Some writers compromise their readers: whether it’s by underestimating their intelligence and capacity for empathy, or misjudging their motives for engaging with literature, some writers simply do not deserve the trust readers place in them. Christos Tsiolkas is not one of those writers, and his book The Slap shows how rewarding it can be when a writer is generous to his characters, his vision and his audience.
The Slap begins on the morning of a get-together planned by Aisha and Hector, a married couple. Hector is an alpha male, a public servant with a morning physical routine and a love for women which is unembarrassingly reciprocated by that part of the population. A loving husband, who without prejudice refers to his wife’s exceptional qualities in times of stress, Hector is nevertheless uncompromisingly lascivious; he is conducting an affair with his wife’s high-school age assistant, Connie, and masturbates in the ensuite while thinking about a co-shopper from the supermarket.
At the gathering, a run-of-the-mill suburban barbecue, friends and family of the couple engage in familiar banter, needle each other, monitor their tempers, manage the quotidian unease of relationships. Disruptions are two-a-penny, and to each their own weapons and targets; Hector’s mother still laments Aisha’s Indian background, while Hector’s friend Gary disparages the soapie writing that Aisha’s friend Anouk does for a living. But Hugo, the three-year-old child of indulgent, still-breastfeeding Rosie, finally disrupts the hard-won peace with screams, threatening Hector’s nephew with a cricket bat — no, it is Hector’s cousin Harry, dealing the titular slap to Hugo, who is responsible for the final rupture.
Tsiolkas propels from the springboard of this event with energy and lucid attention. He gives eight of his characters the narrative reins, which allows him to range about the halls of the middle-class Australian psyche. By no means an arch-stylist, Tsiolkas’ work seems to derive motivation more from humanist (turbo-humanist?) preoccupations. Whether it’s the perspective of Anouk, the 43-year-old writer resisting the putative eventuality of nuclear family life; Manolis, Hector’s elderly father; or Richie, Connie’s gay best friend, the multi-narrator approach is a clever and compassionate device that allows Tsiolkas to treat each character as both subject and object. It creates a constant watching/being-watched dynamic enabling thoughtful inquiry into the mechanics of a milieu that thrusts us into orbit with one another, equipped with what little armour we’ve got.
The Slap is Australian literature at its best, a mirror in front of which we can all dance and cry. It reminds us of how every day we are annihilated and enlivened by society’s acute challenges. We have long needed a novel featuring a Melbourne whose discomfited multiculturalism and neoteric identity we can wryly and blissfully recognise, which adds into the mix the difficult circumstances faced by the rest of a hyper-developed world: the proliferation of technology, laws unequal to new crimes, new sexual moralities, the diminishing of communities. Yes, I had some reservations about this book, some of which were not insubstantial. But I was pretty happy to overlook them. The Slap is fierce, intelligent, necessary and a damn good read — what more do you need to know?