I’m sure I have been asked several dozen times at least in my 44 years some variation of “how can you read so much crime fiction…isn’t it depressing and full of horrible murderers?“. From now on my response to that question is going to be “maybe, but not even Ken Bruen has written a book that paints as unrelentingly grim a picture of humanity as Christos Tsiolkas’ THE SLAP.
I had read the book soon after its release in 2008 and didn’t see what all the fuss was about. The premise is that at a suburban Australian BBQ a man slaps someone else’s child and all hell breaks loose amongst those who were at there. But the book really isn’t about the slap (in fact the incident appears to be forgotten quite often) it’s about the people who witnessed it – their lives, their loves and their love of profanity. My reading notes for the book (pre-blog) are succinct so I will quote them entirely: “Boring. Hateful people. Lots of swearing”
Now, on a second reading, I don’t really have much to add. The reason I read it again is that I recently heard an interview with the author that gave me pause. The interviewer asked Tsiolkas what it was like spending so much time with such horrible people and his answer was that he didn’t find them horrible, they were like people he knew. I wondered if I’d been too harsh.
Perhaps I am harsh but if these are people Tsiolkas knows then I feel sorry for him. THE SLAP is populated the most repugnant collection of fictional people I have ever met (and most books I read have at least one cold-blooded killer in them). The adults are all some combination of violent, alcoholic, superficial, philandering, racist, whining, juvenile and, self-absorbed. They drink to excess, take whatever drugs they feel like whenever they feel like it and swear endlessly. For all that they are banal.
The story is like an alternate negative image of the TV show Neighbours. Like the show in this version a small group of people live too much in each other’s pockets but here the people seem to wake up each morning with only one guiding principle: what can they do today to hurt themselves or their loved ones? Between the beatings and the cheating and the feeling trapped and deciding to forego friendship and principles in return for a lifetime of abuse there’s not a healthy adult relationship in the bunch. And I suspect this soap opera is about as realistic as Neighbours.
Maybe I have my head in the sand as I don’t recognise much of my middle-class Australia in these people.. Though to give Tsiolkas his due he does bring the characters alive very well, I just wish he hadn’t bothered.
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If you watched the TV adaptation of THE SLAP (I couldn’t bring myself to) do tell me how they handle the swearing. I was trying to imagine how on earth they could truly claim to have captured the essence of this book without every third word being f*** or c***.