Staff Pick: Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap

August 18, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 4 2 min read

coverA confession – I haven’t read much about Australia.  To be completely honest, I’m a hopelessly provincial reader – sticking mostly to the US, with only the occasional foray to Europe, Latin America, and Canada.  I’m working on it, okay?  This is all to say that I am incredibly lucky that Christos Tsiolkas landed on a panel I was moderating for the LA Times Festival of Books, as it put his tremendous novel The Slap before me in a pressing way.

The premise of The Slap, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Novel of Southeast Asia and Australia and is now longlisted for the Booker, is deceptively simple – at a suburban barbecue, a man slaps another couple’s child.  The beauty of the novel is how that slap, that one moment, reverberates through the lives of the dozen or so people who witness it.  The structure is remarkable for both its simplicity and its dexterity.  As opposed to a Rashomon structure, in which each character tells their (differing) version of the events, Tsiolkas uses each chapter to further advance the story.  But like Rashomon, each new character offers us a different perspective, not so much on what happened, but on what it means, for the characters themselves and for Australian society.

Make no mistake, The Slap is a social novel, a snapshot of the Australian middle class – prosperous, self-obsessed, and maybe a little bit complacent.  Indeed, it’s one of the many miracles of this book that a small personal incident can reveal so much of a culture and a country.  Like a highly erotic Cheever novel, The Slap skewers the middle class while giving them their humanity and even, at times, a bit of sympathy.  The portrait Tsiolkas paints of Australia – richly diverse and yet mired in deep-seeded racism, prosperous but divided along subtle class lines – is endlessly fascinating.  It is further evidence that I do, in fact, need to get out more.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Patrick has worked in the book business for over seven years, including a two-year stint as the webmaster and blogger for Vroman's Bookstore. He is currently the Community Manager for Goodreads.com. He's written book reviews for Publishers Weekly, and he's spoken about books and the internet at the LA Times Festival of Books, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association spring meetings, and the 140 Characters Conference. He writes the sporadically entertaining Tumblr blog The Feeling.

4 comments:

  1. I happen to be reading The Slap right now, and I’m really enjoying it. I like the bare use of slang, epithets, profanity etc., and find it refreshing. Not because it hasn’t been done, but because books that try to do that often try too hard to seem ‘daring’ and because it can seem juvenile. But the Slap is anything but.

    It’s up for the Booker which is interesting because I find that the vast majority of the time, Booker winners are no fun (ahem, The White Tiger, Wolf Hall), so if this one could win it’d be a big coup. But it may have trouble when a giant, smash success book like the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is nominated as well.

    Wonder why Tsiolkas hasn’t become a big name in the states yet. Certainly after this novel he will.

  2. I’m #1 in the queue at my library for The Slap so I’m not going to read one word past “his tremendous novel.”

  3. I read The Slap for an Australian literature course at my (Australian) university last year. While it makes some interesting structural innovations and covers topics most other Australian novels wouldn’t touch, Tsiolkas’ technique leaves a lot to be desired: it’s monotonous and sloppily executed, and I’d bristle at any suggestion that it’s representative of the state of Australian fiction. I recommend readers concerned with style consider this review in the London Review of Books before buying the book:

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n16/melissa-denes/freakazoid

  4. I found the book boring and inconsequential!

    The structure is easy to pull off – it’s a series of short stories that ultimatley do not go anywhere. Although ideas and lines are repeated to give them more cohesion, this makes all the chapters same-y. Also, it seems the author just randomy picked which character’s point of view to write from. A lot of the characters that I would have liked to hear from (the alcoholic dad for example) were not given their own chapters. I think if one were to go with this form, they should at least do it properly – i.e. write from every main characters point of view…

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