The Slap

This post was written in 2011, and contains spoilers.

Novel by Christos Tsiolkas, series directed by Tony Ayres, Robert Connolly, Jessica Hobbs, and Matt Saville.

There are plenty of unpleasant moments in The Slap, both the novel by Christos Tsiolkas and the TV series produced by Matchbox Pictures. The moment that stands out most in my mind is when Gary – an alcoholic – tells his wife who has come to bring him home from the pub that “I just want to get so drunk I forget you and that kid even exist.” All of the characters in Tsiolkas’ story are deeply flawed. Many criticisms of The Slap have centred on how unlikeable the characters are, and after reading the novel I was inclined to agree with this view. There seemed to be nothing to sympathise with, and no one to root for. I wanted all of these people to go away, to stop being so weak, so violent, and so angry. Not only did I actively dislike many of the characters, I also found the dialogue stiff, and the writing generally lacking in uniqueness or poetry. The story itself is a clever linking of characters, and a fairly broad and honest look at Melbourne society. But it reads a bit too much like a soap opera, and much of it felt, to me, unnecessarily crass and violent – especially the descriptions of sex.

While watching the TV series, however (The Slap aired in Australia on ABC 1) I began to see the characters differently. They were still flawed, but now they were more recognisable. And while there was still no one in particular to root for, I found it hard to actively vote against anybody, either. The question at the heart of the show is not only whether or not a man should have slapped a child, but also whether or not any of the characters should make any of the choices they do. And there is no easy answer. All the characters are wrong in many ways, but they are also right. The child shouldn’t have been slapped, but neither should the parents have let the child misbehave so outrageously.

Tsiolkas commented that when writing The Slap he wanted to show a side of Melbourne that wasn’t the Anglo-Saxon-centric world of Neighbours. He has certainly succeeded in that regard. The Slap is gritty, uncomfortable and multicultural (and not in an idyllic look-how-well-we-deal-with-our-differences kind of way). Maybe the reason I felt more connected to the TV series than the novel was because I recognised so many of the settings – from the St. Kilda boulevard to Aisha’s vet clinic. I had been to these places, lived a life against these same backdrops. And suddenly the characters became more familiar, too. I saw parts of people I know in each main character, and parts of myself as well. The Slap has done – though in a completely different style – what Chris Lilley did earlier in the year with Angry Boys. Both series present Australia in a way that makes us uncomfortable enough to confront the issues, but not so depressed by them that we cannot act to change. Both series deal with the major problems with modern Australian society – racism, violence, alcoholism – and make sure we know that we are part of them. But there is also hope. Just as there are unpleasant moments in The Slap there are also beautiful ones – for example at the very end of the series (and the novel), when eighteen-year-old Richie recovers from a suicide attempt and finally accepts his sexuality. All is not lost, The Slap seems to say. And while the characters may often make the wrong choices, they are still brave enough to make them at all. Tsiolkas is encouraging us to move on – perhaps hinting that it is only through making mistakes that we can learn.

The Slap premiered in Australia on ABC 1 in October, 2011.

The Slap – ABC TV

The Guardian, “Christos Tsiolkas: ‘There’s a tameness to the modern novel’”

Meanjin, Q&A with Christos Tsiolkas about The Slap television series

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