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

The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas (1965 – ) might have started out all rebellious, inner suburban and edgy, but The Slap (2008) has him situated with all he pretends to despise in middle class middlebrow Australian/Melbournian leafy suburban life and writing. The Slap is a waste, a waste of my limited reading time, a waste of his talent.

I will say the worst thing I can about The Slap. It was not written to be read, it was written to be marketed, to generate argument, to generate sales. It is not a novel, just a list of issues wrapped around a thin story. I could say good luck to him. Perhaps he looked at Liane Moriarty’s sales and felt envious. But I expected more.

What are the issues? Corporal punishment, of course, by a person not the child’s parent or teacher; paedophilia; domestic violence; multi-ethnic relationships; homosexuality; abortion; adultery; suburban tedium; they all get a run. Some of them I have opinions about, well all of them really, but not in the context of this review. Interestingly, in light of Loaded, drugs are not an ‘issue’, everyone just takes them.

The story starts with a backyard bbq hosted by Hector and his wife Aisha. Hector is a Greek-Australian public servant, boring as batshit; Aisha, despite her Muslim name, is an Anglo-Indian with her own veterinary practice. Both are fortyish. They live in Northcote, a gentrified northern suburb of Melbourne, not inner and trendy like the adjacent Fitzroy, but more than ok. In fact the only joy of this book is that Tsiolkas knows Melbourne and gets all the suburbs just right.

It was a tacky pokies pub in the middle of nowhere, boganville. Every street looked the same, every house looked the same, everybody looked the same. It was where you came to die. Zombies lived here. He could hear them monotonously tapping away at the machines.

Richie: And as he subsequently ends up at a flat in Whitehorse Rd, he’s presumably talking about the Blackburn Hotel.

At the party are Hector’s cousin Harry a successful mechanic/garage owner who lives in an expensive bayside MacMansion (think Shane Warne); Hector’s parents; Aisha’s brother (who plays no part in the story); Aisha’s besties, Rosie and Anouk, from her schooldays in Perth’s Scarborough Beach; various wives, husbands and children; and two teenagers who are in year 12 together – Connie who works part-time in Aisha’s surgery, and Richie whose mother does likewise. I seem to have left out the token Indigenous guy who with his wife has converted to Islam, they pop up occasionally playing bit-parts.

Rosie and her alcoholic husband have a three year old boy, Hugo, who is still breast-fed and who is totally unrestrained. Hugo when given out at cricket lifts a bat at Harry’s older and larger son Rocco. Harry instinctively smacks him on the bum. The party breaks up in outrage and disbelief. Rosie goes to the police, who lay charges.

The story, being told initially by Hector, is carried forward in turns by most of the people named above, which leads to a lot of unnecessary digression.

Anouk for instance is a screen-writer for what is obviously Neighbours – Tsiolkas even has her driving out to Channel Ten’s outer eastern suburban studios, just across the paddocks from my parents’ first Melbourne house, in Blackburn South – with a younger lover who is an actor in the series.

And so while Hector (40) lech’s over Connie (17); Harry restrains his violence with a mistress in the (working class) western suburbs; Anouk gets pregnant, has an abortion, starts work on the Great Australian Novel; Richie deals with his gayness; Connie chooses a boyfriend and becomes, with Richie, Hugo’s babysitter; Hector’s father deals with being retired and being Greek; Aisha attends a conference in Thailand, gets laid and discovers that apart from still being extremely good looking Hector doesn’t have much going for him; they all take sides, with all the Greeks on Harry’s side and everyone else on Rosie’s. There’s the court case. There’s lots of subsidiary drama, yes I know, all straight out of the Neighbours playbook; and after the best part of a year everyone seems to be no further ahead than they were.

.

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008


Melanie/Grab the Lapels and I read this as a buddy read. She doesn’t review men writers on GTL but she has written to me with her responses and I will put them up in a couple of days (just as soon as I get home). Meanwhile, I have turned off Comments and I hope you will save them up till you have read us both.


See Also:
Bill curates: Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, (Whispering Gums)
Melanie’s response: A letter from America (here)

Australian Grunge

Journal: 056

Melanie at Grab The Lapels and I are planning to buddy read and review Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap (in about four weeks) and I thought I would provide some background about Tsiolkas’ writing, hence the title of today’s Journal.

