Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Slap Review

By Christos Tsiolkas.

Very disappointed, very annoyed... with myself.  This has sat on my shelf since the week it was released, but after buying it I ignored it.  First of all, it was about normal everyday people living in the suburbs of Melbourne.  I thought:  Why should I read about that?  That's just my life and most people I know.  As Perseus Q scholars will know, I shy away from 'real-life dramas'.  I like books with grand themes.  I couldn't give a fuck for the minutiae of Western society. I like murder, death, sex, power, religion, collapsing nations... fuck the soap operas and fuck the fruity melodramas.  That's why I can't look at a Good Weekend (or any Sunday magazine insert in any newspaper) without wanting to kill people.  Second of all, everyone was talking about it, and then it became an ABC mini-series, and I have this social/intellectual disease that presumes if a work of art is instantly popular (as opposed to the slow-burn) it must surely be fucking shithouse.  Thirdly, I had in mind my review of Tsiolkas's other book I'd read, 'Dead Europe' where every second chapter (historical account of main character's ancestors) was fantastic, but every other chapter was about a gay bloke gaying around Europe being gay (note: if it was a heterosexual bloke heterosexualing around Europe being heterosexual I'd be equally ambivalent).  Being that The Slap was set in the now, I figured it'd be more like the half of Dead Europe that bored me shitless.  It sat on my bookshelf, lonely.

The Slap is the best book I've read in years and here is why.

I am a couple of years younger than Tsiokas.  He went to Blackburn High and I went to Mitcham High and the only thing that separated those two High Schools was Nunawading High (now a housing estate).  I was lower than middle class, but higher than lower middle class.  Mum never worked.  We holidayed in caravans.... but we holidayed.  I'm not Greek, but our school was populated about 10% Greek, so we all knew Greeks and had Greek friends.  I also happened to be a philhellene (Byron, Iliad, 'Clash of the Titans', Bullfinch) and ended up living in Greece for almost two years in my early twenties.  I speak some Greek.  I was best man at a Greek wedding.  I used to go to The Retreat when it was Greek and eat saganaki, drink wine and dance Greek until 3am.  I want to be writer.  I am writing a book.  I'm halfway done.  It's my 15th novel.  I am not gay but what I do for a living has put me my entire working life around gay people and I have many gay mates and I am simply not fussed by their sexuality but I do find their sexuality endlessly interesting to chat about.  I know alternate bands - intimately.  I didn't work at a vet surgery but I worked in audio-visual rentals.  What's all this matter?  I understand Tsiolkas.

Not only that, I may as well have been in the novel.  I knew every character.  I've been to their houses, I have been to their parties, I have eaten with them, fucked them and taken drugs with them.

The second-most awful person in the book was Rosie (her husband the worst) - she's the mother of the kid that got slapped.  Her cunt of a husband goes missing and she gets help from an Aboriginal Muslim family-friend.  They eventually find him in a pub but he's wasted so they leave him there.  The Muslim takes her back home and she's sitting in the kitchen.  We know her past.  She was once very promiscuous.  She's now just a fuckup.  She's eyeing off the Muslim (who has turned his life around - he used to be a drinker and fighter) thinking she should suck his dick, and I was getting all tense, but then he says to her: "I don't want you or your husband or your son in my life... I don't want you to talk to my wife, I don't want you to be her friend..."  Rosie loses them as friends, and the Mussies buy a 2 bedroom house in Thomastown.  It was at that point I realised it was the greatest Australian novel in a long time.  I realised it was about power, sex, religion and death - everything I want but it just happened to be set in Melbourne.  It's Game of Thrones: Coburg. 

See, the problem with Australian novels is that they are either cliché (bush setting), or they're about junkies (gee there's a lot about junkies) or they are meant to be about normal people but aren't.  They are about extraordinary people but the writers and publishers sell it to us as 'real-life' when it is not at fucking all real life.  The people in these real-life novels are far too sophisticated and altruistic, and quite often saint-like.  It's bullshit.  But Tsiolkas's people are real.  They look out for number one, and maybe numbers two to seven, and that's it.  Seems about right.  Like Germaine Greer does as well, he says what I think but I never know how to say it. 

