A confession – I haven’t read much about Australia. To be completely honest, I’m a hopelessly provincial reader – sticking mostly to the US, with only the occasional foray to Europe, Latin America, and Canada. I’m working on it, okay? This is all to say that I am incredibly lucky that Christos Tsiolkas landed on a panel I was moderating for the LA Times Festival of Books, as it put his tremendous novel The Slap before me in a pressing way.
The premise of The Slap, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Novel of Southeast Asia and Australia and is now longlisted for the Booker, is deceptively simple – at a suburban barbecue, a man slaps another couple’s child. The beauty of the novel is how that slap, that one moment, reverberates through the lives of the dozen or so people who witness it. The structure is remarkable for both its simplicity and its dexterity. As opposed to a Rashomon structure, in which each character tells their (differing) version of the events, Tsiolkas uses each chapter to further advance the story. But like Rashomon, each new character offers us a different perspective, not so much on what happened, but on what it means, for the characters themselves and for Australian society.
Make no mistake, The Slap is a social novel, a snapshot of the Australian middle class – prosperous, self-obsessed, and maybe a little bit complacent. Indeed, it’s one of the many miracles of this book that a small personal incident can reveal so much of a culture and a country. Like a highly erotic Cheever novel, The Slap skewers the middle class while giving them their humanity and even, at times, a bit of sympathy. The portrait Tsiolkas paints of Australia – richly diverse and yet mired in deep-seeded racism, prosperous but divided along subtle class lines – is endlessly fascinating. It is further evidence that I do, in fact, need to get out more.