But let me first say here just how angry I am that WordPress have steamrolled the introduction of block editing. Like all modern editors WordPress of course knows much better than I what I am attempting to achieve. I used to use HTML to produce single spaced lists. The new editor is happy for me to do this. In draft. And then publishes the list double spaced. I pay them for my business site and if I can’t produce simple posts with lists and pix on my phone then I will take my business to someone who can.

Yes I am sure there is a block for single spaced lists and blocks for photos. But I drive trucks 15 hours a day for a week or ten days at a time; apart from audiobooks I am barely reading; my Blog Unread folder is backing up alarmingly; and I just can’t be stuffed learning yet another new system.

And before I go on I must say thank you to Karen at BookerTalk who has dedicated a lot of her posts this year, and much time and energy commenting, to WordPress features and the new editor.

Back to Tsiolkas. He was born in 1965, in Melbourne, and went to school at Blackburn High – as did two of my kids, Psyche and Lou, a decade later. His parents were migrants from Greece. He’s gay. His first novel was Loaded (1995). The Slap (2008) was his fourth.

I wrote an essay on Loaded and Australian grunge in 2005:

The work of a number of young authors published for the first time in the 1990s, commencing with Andrew McGahan (Praise, 1992) and including Justine Ettler (River Ophelia, 1995), Linda Jaivin (Eat Me, 1995) and Christos Tsiolkas (Loaded, 1995), has been given the label Australian Grunge.

“At the Melbourne Writers Festival in 1998 the Aust.Lit. discusssion group including McGahan, Fiona McGregor, Jaivin and Tsiolkas “all remonstrated at how hateful they found the label and how they did not wish to be associated with it.”

Grunge seems to have been a fashion that passed. Internationally it had its antecedents in Beat (William Burroughs) and Punk (Kathy Acker). Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting came out in 1993. In Australia we had William Dick and Mudrooroo in the 50s and Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip in 1977, but that’s about it. What druggy, inner-suburban novels have I missed?

I wrote a bit about Loaded. How about:

Loaded is even more pernicious. Sex between men mocks the whole notion of mateship – the great bond that unites and succours the ‘legends’ in the bush. Ari struggles with his identity as a man, as a man in Australia, and as a man of Greek extraction. “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.”

Jaivin, who was older than the others, and whose Eat Me was actually middle class erotica, quickly produced a couple of ‘grunge’ novels to take advantage of her unexpected notoriety. If you ever see Rock ‘n Roll Babes from Outer Space give it a try, it’s quite amusing.

The others moved on. McGahan wrote one more and then his next was a police procedural. The next of Tsiolkas’ that I read was Dead Europe (2005). I seem to remember an Australian gay man in Athens and then up in the mountains seeking out rellos.

At this point I am down about 30 cm – maybe 50 lines by 12 words across, so 600 words. Despairing sigh. Karen! Where’s the word count?

I was going to write something about the books I listened to this last trip, but they were boring, why bother. Yesterday I started four and DNF’d them all, one after 10 hours that wasn’t going anywhere, two I just didn’t like, and one by a Palestinian-American that was hopeless, ie. completely bereft of hope in the face of the Zionist juggernaut.

WA has tightened up its Covid rules once again for travellers from Melbourne and so I am back in isolation. I always thought I could survive solitary confinement if I had enough books. Now I am not so sure.

I’ve copied the lists of current reading from an earlier Journal, which I’ll overwrite. If they stay single spaced they’re in, if not they’re out. But of course WordPress knows I don’t really want two empty lines before the lists (or perhaps it’s simply against the rules). Now where the hell are Tags and Categories.

Recent audiobooks 

Yelena Akhtiorskaya (F, USA/Ukraine), Panic in a Suitcase (2014)
Lauren Francis-Sharma (F, USA/Trinidad), ‘Til the Well Runs Dry (2014)
Elizabeth Aston (F, Eng), The True Darcy Spirit (2015) – Romance
Charles Willeford (M, USA), New Hope for the Dead (1985) – Crime
Erle Stanley Gardner (M, USA), The Case of the Crying Swallow (1947) – Crime
Erica Jong (F, USA), Fear of Dying (2015) DNF
Susan Abulhawa (F, Palestine/USA), The Blue between Sky and Water (2015) DNF
Erica Ferencik (F, USA), Into The Jungle (2019) DNF
Joy Fielding (F, USA), All the Wrong Places (2019) – Crime DNF

Currently reading

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
Martin Boyd, The Cardboard Crown