A letter from America*

Continuing on from my review of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap (2008) my buddy and buddy-reader in America, Melanie/Grab the Lapels has written that she has been forced to DNF.

Hey Bill,

I’m at 27% and I LOATHE this novel. I’m learning less about the way people feel about parenting and children and more about who is sticking their erection in whom, and where. I hoped the tone was just the first character,  but Anouk is basically the same as Hector,  and Harry is no different from them. Women are either weak hippy moms or sluts. I think the author hoped to write strong women, but if you flip the genders of Anouk and her boyfriend, it’s like the author is still writing a cutting male POV with a dopey younger girlfriend. I’m tapping out; the message is aggressively toxic in an exhausting way, and I am fearful I shall hate all of Australia if I keep reading. 

Best, Melanie

So this is what she meant earlier in the week when she commented that reading The Slap made her feel like she “was being pursued by penises”.

When we made the plan to have The Slap read by today we left open what form her response would take, though I was probably inclined towards a guest post. We exchanged some more emails (and feral animal photos). She suggested a conversation. I got her permission to use her letter.

A conversation would have been interesting – it’s a form of post that she and fellow mid westerner and blogger Jackie/Death by Tsundoku occasionally use to great effect in the series #Reading Valdemar they have been buddy reading for the past 15 months – but Melanie’s initial response to The Slap was so visceral that I really wanted to use it upfront.

The following night, she expanded a little …

I was thinking this morning, one of the reasons a book so focused on a man’s relationship with his genitals is boring is because writers often give that man nothing else for personality. I read books that include lots of sex, but when they’re written by women, there are moments between her sexual experiences that give readers a more nuanced character. With Tsiolkas, if his character isn’t with his mistress, he’s with his wife, and if he’s not with his wife he’s asking his son if he thinks black women are sexy, and if he’s not making it weird with his son he’s rubbing his penis on the glass balcony while ogling teen girls. I mean, Jesus. I’m sure there are folks out there debating if only sexual prudes hate this book. But consider this: the only novel I can think of by a woman that is so focused on what the female character’s genitals are doing is Tampa by Alissa Nutting, and that novel is about a pedophile.

One of my young in-laws from one of my marriages was gay, and very noisy about it. One time he introduced his latest lover to us with, “He’s the bitch. I’m on top”. This apparently was important to him and something that he felt his mother and I should know. Melanie’s remarks about Tsiolkas remind me of this. And remind me also that Hector is a paedophile and that in the end an issue – his coming on to his wife’s 17 year old employee – which should surely have meant the end of his marriage, is glossed over.

Is Tsiolkas a sexual writer or an aggressively sexual writer? I’ve read Loaded, Dead Europe and The Slap and now I’m tending towards the latter. Does this maybe result from him being both gay and Greek/Australian?

“I’m a man I say in a deep drawl. And I take it up the arse.” “Of course you do”, she answers, “you’re Greek, we all take it up the arse.”

[From Loaded, and I know, used by me just a few weeks ago.]

So probably ‘yes’. And there you have it. Two views of The Slap, both adverse, from opposite sides of the globe. I won’t stop reading Tsiolkas, just as not liking him doesn’t stop me reading Peter Carey. They are important parts of the Australian literary conversation, with which I struggle to keep up. Or, if you prefer, up with which I struggle ….

.

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008. The US version of the tv series (pictured above) was first shown on NBC, Feb-Apr, 2015.

See Also:
Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (review)
Australian Grunge (here)


*Apologies to Alastair Cooke

59 thoughts on “A letter from America*

    • Hector, who takes up a lot more than just the first 20 pages is pretty hard to like, or even to take much interest in, so I can see why you gave up. Perhaps your daughter was more engaged by the issues.

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  1. Thanks, Melanie and Bill. Some reviewers take the approach that if they dislike a book, they won’t review it. While I appreciate that they don’t wish to appear negative, I feel that by only posting positive reviews, they are leaving their readers in the lurch. If they haven’t reviewed a book does this mean they haven’t read it, or didn’t like it? I much prefer reading positive and negative reviews, since this provides better guidance for me.

    After that deep philosophical discussion (snigger), I’ll comment on the book. Never read it, was reluctant to read it. Now I feel I can not read it with a clear conscience. Thank you!

