First published in Australia in 2008, The Slap won last year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and has been long-listed for the Booker Prize. On the dust-jacket of the British edition, Colm Tóibín calls it ‘a tour de force … a novel of immense power and scope, reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Don DeLillo’s Underworld’. Tóibín is also the novel’s UK publisher, under the Tuskar Rock imprint, which may have something to do with it, but does Christos Tsiolkas’s prose really bear comparison with DeLillo’s and Franzen’s? Would either of them publish a sentence like: ‘She did look her age but looked fantastic’? Or: ‘Sam’s abandonment of her had made her feel so gutted that she believed she could never be whole again’? There are certainly structural similarities between the three books, but Tsiolkas’s characters lapse too regularly into cliché, the language of teen fiction, porn or advertising.
The novel starts with a barbecue in suburban Melbourne, though it might be any big English-speaking city – London or New York, Los Angeles or Sydney. There is the familiar jumble of children, family, friends, colleagues who aren’t mixing. There is chaos in the kitchen, the guests are drinking too fast, and the host, Hector, has taken two lines of speed. The day is glorious, ‘a lush late summer afternoon, with a clear blue sky’, the conditions near perfect for catastrophe.
One of the children, an almost-four-year-old who is still being breastfed, starts acting up: Hugo cries when no one wants to watch his Pinocchio DVD; he smashes a new video-game remote; he refuses to go out in a game of cricket. When he raises the cricket bat to strike an older child, the other boy’s father leaps between them, lifts him up off the ground and slaps him hard across the face. It’s a powerful, silencing scene, and the fallout is immediate as the adults take sides. Hugo’s parents want to call the police (‘This is abuse, mate. Fucking child abuse’), while Hector, though he doesn’t let on, is elated: he ‘could not forget the exhilaration he had felt when the sound of the slap slammed through his body. It had been electric, fiery, exciting; it had nearly made him hard.’
What follows is a debate about family life, about what’s allowed and what isn’t, divided between eight characters, all of them present at the barbecue. Did the child deserve it? Did the man enjoy hitting him? What are parents for? Is family more important than friendship? The story is taken up and then skewed in different directions by Hector, the narcissistic civil servant who is having an affair with a schoolgirl; his wife’s friend Anouk, a TV writer turned novelist; Harry, the man who slapped the boy; Connie, the schoolgirl half in love with Hector (and working part-time for his wife); Rosie, Hugo’s mother; Manolis, Hector’s father; Aisha, Hector’s Indian-Australian wife; and Richie, Connie’s gay schoolfriend (also half in love with Hector).
With so many internal disagreements about loyalty, fidelity, sex, motherhood (for Tsiolkas, being a father is something you do, while motherhood defines you), it’s a pity the novel is so one-dimensional, everyone’s responses so similar, the language so uniform. Perhaps because they have it all ahead of them, two of the youngest characters, Connie and Richie, are the most vividly drawn. (‘Thank God for Connie and Richie,’ as Rosie says, though she is thinking about the babysitting.) In the teenagers’ chapters, the world is nuanced, uncertain, shifting; the grown-ups see mostly in black and white. A woman is a mother or a slut. You love your neighbours or you want them dead. The child deserved it. Harry must go to jail.
Though the novel is preoccupied with violence and anger, everyone seems to get angry in exactly the same way, in the same words. Perhaps this is Tsiolkas’s point, but it’s not a very effective one. Thinking back to an earlier evening when he babysat Hugo, and the child refused to go to bed and kicked Aisha, Hector remembers he ‘had wanted to smash the kid against the wall’; looking at the grey in his beard in the bathroom mirror a few pages earlier, ‘he wanted to smash his fist into the face staring back at him.’ Hugo’s parents file a charge of assault against Harry and ‘he wished the three of them were dead … He shouldn’t have slapped the child, he should have grabbed the bat off him and smashed it once, twice, a hundred times into the little fucker’s head, made him pulp and blood.’ He is dragged reluctantly to the parents’ home, to apologise to Rosie, but it backfires: ‘Harry did not take his eyes off the cunt. If he could only smash his fists into her pretty face.’ Rosie, for her part, lies in the bath and thinks: ‘Fuck that animal … This was her fight, her battle. Fuck him … The waves of fury and righteousness were intoxicating.’ And on it goes. Manolis wishes he had confronted Rosie, ‘that stupid Australian whore’, at the barbecue: ‘He should have grabbed the poutana by the hair, and shouted at her … You are a bad mother.’ Mild-mannered Richie suffers the same rage reflex when Hugo spits at a stranger in the street: ‘He was worried that if he stopped moving that he would turn on Hugo and belt the boy into oblivion, bash the little monster’s face in for what he had done to the old man … He turned around to him, his anger still boiling, to yell at him, I want to kill you, you fucking arsehole. But his words froze.’ The emotion is credible (there’s little doubt that Hugo is a brat), but the language belongs to Harry. Or Hector. Or Manolis. Outside the courtroom, Rosie’s husband calls their female lawyer a cunt six times. Aisha and Rosie argue in a café, and Rosie screams: ‘Fuck you, fuck your cunt of a husband, fuck your children, your whole perfect, middle-class family. I fucking hate you.’ Aisha ‘felt punched and pummelled and exhausted … She felt intoxicating relief.’ Harry is almost comically misogynistic, though his prejudice swims in a larger sea of misanthropy, of men hating women, women hating men, women hating other women.
