If you’ve ever looked at the photographs of family bliss that are slapped onto cheery holiday cards and given a knowing, slightly cynical, “hmphhh,” you may like your domestic fiction a little gritty. My guess is that you’ve already read Jonathan Franzen’s much anticipated and highly-hyped Freedom and found it to be everything you hoped for and more. If you’re still waiting to get your hands on a copy, though, you might consider The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.
The premise of The Slap is listed right on the cover of the book: “At a suburban barbecue, a man slaps a child who is not his own…” As if the comparison to Franzen were not enough, I feel I need to give fair warning. This book is rough. Characters are not merely flawed; a few are despicable. Some are racist, homophobic misogynists who represent the very worst in human behavior. Others are more bearable, but far from likeable. Look at readers’ reviews, and you’ll see the kinds of ratings that indicate a divisive novel. There are ratings at both ends of the spectrum—an either love it or hate it response typical of controversial works.
Much has been made about the book being misogynistic, but I think that accusation kind of misses the point. Yes, there is unbelievable misogyny in the book; the premise, after all, is an act of male violence. But, no character is spared critical examination. While the story is told from the perspective of eight different characters who were present on the day of “the slap,” the narration is third-person—intentionally separate from what is being revealed. Tsiolkas has responded to those who interpret the book as misogynist: "I would call them lazy readers. I think they are confusing the writer with the character. I think there''s a laziness now in how we read. We read for confirmation of who we are, rather than for a challenge of who we are." Ouch.
The slap echoes throughout the novel revealing the chasms that separate best friends, fathers and sons, and intimate partners. The divisions are vast and move beyond gender. The novel exposes fault lines among ethnicities, generations, religions, and personal choices. Women are separated by their choices about motherhood; men by their expressions of masculinity. Parents don’t understand their children, and wives don’t understand their husbands. This depiction of human relations might be less-than-rosy, but I don’t think it’s empty of love. It just might not be the love that confirms our idealized version. There are exceptionally tender moments in the book. The character Aisha says it best: “This, finally, was love. This was its shape and essence, once the lust and ecstasy and danger and adventure had gone. Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together.”
So if you find beauty in the imperfection and, yes, even in the ugliness of the world, I think you’ll agree that The Slap is really a beautiful and brave work.