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    • And then there are the bloggers who review everything they read. That would wear me out, though I understand the motivation for keeping a reading journal, I only wish I were that organized.
      I appreciate reading adverse reviews too. And I often enjoy writing them. Someone, like Lionel Shriver for instance who strongly holds and expresses opinions I disagree with, is a challenge to marshall arguments against.
      I wasn’t reluctant to read The Slap, I just hadn’t got round to it. But given that it is so well known, I was happy, however belatedly, to contribute my little bit to the debate it gave rise to.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link, Liz, I especially like: “rather tedious and misogynistic sex scenes, which I have to admit did put me off a bit”. I’m not sorry I read The Slap, it’s a prominent book in the Australian landscape, and I’m pleased I read it with Melanie whose response has given me another way to look at Tsiolkas’ writing.

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  2. I too was completely underwhelmed by this book, largely because of the two-dimensional characters (to denote the mother, for eg, he always shows her breastfeeding – stereotypes, much?) And the sex was terrible – rough and disconnected – I just don’t think he should have tried to write women. I was so unimpressed that I approached Barracuda with some trepidation (but I love swimming & books about swimming) & was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it – the emotional connection that was missing in The Slap was very much there. I think you are on the money – he wrote The Slap to generate sales, & boy did he do so!

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    • No, I don’t think he should have tried to write women either. As Melanie writes, Anouk is basically the same as Hector. Aisha is unconvincing. Rosie is a cardboard cutout hippie. That leaves Connie, the teenager, who was probably the only character in the book with whom I felt any sympathy.
      I have Barracuda on my shelves – I think Kate W liked it too – so I will try and get round to it sooner rather than later.

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  3. Thanks for connecting, everyone! For those in Australia, see if you can get Tampa by Alissa Nutting is you’re interested in unlikable characters but also getting something out of the novel. Tampa is based on a real case of a sexy female teacher in her mid 20s having an affair with an 8th grade (so, around 13 years old) boy. Lately, I don’t often read novels that make uncomfortable simply because everything in the US is making me uncomfortable right now. But if I do read such a book, it’s got to make me think something bigger, too.

    Also, when is “arvo”? People kept using arvo as a time, and I don’t have that on my clock. 😊

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      • I listened to Lolita years ago. Don’t remember if Jeremy Irons was the reader. I had always vaguely thought that Lolita “entrapped” Humbert, but not so. Nabokov quite clearly has Humbert as the instigator.

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      • The fascinating thing about Lolita, for me, was the way Irons read it you could almost catch yourself believing what Humbert Humbert thought about “Lolita” — that she wanted him and was teasing him. Being in his mind is so persuasive that I got a great deal of insight into the way an abuser may justify what they’re doing and see no wrongdoing. And if a person sees no wrongdoing, it’s hard to say they knew they were doing something awful. It gave me insight into just how differently brains can work, a less I need REPEATEDLY in the year of our COVID 2020.

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    • arvo=afternoon

      Any time between noon and, say, 6pm, but more specifically about 3ish. So afternoon tea would be (in my family, anyway) starting some time between 2.30pm to 3.30pm, finishing after an hour to an hour and a half. If you wanted to see someone about 1.30pm, you’d probably say “straight after lunch” rather than “this arvo”, and likewise at 5pm would be “just before dinner”, though calling around to see someone then is considered gauche because dinner has to be prepared and cooked.

      Hope that helps.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank YOU Melanie, it’s fun to have you in these pages, above the line so to speak. I now have a whole new perspective on Tsiolkas. My next project will be to think up an excuse for us to do a ‘conversation’ post.

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      • Let me know what books you’re planning to read and I’ll see if I can get one of them. I mentioned I have Hearing Maud, which I plan to read soon. You’re welcome to join if you grab a copy, though I know you read this author just recently.

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      • I look forward to you reading Hearing Maud. I worry about the Australian references but then the experience of growing up deaf doesn’t have national boundaries. Let’s try something – a young American, or an early African-American maybe – in January when I’m on holidays. Boy, am I looking forward to holidays.

