The Slap: articles

Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap, in Sydney

The Slap books its place as a commercial and artistic TV hit

WHEN Christos Tsiolkas published The Slap in 2008 something extraordinary happened: a rough and ready literary writer, associated with raw representations of gay sex, with envelope-pushing exercises in bad taste (vampires and Jews colliding, everything colliding) and with writing of zigzagging energy and unevenness, suddenly went mainstream.

Tsiolkas not only published a novel about an interconnected family that riveted the literary world, but he also succeeded in capturing the attention of the mainstream reading public.

The Slap has sold 600,000 copies since then and it has been made into an eight-part television miniseries that premiered on Thursday on ABC1 (repeated last night on ABC2). Not only will it deeply satisfy the thousands of admirers of the book, it also will transform it so that it will conquer the unbelievers as well.

The Slap is a peculiar novel for all its mainstream concentration on barbecues and families, friends and adulteries and heartbreaks, because it seems it affects most people viscerally in much the same way, though they go away from it with very different senses of the value of what they have read. The book is a page-turner of the most compelling kind and seems to induce in almost every reader an amphetamine-like intensity of desire to go on and on at maximum speed. The sheer readability becomes a thing of awe to the most practised and sceptical readers. I had never been an unambiguous admirer of Tsiolkas, not because I thought he lacked talent but because I did not believe he would learn to control it from paragraph to paragraph or page to page, let alone from chapter to chapter throughout the course of a novel, yet I found The Slap scintillating.

What, though, do we do with the experience of a novel that entertains us through and through? Trash can do that and when your particular poison (whether it's Stephen King or Shane Maloney) coincides with your personal demands for style, literary elegance and smart dialogue, it can make art seem like a pretty poor cousin: think of Chandler, think of Chesterton, think of reading Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer when you were 12.

Or, if you want to move a bit closer to the Tsiolkas of The Slap, think of Tom Wolfe. The legion of readers who can't resist the hustle and Technicolor of Wolfe's blockbusters includes every kind of smart person from high school bright spark to high-flying lawyer and corporate and journalist.

Well, English novelist Philip Hensher said once of Jane Smiley that she had the action, drama and traditional satisfactions of a Wolfe novel while being the real thing — that is, art.

Is this where The Slap belongs? At least one-half of the readership would say yes while a distinct fraction (and they get more numerous the more the readers cease to be Australian-born) find the book coarse-grained for all its vigour. If pushed they might say that the book is like Tim Winton on a bad day when he's manipulating the reader, pushing buttons to cheap effect and using a lot of cultural shorthand rather than putting his great gifts in the service of artistic truth.

Well, Smiley is on the record as admiring The Slap, though she said recently that it didn't make her want to live in Melbourne.

TV's The Slap is an imaginative translation of an invigorating love and pain story; of friends and family, of violations and betrayals, of making do and making out, and it is also its transfiguration.

The eight-part miniseries produced by Tony Ayres, among others, and directed by him along with Jessica Hobbs, Matthew Saville and Robert Connolly — each of the directors doing two episodes — is one of the most remarkable pieces of drama made for Australian TV.

At a time when the ABC is looking hapless in the face of the drama and comedy it has been showing, The Slap is compelling, filmic, superbly acted and passionately alive at every point.

The Slap is the story of what happens when, at a suburban barbecue in sunlit Brunswick, a man hits a child, an obstreperous misbehaving child, not his own, in the face. He's a second-generation Greek Australian (played by Alex Dimitriades), the four-year-old's mother (Melissa George) is a hippie-ish Anglo married to an unsuccessful heavy-drinking bit of a slob. The parents go ballistic, then go to the police.

The incident creates havoc in the circle of friends and family, some Greek, some not, who had gathered for the 40th birthday of the slapper's cousin (Jonathan LaPaglia) in the house he shares with his wife, played by superb English actress Sophie Okonedo.

The Slap happens to be one of the most elaborate and richly orchestrated representations of the ethnic mix of contemporary Australia put together and it carries, as if it were incidental, that part of Tsiolkas's mission with a subtlety and assuredness that the book can scarcely match.

The producers have found an extraordinary contingent of older Greek actors — led by the incomparable Toula Yianni as the matriarch — but this aspect of The Slap (which sometimes looks a bit dutiful in the novel) is done with a mimetic sparkle and with marvellous flashes in and out of Greek and with an overall effect approaching grandeur.

The heart of The Slap is its human portraiture, which is lingering and magnificent.

You can make a case that the central incident of the slap itself is exaggerated, that there is an improbability about the high drama and hysterics it provokes.

You also can argue that the level of sexual infidelity (within an encompassing ethos of marriage in its extended sense) is excessively pronounced and obsessive. These are features of the book the TV version carries over. You also can say that every so often the pressure to highlight and dramatise the plethora of material in the book, the froth and bubble of its residual soapiness, makes the material more melodramatic than it is in literary form.

But, in general, the way in which the dramatic portraiture is linked to the central drama, yet remains a thing of depth and intensity in itself, is brilliantly managed.

For me, LaPaglia doesn't dispel the image of Vince Colosimo that kept coming at me from the pages of the novel, but he has an impressive restraint and understatement so that you believe in the feasibility of this quiet, self-contained man who has a reality throughout Hobbs's opening episode that dramatises the central incident with a brilliant economy.

But the women in The Slap are a marvel, none more so than Essie Davis, the soap scriptwriter who aspires to write novels. Davis can sometimes seem self-regarding as an actress, but in The Slap, with long dark hair, looking a bit like an older Shannen Doherty, she is superbly flinty, dry, credible and indeed very moving.

It's a terrific characterisation of a career woman, naturally authoritative and elegant, who has conflicting impulses to be something more: a dutiful daughter, a mother, a creator.

Davis has a dazzling sparkle that transforms a rather ordinary character in the book and George looks like a great actress through all the metamorphoses of the maddening mother who sticks up for her little brat.

At every point the TV Slap gives depth to the sometimes schematic portraiture of the book. Dimitriades projects a not unsympathetic toughness into his character.

Sophie Lowe as the young girl is given a palpable gawkiness that counterpoints her beauty so that the camera work is forever making the viewer see the unformed child alternating with the sexy young woman.

But it would be hard to over-praise The Slap. The great Okonedo — remember her as the prostitute in Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things? — is magnificent as the wife with oceans of understatement and a subdued power that helps anchor The Slap.

And nothing is more surprising and moving in this whole extraordinary saga than the episode directed by Ayres where the presiding consciousness is that of the Greek paterfamilias, Lex Marinos. It's the performance of a lifetime with Marinos indicating every subtlety and roughness and refinement of a man looking back and hoping to find a foothold.

Yianni matches him at every point with a superb and hilarious portrait as his wife. Nothing in the TV Slap so crystallises the unexpectedness of its achievement than the way the Greek sections give depth and hilarity — a wild poignancy and a joyous savage humour — to this grandly reconfigured melodrama of urban and suburban life.

The Slap was bound to be fascinating. But it's a thing of wonder that this story we've told ourselves, like a folktale, through the mouth of a novelist who always seemed agog with sex and drugs and causing a splash, should be so fine, so true, so effortlessly mature.

The last thing we expect to see on the moribund ABC is the art of drama executed with a cinematic subtlety of notation and depth, but that, against the odds, is what The Slap achieves.

By Peter Craven
October 08, 2011
The Australian