  • I see I expressed an interest in reading the book at the time. The persistence of the comment thread just keeps the flame glowing.

  • Tom

    Ronak – thanks for visiting. I have had more comments on this one than anything before!

  • Caron

    Hi Tom – I have never read your reviews before and stumbled across the site when searching for a review of The Slap and I have to say I agree with everything you’ve said.

    I also bought the book because of the Man Booker link, and almost abandoned it as soon as I read the first page but I told myself not to be such a prude and battled on. I fervently wish I hadn’t!

  • Tom

    Caron – thanks for visiting. As you see from the other comments on this article you are far from being alone in not enjoying this book!

  • Peak

    Really didn’t enjoy this book – concept good but found it irritating. Too much swearing and sex – didn’t add anything to the book. Very disappointed as a parent this often is a discussion point and we have opposing views. The blurb is much more exciting than the content!

  • Carmel

    Phew – its not just me either! Great relief! This book was my biggest disappointment so far this year! The initial review sounded great as did the hype surrounding it, so it was with gusto I parted with my money to buy a copy!

    Crude, crass and pointless. Even his plot has no resolve? What about Harry’s aisian (or is vietnamese? or whatever? lover) what is the POINT of even introducing that if it will not add to conflict/resolve? Such crudity – bet it has made a lot of women in the world wonder what their husbands really get up to behing their backs! Also, certainly paints a disgusting and dirty image of Australia and Australians.

    As much as I would love to be a published author one day, I think I would die of terminal dissapointment if this was the book my muse delivered me!

  • Willow

    Great review, heartily agree. The whole book read like a cringingly immature GCSE assignment. It was like wading through mud trying to get to the end, and I had to skim some chapters as I was beginning to lose the will to live. Perhaps Mr Tsiolkas would be better placed directing a low budget porn film (are there high budget ones?), where he can realise his ridiculous views on what women ‘like’ or say. There is absolutely no insight into how women or men tick in this book, just a set of embarrassingly 2D characters, barking ridiculously cliched lines. I tried as hard as I could to find some plot development, some interesting angle on my fellow Melburnians (sic)but to no avail, all I could see was Tsiolkas sniggering as he dropped yet another ‘naughty’ word or scene into his book in the hope that we would all say “Oh my, how shocking and REAL.” Not this time, Christos. A waste of a good idea, and of my time spent reading it.

  • Pamsie Lambsie

    I am so glad I found this review and all the people who can sympathise! I didn’t know it was Booker listed but had read many promotions of it (I now know why!) and loved the concept of the book. I have never been so disappointed! I didn’t find any of the characters in any way interesting or likeable; I didn’t feel the effects of the slap were explored and I struggled to pick the book back up of an evening! I am sorry to have recommended this book (prior to reading it) to friends so that we could discuss it. Thank you to everyone on this site for allowing me to have the discussion and not lose friends by making them read it!

  • I’m so glad there’s other people who feel the same way as I did about The Slap. A thoroughly nasty little book with horrible characters. I was so disappointed as the concept was so intriguing.

  • pdev

    I am born and bred In melbourne and live in the same inner suburbs the book is set in. Christos gets the second generation Greek/Italian migrant very well and the incredibly multicultural place Melbourne now is. You are not supposed to like the characters-I think the two teenagers represent the still uncorrupted.. Modern life is essentially corrupting. However I liked it full of kinetic energy and alot of honesty-fairly Australian really and probably a little too realistic for a typical mums book club in the USA or UK??

  • sean

    Hi Tom – The subject matter of this novel didn’t shock me; despite being unlikeable, most of it’s characters did engage me; even the questionable takes on male sexuality and the value and role of women were credible – at least as the rather bleak observations of one man. I could stomach all of that; what I found less digestible though was the poor quality of the writing and the creakiness of the construction. I read it as a series – a rather lengthy series – of domestic tableux. For me, this fairly inelastic pace became tiresome. I felt that, when unpacked, the domestic odds and ends and trivia of each character’s life didn’t always amount to relevant narrative, didn’t always give the main premise or the various themes a punchy thrust. As many have said before me, it would have been better as a short story, I think. Where was the editor once this tome had been assembled? Finally, I think his attempt to – as far as I can see – completely do away the “he said/she said” approach to conveying dialogue is admirable but fails, ultimately, because his alternatives are too inorganic and confusing; ironically perhaps, they come to seem like more of a device and hence more obtrusive than a more traditional approach. I could go on, I guess; there are numerous examples of the guy’s dubious craftsmanship. Suffice to say, I’m not liking it. I have a hundred and fifty pages to go (one shouldn’t be counting down the pages in a “good” book; tyhat’s just wrong) and I can’t wait for it to end.

