‘Discomfort is sometimes what is most precious to me about great art’ – Christos Tsiolkas on The Slap
Note: This review/interview is uncensored and contains swearing.
The Slap (Aus, US) is a novel that grabs you by your tender spots, squeezes, and doesn’t let go. It’s yelling, not at you, but in general frustration, at the edge of a cliff, at the end of the world. The end of the world might be Australia. An Australian city and its suburbs in the age of almost extreme political correctness and ensuing confusion. A man slaps another person’s child at a barbeque, and the narrative branches out into the lives of several characters who were present. From teenagers to aged immigrants, and many middle-aged characters in between. While strands relate back to the incident, and opinions surrounding it, the themes are much broader, more challenging, and voracious. Issues such as racism (and reverse-racism), crossing the line (in many circumstances), new conservatism, domestic violence, adultery, the family, home, surfaces and secrets, notions of honour, generational conflict and differences, lust, eroticism, homoeroticism, forbidden desires, lies and half-truths, the institution of marriage, parent/child relationships, feminism, work vs motherhood, suppressed rage, pedophilia, drugs, and teenagers. Phew. It’s a cliché to call a writer ‘brave’, and I don’t think Tsiolkas suits any clichés. I think he is wonderfully necessary as a brutally honest and angry writer. The character portraits, too, are so well-drawn. How does he know what it’s like to be a teenage girl, for example, or an old man? Because somehow he does. The only thing that really overlaps chapter to chapter is a kind of rage. In some characters it springs from stubbornness and assuredness, in others, from confusion. Reading the book is part-epiphanic, part-assuring. Tsiolkas spoke to a deep part of me, the part that swears inside my head when someone is taking too long in the line in front of me, where sometimes words pop into my head that aren’t me, that aren’t said aloud. He speaks for the stoppers on us, the bottle cap. The novel never goes into right and wrong – everyone is an a**hole, everyone is weak in some way, everyone is stinking with humanness. I was absolutely stoked when Christos agreed to answer a few questions for me about the novel:
One of the main themes through the book, to me, seems to be the notion that we live now, in Australia, in an age of new conservatism and over-the-top political correctness. Is this something you wanted readers to think about?
At one point while working on the second draft of the novel I was tempted to put a prologue and an epilogue, the prologue being just before the ‘Tampa’ election and the epilogue being just after Rudd wins the most recent election. I’m glad I didn’t do that as it is obvious that readers can do that work for themselves and that it might have been misread as an end-of-an-era critique which is not how I imagine the world and communities the characters in The Slaplive in. It is too simplistic and facile to place all that is unsettling or ugly or uncomfortable in contemporary Australia on John Howard’s shoulders and not to see the continuity in politics and practices between Keating, Howard and Rudd, for example. It seemed to me that a significant change occurred in Australian society over the last twenty years that has seen a withering away of traditional notions of Australian class and of a supposed ethos of egalitarianism. That was a very conscious decision to set the novel in the backyards and bars and coffee shops of a new middle-class which does not necessarily look or sound anything like the middle-class that usually inhabits the pages of Australian fiction or is on our cinema and television screens. This is a middle-class as much wog as it is anglo, a middle-class that emerges as much from the working class as it does from the world of universities and the eastern suburbs. This shift in the cultural landscape of urban Australia is about money, the global economic boom of the nineties and early twenty-first century, and because it is about capital and status the values embodied in this shift are conservative and materialistic. In a strange way the book may turn out to be an end-of-an-era work not because of the electoral shift from Liberal to Labor but because of the consequences of the contemporary economic crisis.
Last year I was very fortunate to be asked by Sydney PEN to contribute an essay on ‘Tolerance’ alongside essays by Gideon Haigh and Alexis Wright. I argued in my essay that political correctness has proven to be a straight-jacket for the left, restricting argument and debate. It seems that in Western democracies, contemporary labour parties have abandoned left economic philosophies and have retained only the authoritarianism of traditional socialism. (That’s not throwing the baby out with the bath water but rather throwing the baby out and keeping the bath water). I don’t see conservatism and political correctness as diametrically opposed, which is how many commentators from both the right and the left would have it, but as linked, part of an escalating punitive moralism that has affected politics, religion, culture, our media.