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  4. Here’s the voice of dissent. I bloody loved this book. The messiness of people’s lives, the contradictions, their flaws and foibles, the hypocrisy, the complacency of middle class Australians who have it all but still want more. It’s a damning indictment of John Howard’s Australia. It’s brash, bold, in-your-face. It’s about social responsibility, parental responsibility & morality. It’s full of unlikable characters, but boy, can Tsiolkas tell a story! It’s so full of energy & vivacity. I read it 10 years ago and it remains one of my favourite novels of the 21st century.

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    • It’s a very Melbourne book, as your review emphasizes, and I agree that Tsiolkas does a good job of evoking Melbourne’s multi-culturalism, which since the 1960s has been one of its great strengths. I’m all for “damning indictments of John Howard’s Australia” but I’m not sure I see these characters as little-minded, grasping and racist. But definitely unlikable! (Except Connie). Probably where we differ most is that I don’t set much store by stories (and ‘issues’). I much prefer character development and I don’t think there’s enough of that.

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      • I guess when I say JH’s Australia I mean people became very self- obsessed and materially rich and the idea of egalitarianism kind of flew out the window. It’s something I observed from afar when I was living in the UK and saw my country morphing into something I didn’t like very much.

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      • Howard will always be remembered for releasing our inner-racist; but yes I agree, Howard & Costello were the embodiment of everyone for themselves Thatcherism in Oz. I was in the West for most of that period so I’m not sure how it played out over east, but here the mining boom made the working class wealthier than the middle class and delivered workers to the Liberals in droves.

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  5. Thanks Kimbofo for getting in first with a dissenting view, because I’m with you. It’s a long time since I’ve read it, so I don’t remember the details, but I do agree with you that it’s about middle-class Australia and its messy dysfunctions and dissatisfactions. I also thought it was about the violence, the aggro, that is far too near the surface in our lives. And why is that?

    I don’t know why we have to like characters to like books? Also, I’m not sure that this was a book about character development, but it was about the sort of people we might recognise? I should read it again, though, to comment properly.

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    • I identify with protagonists as I’m reading so it helps if I like them. Being in the mind of a serial killer which seems fashionable these days in crime fiction makes me seriously uncomfortable.

      I was going to ask you, seriously, what should a good book have if not character development? Good writing of course, but what else. Not stories, that’s just entertainment. Does The Slap, like say The Natural Way of Things, describe/tease out a ‘situation’? I have a book in mind to review, which is literature without having either character development or innovative writing. I’ll bring this question up again when I write it up.

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      • Yes, that’s my feeling – that a book can be about a situation or ideas more than character. Many books do both of course, but I don’t think those that don’t are necessarily worse books. Satires, for example, can I think use more “types” than “complex” characters to make sure we get the point – if we start empathising we might miss the point? But, it has to be well-written to keep our interest because we do like to empathise, particularly with the protagonist. There’s the clue about The slap I think – there isn’t really “a” protagonist for us to empathise with, so, what are we meant to do? What does Tsiolkas want us to do? Is this making sense? I like being forced to write my thinking down!

        Oh, so besides being well-written, I guess the situation or the idea has to be powerful enough that we become engaged by its exploration. The natural way of things is, as you raise, another good example, though I think we can empathise a bit with the main two girls?

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      • Wow, I feel quite chuffed – but this discussion has reminded me of my old internet bookgroup days in which groups of us would tease out ideas like this. We’d also discuss that one about the author (whose values you don’t approve of) vs the work. Also the one about do you listen to what the author says about their work or focus on the work solely. And more. They were really great days, and ones that blogging, for all that I enjoy it, has never quite met to the same level.

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      • I enjoy literary/philosophical discussion though it would probably be wearing if it went on all the time. Lisa’s close reading of Finnegan’s Wake springs to mind (or yours of Emma). I think I subscribed to the ALS, but to no good effect as I haven’t had time to read anything.

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  6. I bought this for my mother as a Christmas present years ago (not being aware of the sex content). She told me that she couldn’t read it because of the bad language and didn’t get very far. Now I’m wondering whether she got as far as the sex stuff…

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    • I think Hector being in love with his wife’s 17 year old assistant – and their implied ‘affair’ – is on the first page, though how long it takes to get to the actual wielding of genitals I don’t remember.

