by Christos Tsiolkas
pub: Allen & Unwin
Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap is a literary novel so viscerally compelling that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. But whereas the latter focussed on a philosophical axe murderer pacing the sweltering slums of nineteenth century St Petersburg, Tsiolkas generates almost equivalent energy with far more modest means.
At a middleclass barbecue in a Melbourne suburb, a four-year-old boy is misbehaving while his oblivious drunk father is busy insulting and alienating some of the other guests, and his doting mother, a New Age-y and seemingly saccharine woman (that still insists on breastfeeding the child) ignores or indulges him. But one of the other guests, Harry, who it later transpires to have a broadly volatile disposition, loses their rag and cuffs the child, hard.
All in all, however, the slap itself functions as a sly catalyst for the broader narrative, and the novel receives its real frission from an entirely different 'crime': the secret sexual relationship between one of the adult characters, Hector, and Connie, the fifteen-year-old family friend and babysitter. As the reverberations of Harry's slap vibrate through the enmeshed network of friends and family, they insidiously threaten to uncover this secret, the possibility of which infuses the novel's other relatively mundane preoccupations with raw tension.
Regardless, The Slap is appropriately titled. Tsiolkas' narrative has every shade of aggression, provocation, playfulness, eroticism, outrage and insult that a slap could conceivably imply, and is driven by an almost compulsive need to rout any moral complacency or platitude the various strands of story happen upon; certainly you feel, within about five pages, in the presence of a writer of potential (or perhaps even realised) greatness - a sense that doesn't once abate, though it does repeatedly intensify in the course of almost five-hundred arresting pages.
Style-wise, the novel is written in fluent, gutsy, casual prose, a would-be windowpane that might deter any real attention were it not for the fact that the glass of this windowpane, when held against the chests of the novel's cast, becomes one of the most remarkable emotional x-rays in prose fiction. As a writer, Tsiolkas seems blessed first and foremost with near preternatural empathy. In this significant department, compared to Tsiolkas, every novelist I can think of (excluding Tolstoy) pales, their characters resembling those Aphex Twin videos with Richard James in his bikini: the ludicrously disguised and unvarying essence of their creator.
Tsiolkas utilises his gift in clever ways. Following the day of the slap itself, the action chronologically develops over a year or so, the third person narration shone through the perspective of a succession of eight of the central characters - ranging from an elderly Greek man to a gay teenage boy, a middle-aged mother and veterinarian to a nouveau riche sociopath - each change teasing out the polarities of character and perspective with such artistry that the reader is hurled from point of view to point of view, rarely finding themselves capable of maintaining an opinion of their own in the clutches of the novelist's subjective dialectic. Tsiolkas is even capable of irrevocably tearing apart a relationship between two characters, and so concisely splitting the reader's sympathies that a final position or judgement feels impossible. There are no static opinions in this book, and you finish it fizzing with inner debate, not least because its breathless crescendo routs the few inches of solid moral ground you previously depended on (and without any cheap twists, either).
What does seem to unite the cast of this novel is a depth of desire, and the way that their desires and attachments undermine the stability of their existences. Each tiptoes along an existential tight rope - as we all do - and the underlying chasm makes the book as difficult to read as it is arresting. The other thing that unites them (whatever their feuds with one another) is our complicated affection for each: if Tsiolkas has received an excess of empathy, there is enough to go around, and I think there's every chance that you put down this profoundly impressive work of twenty-first century fiction with a fortified tenderness for your fellow flawed humanity. The Slap is a breathless, brilliant, audacious, intoxicating novel.