Friday, June 5, 2009

The Slap: a Very Adult Book!

Reading The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas was an extremely refreshing experience for me. I pretend to know something about Australian literature - I majored in it years ago, and have read it extensively since - and think I know something about its broader themes and obsessions.

I subscribe to the fairly traditional school of thought that sees our literature reflecting the Australian experience of social fragility - our almost pathological need to seek shelter from the dark, menacing vastness of the land we inhabit; the deep, meaningless abyss that we're perpetually in danger of being sucked into. We congregate in cities and towns on the more welcoming edges of this continent. Our 'mateship' tradition expresses our deep sense that we survive as a group or not at all. Our fear is of isolation and madness.

While so much of our literature is rural in setting, it is never pastoral and rarely country town. In the 20th century it is dominantly inner city. It reflects the personal and social dynamics of the more educated, urban classes of Balmain and Carlton and the like. The protagonists are writers, broadcasters, teachers; rarely bizoids, middle managers, tradies. The stories and settings are all too familiar and 'literary'. The outer suburbs are non-existent.

It has usually been left to popular fiction, particularly crime fiction, to give us a sense of the broader social realities and how and where the majority of the population actually lives and what they do, think and worry about.

So when a book like The Slap comes along, it registers like a forgotten and surprising force of nature. This book is decidedly non-literary. It is a powerful, emotional, hard-hitting thump in the guts.

It has that rarest of features in Australian literature - muscularity. It is not effete; it is in no way a 'sensitive exploration of..'; it is intense in its earthiness; it has an invigorating physicality.

You will not entirely like most of the characters, male or female. They are not generally sympathetic, but they are frighteningly real and complex, and, in the end, unforgettable.

Much American literature tends to indulge in extremes: characters and situations on the very edge, frequently unrestrained, overripe. Think Mailer, Roth. Australians, like the English, are more genteel, with less of a taste for overt violence and aggression. It shows in our art.

Not The Slap! Here is a book that breaks the mould. It is confronting and bold and deserving of all the accolades and prizes it has received.

Buy it and read it! You won't regret it.