  • Tom

    Sorry about that – I’ve been away and didn’t receive the comment until I returned. It now shows up. Thanks for visiting

  • tania

    So glad I am not the only one. There is nothing new about gritty, earthy, mysoginistic, foul mouthed novels with nasty characters (think Camus, Kafka, Henry Miller, Irving etc ). Who cares as long as the story is universal, well-written, there is some sort of development and the reader is changed in some way at the end? This book of course delivers none of this. Banal and boring and poorly written. I felt disrepected as a person while reading this as far as I could before noticing it was a nice day and I’d rather take the dog for a walk..

  • Tom

    Tania – thanks for visiting. When I wrote the review everyone seemed to be praising the book and I felt I must be out of order. Now I see from supportive comments that others feel the same!

  • miner

    Just watched the 1st episode online last night, preparatory to watching the rest of the series. Gave up 30 minutes in. Lots of politically-correct cliched characters who were all being set up to do conflicting things.

  • Would completely agree with your review. Not a book I’d recommend to anyone! My Review

  • Tom

    Hi Matthew you run a great blog there. I see you gave the Slap 4/10 marks which I think is about right.

  • Tom

    Hi Jack – thanks for visiting. I didn’t know there was a TV series of it. Must be a fascinating viewing.

  • I’m glad to find someone that agrees – it seems we might be in the minority on this one. It’s a shame too because, listening to Tsiolkas talk, he clearly has some interesting ideas and I’d really hoped for better.

  • Tom

    Matthew – I have had so many comments agreeing with the post, I think we’re more in the majority than the minority!

  • Sam

    Hi Tom – your review is consistent with my opinions of the book (and clearly those of many other readers). I find it annoying that undeserving books can get on a cycle of critical acclaim and popularity, when really someone should be pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes. Good on you for doing so.

    Surprisingly, I’m finding the TV adaptation more interesting than the book. Some decent actors have given the otherwise cliche-ridden characters a bit of depth and life, but it still brings back the same feeling that this is a story that holds your attention in the same way witnessing a road accident does.

    The way I see it there’s a choice of two depressing conclusions with The Slap. One is to accept the critical acclaim, and the implication that goes with it that this is an accurate portrayal of contemporary Australian society. If this is the case, then God help us.

    The other conclusion, which as a resident of Melbourne, I believe is closer to the mark, is that this is a strident, caricatured depiction, flimsily based on a few elements of truth. Melbourne is a city of 4 million people. Of course, there are examples of self-absorbed people like Harry, Hector and the rest, and inevitable conflicts arise when such people interact.

    I’ve heard Tsiolkas say that this book is about the overbearing sense of “entitlement” that he sees in Australia today. In fairness, a sustained period of prosperity has probably made many of us more selfish and materialistic, but to paint this as the dominant characteristic of Australian society ignores the complexity of our social mores. For all Tsiolkas’ moral doomsaying, what is remarkable about a city as culturally and racially diverse as Melbourne is how decent, tolerant and generous most people are, most of the time. As an Australian of Greek heritage, Tsiolkas should be well placed to comment insightfully on this. But I guess such a portrayal wouldn’t sell many books!

    If we accept this conclusion, then what’s depressing is what it says about the Australian literary scene. If this one-dimensional nonsense is receiving such adulation, then either the bulk of current Australian literature must be complete rubbish or, more likely, our critics must be easily seduced by PR hype and time-honoured sales tactics of lashings of sex and violence that, whilst attention-grabbing, are no substute for good writing. I thought they were paid because they can tell the difference.

  • Kathy Forsyth

    So good to hear my views on this book validated after hearing so many good reviews. Great concept and idea unfortunately erodes to nothing more than author’s rude fantasy, with misogyny evident from page 1. TV series equally offensive and unrealistic. Only read it for my Bookclub and I found it totally cringeworthy, crude, indulgent and obvious. It could have been so good ….

  • Tom

    Hi Sam – thanks for your views on this book. I would be interested to see the tv programme but its not available over here in the Uk unfortunately. Fortunately there are many good Australian writers as you will find by looking at the book blogs Whispering Gums or ANZ Lit Lovers.

