Monday, 29 November 2010

Pow!


I was quite pleased when my book group decided to read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (could someone tell me how to pronounce this, by the way?) because I'd got a copy through Amazon Vine a while ago, and knew I needed an incentive to make my way through all 483 pages of it. That wasn't going to happen off my own bat. Or my own back. I can never remember which it is...

The idea seemed really interesting: at a barbecue, somebody slaps somebody else's child. We see the event and its aftermath from various different perspectives, and an interesting and complex moral question is woven into the fabric of life for a group of Australian young parents.

Or that was the idea.

What Tsiolkas has actually done is so much less subtle that I wanted to shake him. The ingredients for a fascinating novel are in place, and - I'll say it now, because this review might wander into negative territory - Tsiolkas is potentially a really good writer, but it is all wasted. Tsiolkas has gathered together the most loathsome characters imaginable, the most loathsome of the lot indisputably Harry, who is the one to slap Hugo. He is also a wife-beater, a druggie, and someone who despises everybody who is not himself. The chapter we see from his perspective left me feeling nauseous, he was so disgusting a human being. Which Tsiolkas recognises, I think, so it didn't worry me from that point of view - what ruined The Slap was that the slapper in question offered no sort of moral grey area. He enjoys being violent to others, and enjoyed hurting Hugo. Hugo was, at the time, threatening Harry's child - which could have been an interesting angle, especially if Harry were normally a mild-mannered man - but Tsiolkas sweeps this ambivalence away.

It's not just Harry that is horrible. His wife Sandi is; Hugo's parents Rosie and Gary are; the host of the party, Hector, is. In amongst an enormous cast of characters, only two of the central ones seemed at all likeable, especially Richie - more on him later. And - have I lived a terribly sheltered life? - EVERY single character takes drugs. I hate reading books with drug-taking, as it makes me feel ill. I know this is my own faint-heartedness, and I don't expect every modern writer to steer clear of it, but Tsiolkas takes it to ridiculous lengths. Every character, from 14 to 60 odd, dabbles in recreational drug taking. Perhaps Tsiolkas thinks it spices up the book? And don't get me started on the amount of swearing in The Slap. When I raved about Ned Beauman's novel Boxer, Beetle, Lynne asked me what I thought about the swearing - well, I didn't really notice it there. Maybe because it seemed fit for the characters, or was used intelligently. Tsiolkas is under the impression that a sentence isn't complete without some really horrible expletives in it.

The structure of the novel isn't what I expected. I thought we'd see the same incident from various perspectives, which would have been tricky to pull off, but potentially brilliant. Instead, we move between different characters, each chapter giving the viewpoint of a different person - from the party where the slap occurs, through the resultant court case, and then meandering onto some quite well observed chapters (the reminiscences of an old man, and a young man coming to terms with being gay and having a messed-up best friend) which had almost nothing to do with the rest of the plot. The last 200 pages should have been removed, or instead used as the starting point for other novels, as they were the best written sections, but entirely irrelevant. Richie - the young guy - is easily the most affecting character in The Slap, and has the final chapter, which is quite moving. I warmed to him with this sentence:
Richie had a dawning sense that the fact that men loved kicking a leather ball to one another boded ill for the sanity of the human race.

You tell 'em, Richie.

As I said at the beginning, Christos Tsiolkas is a good writer, which is what makes The Slap so annoying. If he'd been a bad writer treating his topic badly, that would have been fine - I'd have thrown the book to one side, and moved on. As it is, he has a brilliant way of capturing a character's voice. Although the sheer number of characters, all arriving in a couple of paragraphs in the first chapter, meant I had to write out a sheet telling me who was married to whom, with which children etc. etc., after a dozen or so pages they all became sharply outlined, and very well drawn. The writing was compelling, and I read all 483 pages more quickly than I read many novels half that length.