I don’t want to pretend that a writer I sit down and carefully plot out connections between my political or philosophical ideas and the work of fiction that I am creating. The Slap is a novel and it arose from the imagination. It was not as much that I set out to ‘make’ readers think about the above questions but rather that the above questions and challenges confront, perplex and invigorate me intellectually and I assume an informed intelligent reader that will also be enervated by such questions.
I thought the individual portraits of characters were so skillfully drawn. I was fascinated by how well you got inside the mind of teenage-girl Connie, for example. Was it difficult to write from the point of view of such different characters?
This book was a joy to write. I’m saying that because my previous novel, Dead Europe, was a much more difficult experience. Dead Europedealt with very difficult themes of anti-Semitism, the end of utopianism, the lust for death and war, and inhabiting those worlds proved unsettling – no, worse – it was often distressing. Not that there wasn’t also pleasure. I think any writer will speak to you of those moments when the work becomes an obsession and it feels like you are driven to write; that certainly happened while working on Dead Europe. I think it is impossible to complete a novel without that surrender to obsession. But because the terrain, the landscape of that novel was so dark and forbidding there were many false starts, many moments where I had to abandon it. That was not the case with The Slap. I enjoyed taking on personas as I was writing the novel, being female, male, an old man, a teenage girl. I feel like I should say that it was difficult to write in those voices but that’s not true. Maybe I have been lucky that I work in theatre and I have been educated in the craft of performance by actors. Often in the process of writing The Slap I would try and speak in the voice of one of the characters, try and imagine how they used their body, how they spoke. I was observing people, not only how they looked and talked, but also how they moved.
In the writing of The SlapI was meeting regularly with three other writers, Jessica Migotto and Jeana Vithoulkas, and with Angela Savage, and they offered consistent critical commentary as I developed the novel. I asked them lots of question about the female characters in the book, especially when it came to shaping the nature of the friendship between Aisha, Anouk and Rosie. I suppose there was a certain trepidation about whether as a bloke I could successfully write the experience of women. In the main I got thumbs up. The most illuminating discussions were about the writing of women’s sexual experiences, about the sensations of the body during sex. ‘The women are orgasming like men’, a friend dryly commented after reading an early draft, ‘Think about writing with a cunt not with your cock.’ It was great advice.
Many of the characters have ingrained prejudices – racism, generationalism, chauvinism, etc. Do you hope the reader is challenged by the blatant expression of prejudices by some of the characters?
It may be that I am constitutionally unable to understand the desire for moral absolutes. I love crime novels, for example, but most of them end up disappointing me because of the too easy division of the world into the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. I think it would be impossible to read my work in good faith and not realise that I am deeply engaged in trying to understand racism, how it works, how it hurts, how it exhilerates, how it punishes and how it destroys. My experience has been that while racism against oneself is always a shock, debilitating, the real difficult areas to deal with are the moments when I have realised my own racism, or have had to negotiate with the racism of someone I love, be they a friend or a member of my family. What I hope is that a reader of The Slap comes away trying to understand some of this complexity, whether it comes to questions of race and culture, to questions of gender and sex, or to attitudes to younger or older generations. But you can’t lead a reader to any conclusion. Again that comes down to a question of trust, a trust that I believe is crucial: a faith that the reader of your work is intelligent, questioning, an ethical human being. But of course that is not always the case. Am I responsible, then, for how a racist or fascist reader experiences my work? Am I accountable? That is a big question and I understand that there are people who would say, yes, that I am responsible. My argument would be that to venture down that path one is led to censorship, to totalitarian restrictions on art. (I don’t believe that censorship is effective because I do think that, in the end, the repressed does always re-emerge).
