Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Hey, I'mma let you finish, and you may have won the Commonwealth Prize, but this is no Rashomon and you are no Kurosawa!

It takes some skills to juggle multiple viewpoints in a coherent and engaging way. Christos Tsiolkas does not have these skills.

The Slap is, unsurprisingly, about a slap. A guest at Aisha and Hector's barbecue in the Australian suburbs slaps an annoying little kid, and the novel's schtick is to present the slap from the viewpoint of each guest, which in theory could have been an intriguing little plot device, except Tsiolkas unwisely decides that eight viewpoints have to be included, and does such a poor job of exploring them that the novel becomes a muddled, soggy mess in the middle, at which point you are going to wish you could smack some of the characters yourself.

Tsiolkas' first blunder is not, as one reviewer suggested, making the main character distasteful, but rather his inability to make a character who is both distasteful and with whom the reader can identify (Patrick Bateman, anyone?). None of Tsiolkas' characters are compelling enough, or fleshed out enough, to provide the reader with a hook to hang onto as they wade through the pages.

Next, Tsiolkas, in his haste to get everyone assembled, throws a monster barbecue, but shoves so many people into the scene that it's impossible to figure out who matters and who doesn't (hint: don't mention anyone that doesn't have something to do with the plot. You know the old canard about, if you show the gun, it has to go off sometime? Tsiolkas can't resist describing every second cousin, niece, and random toddler that turns up, then abandons them). The result is a cluttered, schizophrenic montage.

And finally, Tsiolkas' characters just aren't that interesting. Like so many recent works I've read, he seems to confuse bad behavior with depth. Not interested yet?! Look, he's having an affair! Still not paying attention?! Look, they're hitting their kids! They're drinking too much! Are you compelled yet?! Here's a sex scene!!

The book devolves into profane slop, and the characters' inner lives are as deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool. The only marginally interesting thing about The Slap is the setting, and I supposed Tsiolkas does deserve some props for trying to create a diverse group and show how they fit in (or don't) in the Australian suburbs, but his attempts at showing racial and class tension are clumsily handled, and although they could have served as the main thrust of the book, they just distract, as does the rest of this overstuffed, overwrought pastiche.

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