Crudeness, un-refinedness, unkemptness; what does it mean when literature represents characters not in a moral light, not necessarily even in an amoral light, but in a light that is simply vulgar. And not in the vulgarity of caricature, either; I mean just to represent humans with all of the earnestness of realism, but with the cruelty of crudeness.
In The Slap, a gay male spies on a straight man showering, gets an erection, and gets called a fag. In The Slap, women get bent over by their husband, go down to the floor to lick them, and take a second helping. In The Slap, genitalia don’t merely act; they make sounds, hunger, and throb for more. But, The Slap is also really a book about a child, being slapped by an adult, and how the community reacts to it. The story is told through eight short stories that are only vaguely connected (every narrator was at this party at which the boy was slapped, and has something to say about it). And, yet, why does it feel that beyond this one small thing, the titular connections are somehow extremely vague?
The slap in question happens in the middle of the first story. It seems to come out of nowhere. Not in that ‘out-of-nowhere’ sense of the phrase, as a slap, or any sort of violence, often surges from. I mean that the slap seems literally to have come out of nowhere, as in there was no choreography that a slap to a child was meant to be a central part of the book. The best books in the world are extremely subtly structured. A great master of fiction guides the reader like a puppeteer. He makes the reader wince when he commands it, he telegraphs every move, even when a reader feels surprised, or heart-stricken. Every moment aches in possibility, despite every second line having a telling quality to it. This is because the most talented of puppeteers know when to perform, and when to let the work speak for itself.
In the case of The Slap, the slap literally came out of nowhere, and in the seven stories that follow, I felt very little insight as to why it occurred. Almost every character had the same thing to say (a reiteration of, “This character is such a jerk. How dare he slap a child!”). No insight onto how appropriate or not it is to discipline a child in such a way is ever given, no real insight as to how the diverse range of characters, who range in age, ethnicity, and sexuality, but are fundamentally Australian, would even react to such an action is ever really expounded upon. Instead, the characters go back to having sex, thinking about having affairs, and having sex, once more. It’s like the only thing in Tsolkias mind is a perpetual horniness. But, even that has very little insight to it, beyond giving humans of all genders the right to be sexual in literature.
Despite the slap being the framing device that is attempted to give these stories unity, I would say that the real figure of the book is Hector. Hector is Aisha’s husband, and is written to be entirely unsympathetic. He slobbers and pounces in bed, he spends most of his time littering curse words and slurs, and he appears to be having an affair. If there is a Fyodor Karamazov in this book, it might be Hector. However, unlike a central figure in a Dostoevsky novel, I feel like I understand little of Hector’s motivations, and if he in fact has human qualities at all. He seems to only exist to deride and snide others, and not in the melancholic and tragic manners of Felix Grandet or Fyodor Karamazov. To put it in the most blunt of terms, he really just seems to be a jerk.
A character who also stood out to me was Aisha. Aisha is a second generation Australian of Pakistani-Indian origin (hence why, of course, I would be more interested). Aisha’s narrative takes place in Bali as she vacations with Hector, and precedes to sleep around with other men, and think about what it means to be married to someone who is unredeemable. I felt that Tsolkias was trying to paint Aisha as a person between cultures, but she came off as a person who was very Australian-minded, and who did not really understand much of Eastern culture. Again, this type of personality very much exists, but it did not seem like a purposeful move. It seemed that Tsolkias was trying to pepper in references that he thought made Aisha appear more Indian in origin, but really came off as contrived. I also did not find her mode of thinking generally relatable. I often felt that Tsolkias seems outside of the female mind as he writes. He gets a kick out of making women sexual in a very grounded way, but it still doesn’t feel grounded to the feminine mentality. If Tsolkias seems like a Greek-Australian trying to write Indian-Australian-ness from a Greek-Australian perspective, he equally seems very much like a male assuming that females internalize sexual need in the way of a male, but just changes the pronouns of the sentences, and assumes that to do all of the work.
One thing I will say is that this novel is an extremely authentic depiction of Australian relationships. The women and men are crude to each other in a very realistic way, and I found that Tsolkias’ ear for dialogue sounds more or less exactly like how Australians talk. The book is very clearly in the style of caricature and humour, but there is a cloying realism and attempt at an experimental structure that belies whatever could have been appreciated had it just been a set of short stories exploring Australian domestic life. As it stands, the ordering of the stories make little sense, the slap which throws everything into motion leads nowhere, and the concluding stories, and the concluding lines, give nothing of satisfaction. I would say this work of fiction is an extremely valuable read for anyone interested in understanding the contemporary Australian mind, and is also extremely entertaining, but I would also say that it was a book that needed a lot more planning, and workshopping, and dare I say it, introspection, too.
* By the way, some of you might notice a coincidence between the title and story of this novel with the recent movie Thappad. I myself am unsure how much the movie was inspired by Tsolkias’ book, but would be curious to see if any of you also see some sense of influence or parallel storytelling between the two works of art.*
** This review is a part of a series of monthly book reviews organized by Kiran Bhat Kiran Bhat is an Indian-American digital nomad, polyglot, and writer who has been to 132 countries, lived in 18 parts of the world, and has learnt to speak 12 languages. He has recently published a book of interconnected voices; we of the forsaken world… If you are interested in what he has to say, please subscribe to his facebook fan page: https://www.facebook.com/Kiran-Bhat-105125697596856 **