The Slap: Christos Tsiolkas. 2008 Allen & Unwin

The Slap featured as a top 10 seller in many bookstores (mid-2009) and attracted my attention for being the winner of Overall Best Book in the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Praise from critics included this comment from Natasha Cica of The Australian: “New Australia simply needs more A-grade writers like Tsiolkas.’

Clearly many influential people in Australia’s literary and publishing community have high regard for Tsiolkas as athe slap writer and for The Slap as an important contemporary Australian novel. As a student of our culture, I took the plunge and bought the book.

It is a disturbing novel that has at its epicentre a child being slapped by a frustrated adult at a gathering of family and friends. Tsiolkas then seeks to peel back the layers of contemporary Australia by constructing the lives of the myriad of people affected by this incident.

In the manner of many contemporary Australian novels, it is brutally honest and does not retreat from explicitly describing behaviours ranging from masturbation, various sexual encounters, swearing and drug taking. Why is it that some (many) Australian writers seem determined to recount in detail every fart, ejaculation and orgasm. Is it not possible to have your book taken seriously without this?

Almost all the characters are severely flawed morally – married people are adulterers, young (and old) take illicit drugs or are alcoholics, everyone lies, everyone swears, many are violent, most are atheists, few are happy and peaceful.

If that is Tsiolkas’s Australia, I’m glad I don’t live there.

Whether deliberate or unconscious, the only characters treated sympathetically are the young, the gay and one Aboriginal man named Terry, who has converted to Islam. He alone seems to live true to his faith free from the fetishes and flaws of those around him.

I’m glad there is a positive depiction of an Aboriginal person in the novel although there would be far more devout Aboriginal Christians than Muslims, but they don’t find a place in Tsiolakis’s contemporary Australia

Neither do any variety of  genuine, committed Christians, although various characters are depicted as nominal, hypocritical, religious ‘Christians’. The only other reference to Christianity is for the purpose of comparison, late in the book:

“The word, when it finally reached his ears, sounded like nonsense, one of the words those weird Christians made up when they were speaking in tongues.” P469

As one of those weird Christians, its disappointing, but also a wake up call, that so many of my friends, family and acquaintances – fine people who make such a positive impact on our nation – are relegated to a dismissive, uninformed metaphor.

It’s a wake up call because it shows that many of those who set so much of the agenda of what passes for intelligent thought in Australia live by similar assumptions. The real tragedy is that the Christian community by and large is not even aware of this and do not enter this world to provide valid alternative views.

As for The Slap as a piece of literature, there were moments of plot, dialogue and description that did feel to me as if I was peering into a world otherwise unknown to me, and from this I gained something. Some aspects of behaviour were clearly told dispassionately by Tsiolkas with the reader left to wrestle with the material and make up their own mind. Does the writer advocate drug taking? You might thinks so from this story, but perhaps he is simply confronting us the reality that many people do. Does he condone lying and betrayal in marriage? Again, maybe he’s asking us to be honest about what is really happening in Australian families.

As for the slap at the centre of it all, the issues raised regarding parenting, nurture, family and the spectre of coming generations, are worth serious thought.

Recommendation: Due to the explicit material I cannot recommend reading this novel except to mature adults.

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