Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Slap

Melbourne needs more writers like Christos Tsiolkas.

It has taken me a few weeks to work out what I really think about The Slap. While I was reading it I felt mainly disgust and exasperation, but this had nothing to do with the writing.

I found the novel discomfiting and relentless in its depiction of people leading unhappy, trapped lives and for me the characters are without exception unattractive and awful. There are small episodes of joy and a few examples of people being nice to each other, but for the most part the tone is irredeemably depressing.

Much of my reaction may be due to the way he raises uncomfortable truths about Australian society in the context of a compelling and hugely readable narrative. Maybe I just recognise too much of what he is talking about. Maybe I should remember it is just a story ...

What is clear to me is that Tsiolkas is a great writer. The way he gets inside eight disparate characters, from teenage schoolgirl to immigrant Greek pensioner, creating wonderfully vivid and complete inner lives for them is brilliant. The other aspect of the narrative I loved is the way that Melbourne and it's sprawling suburbs are present as a vital and key element in the story, the perfectly observed details of location and inhabitants. He is also spot on with the cultural references and minutiae that suffuse most peoples lives, but which are usually bizarrely absent from novels.

The Slap is bound to provoke strong reactions (many stronger than mine), and it is only a matter of time before the self-appointed guardians of our morals are up in arms about all the shagging, but the more writers of this ability who are willing to raise and deal with difficult questions of race, identity and society the better. It might be an uncomfortable read, but it is great to have some intelligence and depth brought to the debate for once.

For more about The Slap, there is an interesting interview in Meanjin, discussion on Lateline and a great review by Literary Minded.

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