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  7. I started this book and could not finish it. I simply got bored. I have enjoyed your posts and the follow up comments very well. I never mind a bad character or one I don’t like in a book but I need them to be a bit diverse and therefore interesting.

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    • I was worried all the comments would be on the morality (and efficacy) of smacking, but nary a word, thanks no doubt to Melanie directing us down the much more interesting path of macho men (and woman).

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    • I’m not sure I noticed the style, though I think Tsiolkas is a competent writer. I’m going to try and get to Barracuda before the end of say, January, when I’ll have four weeks off work, so I should have more to say then.

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  8. I was hoping to read in the same timeframe as the two of you were reading (errr, mostly you reading, less so Melanie) but my library loans have been difficult to manage so my selections haven’t gone as planned. Even so, I’ve enjoyed reading the comments and discussion here. Having heard the author speak about the writing process, in a few interviews over the years, I recall that he wanted to explore some ideas around intolerance and boundaries, and that he was personally outraged by some things which make me feel outraged, too, and it certainly sounds like he’s provoked discussion, from both sides and all around the matter.

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  9. I was glad that Comments didn’t descend into a debate about smacking children, though I guess in this day and age one boundary we don’t cross is disciplining other people’s children, much as we’d like to. My idea that Tsiolkas was manipulating us got some traction; but the important issue we discussed, which Melanie raised and which I am not sure Tsiolkas intended, was just how macho he is.

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    • It really irritated me that everyone focused on the slap when it came out – but I suppose it was to be expected given the title, and that it’s an easy thing to talk about. But, I do think it sidelined the important issues.

      BTW Does it tell us that Tsiolkas is macho or that he’s commenting on macho culture. My sense is the latter? I don’t think he’s too impressed, with a life based on macho toughness and violence, but I might be wrong.

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  10. Do you think – and I’m just positing this – the fact that the characters are unlikable suggests criticism of what drives them? And, in this discussion, what is the difference between flawed and unlikable? To what extent can a character be flawed but likeable? I’d be surprised, I have to say, if Tsiolkas were unconscious of how aggressive his men are. I think he knows that exactly/

    Barracuda, as I recollect, is perhaps a book of his in terms of men and their behaviour.

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      • Great Bill … having read it a little while ago it’s hard for me to be sure about what I’m thinking.

        And, I meant “Barracuda, as I recollect, is perhaps a good book of his to read in terms of men and their behaviour”! A few words went AWOL it seems!

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  11. I love how you turned your email exchanges into this review. It’s a lot of fun, actually!

    I wonder if to appreciate or understand a character who is as focused on sex and their genitals like that you need to have a similar experience — whether it’s personal or through those you know? It just seems to strange to me. I cannot relate to that in any way. But it must be an identifying personality trait (if you can call it that?) for some people… right?

    Did you end up finishing The Slap?

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      • Thanks for making your way back. All through today, Thurs (Weds night your time) I’ve been watching you make your way through various blogs/posts dealing with comments. You must have been up late!

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      • Probably? I tend to find a block of time where I can respond to all the comments at once. I dunno. I just need to be in the right mood. I like to feel mentally focused so I can have a meaningful discussion. None of this “Great post!” and walking away. I like making meaningful connections.

        As far as staying up is concerned, I’ve also had a lot of late-night blogging purely because my unborn child is keeping me up. If she’s this crazy now I cannot imagine what she’ll be like outside of the womb… O_o

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      • Meaningful connections is a bugbear of mine too. Mind you Melanie put the pressure on when she disabled ‘likes’. I like to comment but sometimes it’s really hard to know what to say.

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    • The exchange was fun, and I enjoyed turning it into a post. Melanie is always an insightful, if sometimes left field, reviewer. It’s my experience that guys think with their d@#ks 90% of the time. Tsialkos seems to be particularly aggressive about it.

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  12. Melanie cracks me up. I had the same problem exactly – I just could not get through the first two or three chapters. They were too repulsive! But I also knew that some people loved it. So this conversation was great fun to read! And now I’m curious to hear about Barracuda…

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    • Melanie certainly has a way with words. Obviously lots of people found much in The Slap to engage them and so they overlooked the aggressive sex. I was upset by Tsiolkas allowing Hector to get away with his relationship with the underage Connie, but I still needed Melanie to articulate the underlying theme of assertive penises.

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