I can only speak for myself. I can try and pretend that I don’t have racist or sexist or ugly or violent or misanthropic or homophobic thoughts but that would be a pretence. I try and think through why I have such emotions and thoughts, try to educate myself, try to make sense of them. My writing is one of the ways I do this.
My favourite books all in some way explore the subtext of conversations – what is left unsaid. There is a lot of this in Hector and Aisha’s relationship, and it’s fascinating how when some half-truths are finally admitted, Aisha is repulsed by her husband. Ignorance is safety, ignorance is easiness. Do you think people generally prefer things left unsaid? Can literature provide honest release and honest relation?
The question of what literature is and what it can do is enormous. Everytime we are drawn to make conclusions about art we enter the realm of generalisations and absolutes and I become nervous. I was whole-heartedly agreeing with you that my favourite books speak the unsaid, the hushed, the whispered (I was thinking of James Agee’s A Death in the Familyand Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Richard Ford, but then I was reminded of the fierce power of the polemical and brutal (Journey to the End of Night or American Psycho).
I think that people, in the main, are terrified of conflict and that ignorance seems preferable in that sense because getting to truth is often not safe. I talked above about trusting the reader and I know that as a reader I am elated when I feel that trust has been reciprocated by a writer. Illumination is what I think good and/or honest and/or beautiful and/or savage art can offer.
When someone says of a book or a film or a play that it was ‘too hard’ I think they have been made conflicted, uncomfortable. That discomfort is sometimes what is most precious to me about great art.
Who or what is influential on your work as a writer?
A tendency in interviews is to reduce one’s life to a simplistic narrative that one can call up again and again. The narrative that I construct for myself begins with the vigor and dynamism of mid-20thcentury US writing (Miller, Mailer, McCullers, Kael), being fortunate enough to be an adolescent film geek influenced by the decade of Altman and Godard, and equally fortunate to be alive and excited and on drugs at the moment of post-punk music.
It is a narrative and as a narrative it simplifies. There is so much that has been an influence. In the end, those US mid-20th century writers have been most influential because they too use the English language but they created a rhythm and a syntax and a vocabulary and an expression that was uniquely theirs, that can be called an American language. I think Australians are still floundering with that, have not yet found a way to cut loose from Mummy Britain’s apron-strings.
(Also US writers such as Mailer and Roth were also children and grandchildren of immigrant Jews and I found their work corresponded to my reality as a ‘wog’ youth in a way that Australian literature of that time didn’t).
That being said I also love the breadth and scale of the classic European novel and some of my favourite writers include Tolstoy and Dostoevski, Stendhal, Kazantzakis. It sounds as if I prefer the Eastern Europeans to the Western Europeans? Maybe I do. My favourite classic English writer would be Joseph Conrad and he was really a Pole. (Stendhal, of course, was French so there are always exceptions). Though I am an athiest I was raised Orthodox Christian and there is something about the fatalism in Greek, Russian and Slavic writing that I respond to.
The writers that have made the most impact on me the last few years are Richard Ford and Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk’s grace as a writer and the formidable strength of his intellect make me want to think and write better. Richard Ford reminds me to look around at my world anew, to take nothing for granted. He is the best antidote for this false culture of celebrity and excessive materialism that I know.
Without ruining the end of the book, I felt elated by it. You could have easily taken a darker approach. Can we be comfortable only by figuring out and clutching our few certainties?
I was initially going to give the ending of the Richie chapter a much darker ‘hue’. But in writing the character I recognised that he didn’t deserve it. He began a little bit like Ari in my first novel Loaded and then he completely changed and I’m glad for that. The characters in The Slap that come of worse are those around my age, in their late thirties and early forties. It is possible that we are most critical of our own generation but I can’t help but think my generation has been a particularly materialistic and selfish one. Am I romantic about a younger generation? I don’t think so. I think as someone who has been often pissed off by the ‘babyboomers’ dismissing the politics and yearnings of the generation coming after them I didn’t want to replicate that ‘bad faith’. Does that make sense?
