Marking what many are calling a watershed in Australian fiction, Christos Tsiolkas “The Slap” has garnered awards, critical acclaim and disparagement. It is, depending on who you listen to, an epic, scathing dissection of the racial and class politics of 21st Century metropolitan Australia or a hateful, misogynist series of rants structured around an implausible premise.
As is usual with such things, I find the truth somewhere in the middle. Although my criticisms of its sexual politics is more aligned with Melissa Denes in the LRB who points out that it isn’t particularly Tsiolkas treatment of the novel’s female characters which is cause for concern, rather the dull, adolescent, pornographic nature of his sexual prose.
In addition to this, the ethnic smorgasbord with which Tsiolkas is credited with creating in The Slap often feels clumsy, for instance in the character Barry/Bilal, the Aborigine convert to Islam and his white Australian, Hijab wearing wife appear to serve as mere two dimensional cut-outs, put there in an effort by Tsiolkas to prove to himself and his readers that he is aware of the ethnic diversity of Australia outside of the conflicts he has already set up.
However, the Slap’s main problem lies in its almost total lack of a genuinely likeable, empathetic character throughout the whole novel (with the possible exception of Richie, the sexually confused teenager who pops up as the final narrator). Instead of engaging you with the complexities of what happens when class, ethnicity, traditional and modern values regarding family and discipline collide, what is created instead is a series of narratives articulated characters endowed with varying degrees and shades of selfishness, narcissism, prejudice, ignorance, self-pity and suppressed rage. If this is indeed, the purpose of the book; to prove that metropolitan, bourgeois Australia contains objectionable, hateful people of all ethnic backgrounds, then it succeeds. However, if its aim as a novel is to provide a snapshot of the richness and depth, good or bad, of human experience, then it does not. As an examination of class and cultural politics, it succeeds to a degree, although given this readers distinct lack of empathy for either the “victims” or “perpetrator” of the eponymous action, I cannot escape feeling that a novel may not have been the most appropriate form for this enterprise.
Possibly more to come on this. Maybe not though. I have a strong suspicion this will make the short-list, if not win outright.