3.17.2011

The Slap

We've all been there: we're at some a casual party and the guest list makes for an interesting combination of family, friends, even colleagues... and, of course, there's just one kid who could very well be the spawn of Satan. His parents adore him and he's spoiled rotten (in indulgent behavior if not in material items), so everyone knows there's no hope of getting his actions in line; we all simply have to endure the experience and hope he just doesn't start screaming or hurt someone. In Christos Tsiolkas's novel, The Slap, just such a situation takes a controversial turn -- the brat makes a movement that could potentially be seen as threatening to another child and that child's father intervenes to slap the offending brat. The rest of the novel resounds with this slap as it reverberates in the lives of every attendee. As the next few months play out, eight different perspectives are used to further the story along and explore the massive amount of tensions within the lives of those involved.

There's no easy way to summarize the novel -- like life, everything is tangled up and has become too complicated for simple summaries. The Slap is set in Australia and tensions abound. There's racial tension, cultural tension, religious tension, generational tension, classist tension, sexual tension... it's a society where everyone is allowed to have a valid opinion, no one's existence should be negatively impacted by another's, and yet there are very few relationships (friendships or otherwise) that are not strained as a result.

Since the book is all about the relationships between people (and a bit about what those relationships say with regards to society at large), the best way to explain things is to give a cast list. The book opens with the perspective of Hector, the son of Greek immigrants, who seems to compensate for never having found a career passion by being a bit of a philanderer, despite having a beautiful Indian wife, Aisha. They have two kids and are the hosts of the fateful barbecue alluded to above. Hector is sleeping with a teenager named Connie who works in his wife's veterinary clinic (she's eighteen, it's legal). Connie's best friend is Richie, another teenager just coming out of the closet, and they're both trying to figure out their lives as they potentially move on to university. Hector's cousin, Harry, is the guy whose child is threatened and who does the slapping. Harry has a temper and a fierce prejudice against people who simply do not pull it together to do right by their families (like the family of the slapped child, he believes). An excellent father, Harry has a successful car repair/garage business (he's even lenient in dealing with an employee who is stealing from him), a beautiful home, and an excellent relationship with his wife... and the mistress whom he supports (and who has kids that are probably not Harry's).

Meanwhile, the child who was slapped is named Hugo and he really is quite dreadful. Hugo's father is Gary, a struggling (read: failed) artist who drinks a great deal and gets blamed for a large number of his small family's issues (and the legal drama that ensues), but is not necessarily always at fault despite appearances. Hugo's mother is Rosie, one of Aisha's oldest friends and after being a somewhat wild child/wild young adult/wild adult, she has settled down and made Hugo her world. She's still breastfeeding him at age four. Let this single observation tell you all kinds of things about her. Rosie and Aisha are also dear friends with Anouk, who doesn't have children and so doesn't quite understand Rosie and Aisha at times, though she also chooses not to tell them when she realizes she's pregnant (by her much-younger-than-she-is television star boyfriend) and decides to have an abortion. Aisha is torn in her allegiances on the slapping issue as a result of the fact that it's her best friend versus her husband's family. Hector's parents (Harry's aunt and uncle) are Manolis and Koula, who think the kid deserved the slap and are not thrilled about Aisha's inability to totally stand with the family (though really, Koula refuses to even say Aisha's name). Also within the circle are two married, converted Muslims who, if the Muslim-conversion-thing wasn't enough controversy as it is, are an interracial couple -- he's Aboriginal and she's white.

I think that includes all the major players. An ecclectic bunch to be sure, and Tsiolkas is covering a great deal of ground by including such complicated people in his novel. It means that the topics touched upon range far and wide -- though perhaps the one thing Tsiolkas isn't writing a novel about is child abuse. Instead, everyone seems to acknowledge that hitting a child is a wrong thing, but the issue of a person snapping is a much more accessible moment... and can be illustrated in the daily lives of us all when we reach a moment that pushes us into a decision we might not otherwise make. Personal allegiances and beliefs muddy the waters here as characters are forced to choose sides or awkwardly defend their neutral status. A moment like this, where a child is struck by an adult, is supposed to be a clear-cut situation -- physical violence in polite society is supposed to be completely unacceptable. Instead, a single instance of breaking this carefully maintained control on one's physical impulses calls in to question the numerous other sins hidden under the guise of a "civilized" state as impotent desires seethe and burn under our skins.

Tsiolkas may be making a statement about Australian society (and indeed, many of the racial slurs and classist issues within the story were surprising elements of Australia that had previously been unknown to me), but his larger themes include more than that single continent, enveloping a number of modern cultures that must deal with differences that are not allowed to be treated as differences. Certain voices rang truer than others and there were certain similarities in tone, but on the whole, I found Tsolkas to present interesting narrators who might not be likable but could never really be pushed entirely into the truly detestable camp. Even the "good guys" make wrong choices or do less than ideal things.

We read this for my book club and we had a rousing discussion -- I always enjoy books that provoke different reactions from people, as it allows us to delve in to the reasons we felt as we did and what caused the splits of opinion. The Slap was really an ideal read, given its multiple perspectives and strong societal themes at the heart of its narrative. Some people might be horrified by the graphic sex, drugs, and various behaviors. Maybe I'm just a dissolute and profligate New Yorker, but I thought even some of these things had incredibly positive and redemptive elements to them -- perhaps it really is all about perspective.

1 comment:

The said...

Hi,
Good review. Totally complex character, I agree.

I'm currently working on the TV show of The Slap in Australia. I think the script writers (they are some of the best in Australia) have done a great job of translating the book into an 8 part TV series. The cast includes Melissa George (Rosie) Jonathan LaPaglia (Hector) and Sophie Okenado (Aisha).

If anyone is interested in following the book as it comes to life we have been uploading behind the scenes clips, interviews with Christos etc.

You can follow on facebook at:
http://www.facebook.com/theslaptv

By the way, it's great that your book group had a rousing discussion. The book seems to have that effect. So much so that the by-line of the TV show is "Whose side are you on?'