(Having used a term such as babyboomer I don’t want to reduce it all to the level of generational abstracts i.e. my mother, by birthdate, could be considered a ‘babyboomer’ but as a woman who lived firsthand through World War II and a civil war I doubt that the the term can be applied to her. All such journalistic shorthands are reductionist. They are useful as shorthand but cannot take the place of informed analytical debate. That is why I am suspicious of any attempt to define a ‘generation’. What is excluded in such a definition?)
Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe, in hindsight, and only in hindsight, form a trilogy in my mind to do with the loss of faith. The faith in absolutes, political ideology. In a sense The Slapstruck me as a novel in which I didn’t want to simply reiterate that loss. I guess that is why I wanted an ending that was more optimistic. That being said I still am someone who is confronted by the sense of hopelessness that comes from the abandonment of faith, in whatever sense that is understood, and inevitably that will inform my writing. Hector, Anouk, Rosie, Manoli and Aisha in their different ways are dealing with that experience. Connie and Richie have yet to confront it (though they have intimations of it). Harry is the only character who is unambiguously committed to the notions he believes in. That is why he is so dangerous.
How different has the process been in writing each of your novels (Loaded, Head-on, The Jesus Man, Dead Europe and The Slap), and where did you begin? Why did you start writing literature?
My first love was film. From primary school I would fill out exercise books with synopsis and scripts of films I would want to make. But in a real sense I became a writer when I decided to give up full-time work and dedicate the hours to actually writing, to treat it as work. That is what happened in the middle of writing Loaded. I gave myself five years. It was a process of apprenticeship and though there is a place for something called talent or inspiration, the reality is that the discovery of being a writer is the discovery of the process of work: putting in the hours, sitting at the desk and writing. Reading is another part of it. That’s part of the learning.
The difficult ‘second novel syndrome’ arises, in part, from the difference between being a published and a not published writer. Once you are published you are part of an economy that may not necessarily have been an aspect of your thinking when you were working on your first novel. I wrote Loadednot knowing anything about the publishing world. I was fortunate to have a good friend and mentor in a writer called Sasha Soldatow who I worked with on a collaborative book called Jump Cuts: An Autobiography. That was immediatley after Loaded, which Sasha partly edited. Working on Jump Cuts was a reminder of the joy in play and experiment that is part of what made me want to be a writer in the first place. It is so easy to get caught up in the ego and ‘celebrity’ of being published. Good work, however, requires something more: dedication, thought, craft. The Jesus Man was rushed, I wish I had spent more time on it. Nevertheless the lessons from Jump Cutswere crucial: play is important and though there is real work and labour that goes into writing it is a privilged life to be a ‘writer’. Not a wealthy life, not an easy life, but a privileged life just the same.
Dead Europe was hard work. Writing The Slap was pleasurable.
At the Overland 193 launch, in conversation with Antony Loewenstein, you said that sometimes you feel you wish you could do what he does – write nonfiction about important world issues. While I am a fan of Loewenstein’s work, I am someone who strongly believes in the power of fiction, art, poetry – as tools of awakening, beauty, change, and as something that shows us what we have to live for. Has a work of fiction, or art, or poetry ever shaped you as much as real life, philosophy or nonfiction?
Anna Akhmatova’s poem ‘Requiem’ made me confront the fallacy of my faith in Bolshevism. Stendhal’s The Scarlet and the Black made me want to recreate myself anew. Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Manarticulated a dissonance that I, before I read it, thought was undescribable. I could go on. There is a space for fiction that illuminates the emotional life of us as humans that, no matter how old-fashioned it may sound, I still espouse. My response to Antony had to do with the central importance of investigative non-fiction to make us aware of what is happening in the world. Fiction is not enough. We need to know facts, truth, reality. There are two terms that have emerged in the last decade that fill me with despair and melancholia: ‘collateral damage’ and ‘the embedded journalist’. I wish I was a better writer to give full voice to the outrage and inhumanity of such terms.
My greatest fear? That the apparatchiks have won.
Thank you so much Christos.