There is anger, and then there’s sex. Tsiolkas’s characters have a lot of it, but everyone seems to be having the same sex, which is porn sex, a looping script of unzipped cock, cunt, tit, moans, groans and shudders. And a lot of identi-sex, alongside all that identi-anger, makes Tsiolkas’s large cast much less than the sum of its parts. After the disastrous barbecue, coming down from the speed, Hector and Aisha have sex in the kitchen: ‘He could smell Aisha’s desire. He pushed a finger inside her, she moaned, and he pushed his jeans down and his cock was inside her … moaning into each other, the drug keeping him hard … they fucked for ages.’ Ten pages later Anouk has sex with her young soap star boyfriend: ‘She unzipped his jeans and felt for his cock, pulling his free hand to her breast, moaning as he squeezed her nipples … Fuck me, she whispered into Rhys’s ear. She shook, shuddered, as he pushed his cock inside her.’ Harry pays his mistress a visit: ‘He cheekily unzipped his jeans and began stroking at his cock … He closed his hand around Kelly’s fingers to tighten her grip around his cock, and he thrust up and down on his seat, jerking himself into her hand. He pulled at her nipple … shuddered, stifled his groan.’ That night his wife asks him to ‘fuck my mouth.’ ‘The pornographic words excited him. “Fuck my mouth,” she urged and took his cock once more inside her. He … got onto his knees. He continued fucking his wife in the mouth.’ Connie tells Richie that Hector raped her, which isn’t true (the affair was unconsummated); her description of what didn’t happen is also pornographic, with more unzipping and bleeding and pushing (‘Her panties were still around her knees.’ What woman refers to her ‘panties’, outside porn?). Rosie the earth mother recalls her past life as a promiscuous 16-year-old: ‘She had fucked and fucked, one night allowing herself to be fucked by seven of them, each taking turns. She had bled, her cunt had torn … The new girl was a slut.’ Aisha sleeps with a handsome Canadian at the International Veterinary Association conference in Bangkok (where else?): ‘He was a better fuck than Hector. At first, as he pushed himself inside, it had seemed strange. Hector’s cock was larger, thicker … But very soon she began to respond to his rhythm … his cock filling her cunt as they fucked.’ She flies on to meet Hector in Denpasar. ‘The first thing she did after they were shown to their room was to ask Hector to fuck her … Moaning, she turned around and lay on her stomach on the bed. He pulled her underpants off, forced her legs apart, she heard him unzip, the tearing open of a condom packet, and then his cock was entering her.’ Even poor old Manolis, Hector’s elderly father, drowning in a sea of nostalgia and regret for his lost youth and disappointing children, is afflicted: ‘His cock was hard, upright, was poking through the slot in his pyjama bottoms.’ What is he going to do with his hard cock? Nothing: his wife isn’t interested; he hasn’t his son’s energy when it comes to masturbation. Tsiolkas hands every one of his male characters a hard-on, but in Manolis’s case it’s a tease.
Martin Amis said recently that he had originally intended The Pregnant Widow to be an autobiographical novel about sex, but it had proved impossible: the tone didn’t exist; the attempt was embarrassing and disgusting. Even Updike had failed when it came to getting real sex onto the page, he argued (‘he sent a Japanese camera crew into the bed but didn’t get anywhere’): the writer’s best strategy and Amis’s own preferred method was to make the sex pornographic – easy, clinical, without emotion. But at what cost? In The Slap the characters are least themselves in those scenes when they should be most intimate and exposed.