But - the flaws in structure and the waste of a potentially interesting topic, not to mention the incessant drug-taking and swearing for effect, made The Slap ultimately fail in my eyes - and (for these and other reasons) in the eyes of those I discussed it with at book group. I can't think of many bad books which yet reveal good writers, but with The Slap Tsiolkas has convinced me to consider reading him again, even when I couldn't appreciate the novel itself.

16 comments:

  1. Its a big book and right now on reserve in this library. Would like to get to it eventually.

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  2. I think I had a similar reaction to this book as you did. It has good moments, and the last chapters almost redeemed it for me, but the sheer number of unappealing characters, as well as the massive amounts of drug-taking, put me off somewhat. I think your review really captures what the reading experience was like for me.

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  3. Very, very interesting. I've been wanting very much to read this book but your thoughts are giving me pause. What's has made me want to read it is that I love the idea of looking at something like this from a variety of point of views; plus, I love the idea of taking something that seems clearly wrong and making it ambiguous. But it sounds like Tsiolkas doesn't succeed on either of those two fronts. That's disappointing. But since you say it has well-drawn characters and good writing and is a quick read, I'm not going to strike it off my list just yet. However, if I do read it, I'll be sure to adjust my expectations.

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  4. Thanks for reviwing this one Simon. I have been wanting to read this one for a while but I think it will move down on the list now. Maybe I will just wait and see if his next book is better... Thanks for your honest review.

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  5. I felt the same way about this book. It was an interesting premise but badly executed and filled with unpleasant characters. It seems like everyone was taking drugs in this book. I just found myself not caring what the outcome was going to be. All in all, it's a book that leaves a distasteful feeling long after finishing it.

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  6. Ah, another one to not worry about. Thanks for the review!

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  7. The Slap convinved me that I don't want to read anything else that he has written...

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  8. Ooh I started reading and then skimming this review as I'm currently reading this... also for a book group! Will come back and look again once I've read it :) Agree with you already, some of the characters are awful!

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  9. I felt exactly the same way about it - but I still couldn't help but read it to the end!
    I began to think that if this was a truthful portrayal of modern Australians as was claimed, then the Aussies are in serious trouble!
    He is certainly a very good storyteller but perhaps requiring a bit more editing!

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  10. Gosh, what an awful sounding book. It seems like the kind of thing I would pick up in a bookshop, read the blurb, come to the conclusion that it's ridiculously pretentious in every way, and pop it back on the shelf in a huff. Is it pretentious? Or is it one of those books, like 'We Need to Talk About Kevin', which is horrid and compelling and the same time?

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  11. I think that there are some people who genuinely believe that everyone outside a monastery is taking drugs. See Hugo Rifkind's 'Overexposed' for a similar theme.

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  12. I actually thought the book was a little better than I expected. I particularly liked the 5th and 6th sections - thought they were the most well written. The first parts I thought were an endless Dear Abby letter on multiple topics. It was like he had to see just how many contemporary issues he could throw into one novel. In the end I was left with a lot of ambiguity which is what I think he wanted for the reader. Like "the slap" - was it right or wrong - there is no final judgment that can be rendered.

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  13. Okay, Colin's comment nearly made me spit coffee on my computer! :) I think my mother was that way back when I was a teenager... (still laughing)

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  14. I read this book earlier this year. I thought the first four characters were easily the least interesting compared to the next four. I found it hard to read the first two guys (Harry and Hector) because of the excessive swearing. There's so much ANGER I almost gave up! I loved section on Rosie the mother. Didn't like her and didn't agree with her opinions, but it was so much fun to get into her head. Anyway at the end I thought it was a decent read, but a bit uneven.

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  15. I agree with N, it's a horrid and compelling book. Totally unlikable characters so a mark of his talent that he makes you read it.

    Thought your review was both perceptive and fair. You have made a very strong case for reading him again.

    sue

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  16. Sorry, should have said I agree with N's comment about "We need to talk about Kevin" it perfectly describes The Slap.

    Sue

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