Manolis, the old Greek man said this of my generation (but in reference to a female character):  "Her beauty, her sophistication, her education, none of it meant anything.  Monsters, they had bred monsters."  I know why he is saying that.  I know old Greek men.  I know old men.  I know my friends.  I know me.  Tsioklas knows me too, and he knows that we know we are monsters, but that we cannot help but be monsters in the eyes of the older generation, and we have to be monsters to our peers and our offspring, but that does not devalue what the old Greek man thinks, nor does it devalue how we live our lives.  We're Gen X.  That's just how it is.   We will make our mark like every other generation has made theirs. 

It is close to flawless, but there's one flaw.  One of the eight chapters, Aisha, read like a diary entry.  It lacked the flow of the other seven. 

It's now going back on my shelf to sit there proudly.

I give it an A. 


Alex said...

I think I taped the ABC mini-series and then never watched it. I think Squib or Melba or you or someone said it was shit anyway.

So, do you reckon it's a story that would have appeal for someone who wasn't you? I guess that's a bit of a silly question, since there's not really any way you could know the answer.

I suppose that personally I probably relate more to those clichéd bush stories you talked about. Except, not really, because most of the ones I've seen are about some half-bullshit imaginary bush that I've never really seen; full of those extraordinary people you also talked about.

I'm not 100% sure what your paragraph on monsters is about. Maybe it's because I don't have the same background as you and the author and the old Greek bloke from the book. However, if I replace the word "monster" with "cunt" it makes perfect sense to me. Not sure how much that changes the intended meaning though.

Perseus said...

Alex - good point... no, I wouldn't be confident in recommending it to anyone who isn't me. I can see how people would hate it.

As for swapping 'monster' and 'cunt', that's apt. I was making two points and I made both of them badly. One is that every generation thinks the one after it are cunts, which seems to be just a part of getting old. That devalues the attitude.. it's just old people being grumpy. But, and equally valid is my second point which is that our generation really is a bit cunty.

squib said...

I wanted to read this book ages ago but Melbs put me off. It's strange the familiar is so appealing to you. I steer clear of Australian books set in the bush (that's ALL Australian books then) because I want to get as far away as possible from spinifex and reading is largely about escapism for me. When it comes to writing, I am a hypocrite and I will write about the majestic whatever and spinifex. 15th novel? What happened with the 14 ones before this one?

Perseus said...

I too have always stayed away from the familiar, but in hindsight, it was only because the familiar was not at all familiar (eg: spinifex). This book was real (to me). I shall detail in my next post all 14 failed novels.

Melba said...


When I read your response I find myself thinking: why didn't I like it? You put it well, it makes it sound like the best book. I didn't like it but I fucking HATED Barracuda. So disappointed in him because I loved Dead Europe, didn't even get bored every second ch. (the movie is seriously not good, though.) I think it was because it wasn't very well written? And no humour, not even a little bit of wry? Very earnest.

The Slap TV show I didn't dislike, Alex, I enjoyed it. But it was the book that I didn't like.

I don't like his stuff because I'm everything he's not, so for the reason you related I didn't. But I can't accept that's the only reason; I can't put my finger on what my problem really is with him. I've seen him speak, he's a really sweet thoughtful guy. That's irrelevant. I dunno.

Someone out there has a theory that he ripped off Anna Karenina for The Slap, read it here (in the comment section):

Interested to hear you are writing, Perseus. Have you noticed all the debut novels these days have at least several of these elements: dead or missing babies, mothers, fathers; siblings or children at risk or both; country setting, or beach setting, water of some description; child point of view. Someone who did well with their first book has their second coming out later this year that sounds exactly like the first. Siblings, water, boat, Tasmania. Someone I know, who knows the publishing industry, said it's like a race to mediocrity with what they're accepting.

Perseus said...

"Someone I know, who knows the publishing industry, said it's like a race to mediocrity with what they're accepting. "

That's good news for us writery types!

I don't care if Christos rippped off an episode of Home and Away... I loved the result. I haven't read Barracuda yet - I will soon.

Melba said...

It wasn't a positive thing. I was unclear, sorry. Publishers are ONLY accepting shit and saying no to stuff that is different or ambitious or new. Which doesn't make sense but it's how it seems to be at the moment. Which is not good for us writery types unless we are writing ordinary stuff. I'm not and I don't imagine you are.

Alex said...

I'm not surprised about the race to mediocrity in publishing. It's a business, right? People want a return on their investment, so they want a proven formula. It seems like Hollywood's been that way since at least the 80s.