So thank God for Connie and Richie, the two of them ‘still trapped in the awful confusion of adolescence’. Of course they want to have sex, too: they are both virgins, in their final weeks of school, on the cusp of everything. But they are self-aware and self-doubting in a way the older characters are not, and with this comes a greater degree of honesty as well as humour. The scene where Connie nearly loses her virginity is one of the best in the book. Her aunt has lent her a transformative dress and done her hair; walking into the party she knows that she is beautiful, omnipotent, but this doesn’t stop her wanting to hide (‘I wish I’d worn my bloody jeans. I feel like a freakazoid’). She’s also worried about her bikini line – ‘Was she too hairy? Maybe she was too hairy?’ She goes into a bedroom with a boy, and at first all seems to be following that familiar porn script (‘He sounded like a porn movie … he was talking like an idiot’), only Connie doesn’t know how to put a condom on, their first attempt is hideously painful, and his leg goes dead underneath her. He walks across the room to the toilet and ‘she did laugh … His cock bobbed up and down. It reminded her of Terrance and Phillip fighting on South Park.’
Tsiolkas is good at these threshold moments: Aisha’s decision to have an affair, Connie’s accusation of rape, that dynamite slap; if only there were more of them. In Rosie’s chapter, there is a rare passage of introspection in which she remembers her first months as a mother. She suffered from postnatal depression and tried to carry on as if nothing had happened, all the while harbouring ‘fantasies of drowning [Hugo] in his bath, of snapping his neck’. One morning, rushing to get to yoga, the child screaming inconsolably, she decides to leave him behind:
She had opened the door and looked out to the street. It was summer, there was sunlight and no breeze and there was no one around. She had stood in the doorway for a good ten minutes, her bag still over her shoulder, her fist clenched around the keys, looking out to the world. You are not free, she’d told herself. If you want to survive this, if you don’t want to kill yourself or kill your child, you must realise you are not free. From now on, until he can walk away from you, your life means nothing – his life is all that matters. It was then that she had stepped back and shut the door.
The writing elsewhere in the book is less impressive. On holiday in Indonesia, Aisha is struck by the ‘gentle smiles’ of the locals, the ‘cheer and fearlessness of the children’: ‘Western Australia probably had the best beaches in the world. She had been to the Mediterranean, and indeed, the azure waters were breathtaking, the joy of life on the Greek islands was intoxicating, but she had detested sharing a beach with scores of other humans.’ Aisha takes a cab into Bangkok at night and for once appears to see and feel the world around her – ‘The moist, dank air seemed to have weight, to be sinking down from the sky into the very earth itself, into the thick sludge from which the city had emerged … The cab veered off the freeway and it seemed to Aisha they were all plummeting with it down to the fervid world below’ – but this is soon undercut by the arrival of the next platitude. A moment of crisis builds towards the end of the novel, when Aisha is told an ugly story about Hector, but the scene opens: ‘Aisha appeared at the door. She looked stunning.’ It tests the reader’s faith when virtually every character, bar dirty Harry, is a knockout.
Australian critics (and British and American ones) have praised the novel for its dissection of contemporary, post-John Howard Australia, and it’s true that Tsiolkas assembles a diverse cast. What he doesn’t do is make their ethnicity, faith or class count for much, or venture very far into these different worlds: Hector’s friend Bilal is an Aboriginal Muslim, with a white wife, but it is left to the reader to guess how much Islam and his race mean to him, how they combine and diverge. Likewise Manolis’s maunderings about his Greek youth and arrival in Australia seem unrooted.
In the end it is plot that drives The Slap and Tsiolkas marshals a series of bombshells that detonate long after the initial outrage has lost its urgency. Nearly every chapter ends with its narrator returning home, a moment of peace in an otherwise angry, highly sexed world. Manolis ‘walked into the kitchen, and helped his wife set the table’. ‘Aisha walked into her kitchen and closed the door behind her.’ Is home a prison or a sanctuary? The last word goes to Richie, whose post-exam blowout at a music festival buzzes with excitement.
This is what Richie remembers of that day … night falling, watching the stars, seeing half of Tool, not enjoying it, the drug beginning its slow reversal; going with Connie into the mosh pit to see Muse, his arms outstretched, bringing the night into himself, the stars, the moon, the boys and the girls, the music and the band, all of it through him and with him and about him.
Finally there is a rush of connection with the world, and with other people.