Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

They were invariably immigrant men, and she told herself that in treating them with respect and dignity she was separating herself from the immense sea of indifferently racist Australians out there […] But she felt neither courtesy nor respect at this moment. Fuck him, she thought sourly, ignorant Muslim pig. 

The namesake of the novel occurs at a seemingly innocent Australian BBQ that reads like Rupert Murdoch's nightmare: the hosts are Hector, who is Greek, and his Indian wife Aisha, and their guests include more Greeks, Australian aborigines turned Muslim, and gay kids all frolicking together. And of course, a super drunk white Australian, whose kid is a total brat and ends up misbehaving--and that's when the 4-year-old is slapped by another guest, an adult. 

Everyone slinks away, either in rage or ashamed, or just wanting to make sure they can't be interpreted as having taken sides. As the story progresses, we skip from one character to another to see how they navigate through family loyalties and friendships, hurtling toward the impending day at the court. 

The novel is cleverly constructed, and although on the surface it certainly makes you think about the issue at hand--slapping a child-- it addresses different forms of bodily and mental abuse, and the traditions of how we end up accepting some of them. All the characters in the novel, regardless of age, are either using drugs or copious amounts of alcohol, or they did in their past that they now secretly pine for or feel superior to. They all have pretty lousy sex, too. Then, they obsess about their looks--a lot of words are spent on describing every nook and cranny in the characters' bodies, up to their toe hairs. They're dolls, going through the motions that their forefathers set for them. 

This is also the one part that I'm not too comfortable with, because I can't tell whether sometimes it's the characters being simplistic or the writing. At one point, one character describes two women the same way on the same page: first, a random woman as "The blonde one was a looker," and then a paragraph later, describing a police officer as "She was blonde, a looker." 

Racism seeps in, too. At the sight of conflict, everyone becomes a negative representation of their ethnicity to others. The characters believe their decisions are made purely from logical standpoints, but they all have a chip on their shoulder that's been waiting to be spoken out loud. Drunk Gary is not just Drunk Gary--he's a fucking Australian. Bilal is not just Bilal--he's an Aborigine who is expected to abuse his body with drugs and alcohol and go back into bars for a favor, although that's a lifestyle he struggled to leave behind ages ago. Aisha is not just Aisha for Hector's family--she's that Indian slut.

And again, there's slight discomfort with the descriptions: although the novel itself addresses racial issues, some of the non-white characters are described in food terms, a treatment white characters usually don't get: "His unblemished olive skin was tanned rich chocolate brown." Two food items in one! I have yet to see a white character described as having "mozzarella undertones." White characters are just blonde.

The novel poses interesting questions about what it means to protect the weak, and who the weak really are. And just as you think you have formed your opinion about the infamous slap, you find out more about the characters involved that might change your mind yet again. That's the type of novels I like--where you're not lulled into comfort but instead, you need to question your opinions.


  1. P.S. I went to see this author read from this particular novel four years ago, and I promptly forgot about it although I was intrigued. The other week I was at a second-hand store and saw the novel Barracuda, with a familiar-sounding author name... Shoot! I forgot to read The Slap! For four years! I placed a hold at the library immediately.

  2. 'Dead Europe' sold me on Tsiolkas. It's quite different in style - and not universally liked - but personally, I would recommend it.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I didn't particularly like the machismo poetry style of The Slap, but I enjoyed it enough to keep going and it seemed fitting for the topic. If he's written in a different style I'm eager to take a look.

    2. Ha! I just checked the library database, and they don't have it... Not universally liked, indeed. I'll get my hands on it somehow.