The Slap

Recommendation: It’s pretty much essential modern Aussie lit reading

Where to read: NSFW

Read with: Some really nice self-care lined up afterwards

In brief: It’s an ugly book about ugly people. It’s interesting, it’ll make you think and it’s very easy to read (I sprinted through it), but it tries to say everything, instead of something, effectively diluting itself.

The Slap has been something of a cultural phenomenon since it was published in 2008. It feels ubiquitous in a way – on of those rare books most people seem to have read or has an opinion on, probably in part because of the TV series.

First thing – the plot doesn’t really matter. Briefly, there’s a three/four year old child, Hugo, who is an utter monster. He tries to whack another kid with a cricket bat, kicks the father of that child and is slapped. Things become shittier, from an already low base, there on in.

Second thing to know about this book – everyone is almost tediously awful and, because the text is structured as eight chapters told from eight different points of view, we get their petty nastiness straight from their own minds:

  • Hector is the host of the barbeque where the titular slap occurs. He’s a sexually obsessed, drug-taking, middle-aged public servant in the midst of a midlife crisis. He’s guilty of the statutory rape of Connie, a 16 year old who works for his wife, and worries about his kids’ futures;
  • Anouk, a guest at the barbeque and a friend of Aisha, is a sexually obsessed, drug-taking, middle-aged script writer on a Home and Away-style soapie. She is also in the midst of a midlife crisis. She gets pregnant to her toy boy boyfriend and has an abortion;
  • Harry is Hector’s cousin and completely despicable. His chapter is an unceasing litany of extra-marital affairs, drugs, sex, violence, wife-bashing and obsessing about money and status. Unfortunately, he’s also the man who slapped the child and you’re probably inclined to agree with him on that point;
  • Connie is a 16 year old orphan who takes drugs at every opportunity and is obsessed with Hector. She panics and tells Richie, her best friend, that he violently raped her;
  • Rosie is the Hugo’s mother and, who’d a thunk it, a completely awful person who tries to escape her awfulness by sublimating her identity in Hugo. She breastfeeds a four year old, is resentful about money and unemployed, is uncomfortable with Aboriginal people, muses on her sexual history (including a gang band and quasi-prostitution at sixteen) and is mystifyingly attached to an alcoholic husband she clearly doesn’t respect and considers sexually assaulting;
  • Manolis, Hector’s father, has a profoundly misogynistic, patriarchal nostalgia for the concept of “honour”, doesn’t know how to deal with the modern world and struggles to understand why anyone might not agree with Harry slapping Hugo;
  • Aisha, Hector’s wife, is a less psychopathic version of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. She does drugs, has a one-night stand with another vet at a conference in Thailand and refuses to deal with anything that might disrupt her photogenic family ideal;
  • Richie is Connie’s best friend and the most sympathetic character by far. That said, he tells Rosie and her husband about Connie’s accusation, tries to deal with his long-absent father and his obsession with Hector, attempts suicide and, along with Connie and her boyfriend, shoots up before Big Day Out.

Rounding out this rosy portrait of Melbourne is a large supporting cast of very deliberately racially diverse characters.

Everyone “fucks”, female genitalia are ubiquitously described as “cunts”, all the adults dwell obsessively on their former lovers, the women all call themselves “sluts” and “whores”, everyone is a bad day away from injecting speed into their eyeballs and diversity functions in part as an excuse to include as much racist abuse as possible. As you can probably appreciate, it all becomes a little numbing after a while.

Third thing – it goes through just about every single anxiety in early/mid-2000s Australia, including, inter alia, racism and multiculturalism, private schooling, consumerism, domestic violence, parenting and disciplining children, homophobia, careerism, sexuality, cultural degradation, drug abuse, alcoholism and the role of the elderly in society. The result is a bit of a thematic mess.

For all its ugliness, there are moments of genuine tenderness and pathos. Manolis attending his old friend’s funeral is surprisingly beautiful and Richie’s adolescent, post-high school anxieties over a future which, for the first time, isn’t clearly marked out is relatable and beautifully told. Hector’s commentary on the inevitable outcome of Rosie’s abysmal parenting of Hugo (ie. that he is universally hated and is going to be mercilessly bullied and beaten at school) is a bit ruthless** but one of the few moments of genuine pity in the whole charnel house.

As always, the reception of the book provides a fascinating gloss on its complexities. Unsurprisingly, some reviewers foreground questions about parenting. In this reading, the main event really is “the slap” and the rest of the book an examination of “how not to parent”. On other readings, it’s primarily concerned with racism and multiculturalism. Honestly, you could make a cogent argument for any or either view.

The Australian Book Review has a really interesting review here. Guardian review here. ABC’s The Book Club is here.

**Sorta – it’s basically a reflection on the idea that parents have to socialise children sufficiently while they’re still young enough to get away with the occasional tantrum or instance of bad behaviour. Eventually, the rest of the world, which loves the child a lot less than the parent, stops putting up with their shit with dire consequences for the unprepared child. The result could be someone at a barbeque slapping the child, it might be other children ostracising or bullying them or it might be the justice system giving up on second-chances and imposing a custodial sentence.

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