It’s doing well, this one. Plans for a television series; won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. The Miles Franklin is awarded for any ‘published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases’ . [An aside: I hadn’t realized that a play could win it.] Certainly, The Slap portrays Australian life of the backyard barbeque of inner-ish suburb of Northcote, Melbourne in the 2000s in all its domestic, self-absorbed, middle class glory. When one of the fathers slaps an obnoxious four-year old he triggers off much tut-tutting amongst the witnesses that ripples out into broader questions of discipline, family loyalty, abuse, friendship, class, religion, ethnicity, suburbs- the lot. Everyone’s here- the yuppie bayside suburb Greek boy made good; his cousin married to the Indian vet; the Sex-and-the-City writer who wants to do more than write soap opera scripts; the earth mother and her drop kick partner; the young gay adolescent boy struggling with his sexuality; the Greek grandfather; the Aboriginal muslim and his Aussie wife. Yep- I think that covers every inner-city suburban stereotype we need.
The book is told in long chapters written from the perspective, but not in the voice of, people who were at the barbeque and witnessed the slap. For some, it was just that- a spur of the moment slap to a child behaving badly; for others it was a violation of the rights of the child and his parents; others saw it as a criminal act; yet others as an unspoken manifestation of other domestic violence. These chapters work well: they are long enough for a reader to shift into the character’s mindset, and because they move forward chronologically, they keep the plot unspooling.
There are actually two slaps- or at least physical encounters with this same little brat- in this story, each bookending the first and last chapters of the book, and yet we don’t see them in the same way- largely because of the other knowledge we have gleaned about the characters along the way. Much of this other knowledge is fairly unattractive. It uncovers infidelity, jealousy, class envy, prejudice, vindictiveness, self-centredness and dishonesty. To be fair, it also uncovers loyalty to family and loyalty to friends, but even these things look rather shabby and unhealthy too.
Gerard Windsor reviewed this book in the Sydney Morning Herald where he described this book as “a strikingly tender book”. I didn’t see it this way. I think it’s a jaundiced book, populated with human, recognizable but ultimately unlovely people. I’m not convinced that it’s high literature: it smacks of the four-part miniseries- almost like Big Brother in the Backyard. Perhaps the same sense of voyeurism is what keeps you reading, to find out what people just like you are going to do in this situation.
As a Port Phillip District resident, I enjoyed reading about my Melbourne home town. The Heidelberg Court House is just down the road, I know the streets that he’s talking about. I know these people too. As inner suburban, middle class, university-educated, chardonnay-sipping Melburnites older than 25, we’ve met them all one way or another. It truly is “Australian life in its 2008 phase”, but somehow I think I’ll feel a bit short-changed if it wins the Miles Franklin. Is “reality reading” (like reality television), authentic and identifiable as it is, the same as “literature”? I’m not sure.