  • PATRICIA ASTLE

    The TV Series started on Thursday on BBC4. Glad I haven’t read the book. I watched the first episode of the programme and decided I did not like any of the characters very much, apart from maybe Aisha.

  • […] I’m getting a huge number of hits for my review of The Slap by Christos Tsioklas.  If you type into Google “Review The Slap” I come near the […]

  • I haven’t read the book. I’m watching the TV series. As a native Melbournian, and someone who had Greek neighbors and Greek friends on all sides, I found Tsiolkas’ story most authentic when depicting Greeks. I’m not saying it is totally true to life, but the actions were plausible in the suspension of disbelief that story worlds invite. What I found unbelievable was that one character would push so hard to take the slap to court, when in the real world, a one-off event like this would in all likelihood be settled between family and friends, or probably more realistically, fences would be erected, friends cut off, family estranged, and people would get on with their compartmentalized lives. The fabric of fiction is conflict, and Tsiolkas gives us plenty. It has been said that his male fantasy of women is misogynist, and I think there’s a strong argument in favor of it. If you’re going to have women demeaned to the extent that he demeans them then you’re going to have to give more background substance as to why. Taking one example, we have Connie, who supposedly because she values some letters from her father (?) motivates her towards Hector. We’re going to need a lot more character development than that if we’re going to believe her crush. The story unravels when you look past the saucy actors.

  • I am still one who rather liked the book. I don’t think negative or caricatured portrayals of people or a place invalidate a book. I think Tsiolkas has some things to say about an element of our western society that is aggressive and/or self-focused. It doesn’t mean ALL of society is like this – or ALL of Melbourne even (!). Literature is about presenting truths not THE truth, at least as I see it. I guess one thing about it is that The Slap has got people talking … though I hate the promotion for the adaptation re “Whose side are you on”? I see the book as being broader than that.

  • Tom

    Hi Sue – you’re rigth there. The Slap has certainly got people talking. I can’t understand how much I’m enjoying the TV series when I hated the book so much. PErhaps it was Tsiolklas’ writing that upset me?

  • Tom

    Rob – sorry for the delay in replying. A very interesting commentary – thanks for contributing. I agree that in real life the problem would probably have been resolved between family and friends. I wonder if the author’s male fantasy of women (as you put it) is in any way affected by his being gay? I agree totally that there needs to be a lot more character development for this book to hang together

  • Rob

    G’day Tom,

    The issue is one of authenticity. We seem to demand it from our writers. There’s authenticity of story and prose; the two overlap but sit at different levels. You can have a completely ‘fictionalized’ story but it reads well because the writing is authentic. You can have an authentic story, because the ‘facts’ presented resonate with experiences you’ve had, making the story feel ‘real’. If the writer chooses a slice from daily life, they’ve pretty much assigned themselves the task of being authentic right from the start. This is why we judge The Slap the way we do. The style of writing also adds to or detracts from this. You could be authentic but tongue in cheek – that is, revealing the author’s hand. The Slap (the TV version) is drama – but then you get these voice overs which can be construed as revealing the author’s hand, but it is done with gravitas, so it only adds to the drama, doesn’t lighten it. I don’t know the author personally, so I can’t comment on his personal position vis-a-vis women. All I can say is how the women in his story are portrayed. The story is clearly a male-centric construction. The evidence for this, I’ll have to put into another post.

  • Tom

    Hi Rob – you certainly have some well thought-out views on this book. I hadn’t thought about the voice-overs until you mentioned them. Yes, they’re done with gravitas, but perhaps not with the author’s “voice”. What is the purpose of them I wonder? The series actually reminds me a little of the movie, American Beauty – a sort of observational stance, not too involved, perhaps a little semi-detached. Thanks for your comment. Much to think about there.

  • Rob

    Hi Tom,

    I’m not sure about the voice overs in the TV series. I suppose they’re meant to key us into a certain view about the characters, so that we don’t misconstrue their motivations. Like when we hear about Connie’s letters. I don’t think they were necessary, because the action was sufficient for us to work it out ourselves what was going on. Traditionally voice overs came from the first person perspective, e.g., William Holden’s voice over in Sunset Boulevard. The voice over there adds because of the dramatic irony, that the main character is telling the story from past the grave. We are drawn into the spiral to destruction knowingly, yet go willingly along. In The Slap, the voice over jolts us out of the stream of action, creating distance, like we’re looking into an aquarium of exotic creatures that we will never get quite get close enough to touch.

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