Thursday, 13 October 2011


I've been trying to work out what makes people feel so strongly about The Slap and this last week, it's adaptation for TV. It's been a while since I have heard so many people talk to much and so negatively about something I feel quite OK about. Lots of people feel like me, some really love both the book and the TV series or just the book or just the TV series. Either way, there's lots of talk and lots of strong feeling.

Plenty of others have summarised the story so I won't bother doing so here - and besides, all that's interesting about it can't be conveyed that way.

I've been thinking about it a lot, and trying to really boil down to some essential primordial ooze. I'm sniffing around the fact that for quite a few people the TV version seems 'better' than the book.

To me a lot of the punch of the book came from the relentlessness of being inside people's heads. The first person narratives, stripped as they are of social censure and niceties, full as they are of the rage and frustrations of the impositions on our personal freedoms give a somewhat misanthropic view of the world.

This seems to lead a lot of people to find the characters hateful and distanced, utterly unlikeable and easily criticised. They invite judgement.

And yet, at the very same time, the book seems to me to be about what it is like to live in that world of being judged. So much of what the characters feel, and the way their behaviours manifest are the dance of judging others with righteousness, whilst rejecting or suffering the judgements of others.

In the TV show, with the inner voices largely lost, what we see are the less nuanced, more guarded actions of people who seem to oscillate between their selfish impulses and their resentful restraint. The strain of tolerating each other, the world, shows clearly.

I think, I suspect, that much of what people don't like about this whole view, is the assertion that it is such a strain. Are people really that self absorbed? Really that angry? Really that shallow? Is it really so hard for people - people from different times, generations, cultural backgrounds and political persuasions - to just get along? to be accepting and respectful of each other?

There's this scene early in the first episode where the boy - the slapee - is first shown in all his undisciplined annoyingness. He's sitting on the floor banging a wooden spoon on the bin and wall, making a racket his parents appear to be oblivious to but which clearly annoy the hell out of the man of the house. He leans over and takes the spoon from the boy, exchanges an eye roll with his wife but says nothing to the parents and leaves the room. The father of the boy then picks up a spoon and starts tapping it annoyingly on a plate. After just a few taps he quietens the noise, slows and then puts the spoon down.

The super annoying kid - the kid with no discipline and no accountability, the kid with no impulse control, the kid with no requirements to accommodate the needs of others is in simple terms a total pain in everyone's arse. The difference between the kid and his father (and most of the other characters) is not what they want to do, it's the degree to which they manage to control their desires to do it.

All the characters fail, in one way or another, to control themselves, and they all, in one way or another, resent and react against those people they perceive as the ones responsible for their need to be self controlled. In laws, old friends, parents, spouses, children. Everyone is a drain it seems. And everyone is quick to point out eaxactly what they don't like about everyone else.

There's a level of horror to the idea that the best life can be is a monumental effort to almost contain our messy, annoying, near poisonous inner selves, knowing all along that our efforts will never succeed and those we love most will see our failings and judge us for them.

But is that all The Slap has to offer?

Why do I like it if that's what its telling me?

I think because despite all that these people still go on. They don't kill one another, they don't abandon one another. In the face of the horror they persist in trying to make it work. Cheek by jowl with our selfish impulses and base desires are our drives to reach out and connect, to try and control ourselves in order to be both tolerable and tolerant. Those inner voices in the book are greatly concerned with the dilemma they find themselves in - no matter how misguided their efforts at escape may be.

Perhaps I am cynical and pessimistic. Perhaps others are in denial over our true natures. Perhaps I just run with the wrong crown. There's only a squint and a sideways look between them afterall.

Or perhaps I am simply looking for something good to take from it in order to not be another judge. In the Compass interview with author Christos Tsiolkas (thanks for the link Adelaide!) he makes a point about the characters' sense of entitlement, and about contemporary Australia being full of complainers and judges. Perhaps my impulse to like it merely comes from not wanting to be that person. For this five minutes anyway.


Adelaide said...

I'm wondering if you saw the excellent interview with Christos Tsiolkas on Compass last Sunday? Really really interesting discussion of his reasons for writing the piece and how he feel about the TV series. It's here:

kim at allconsuming said...

I love love love your take on it. It was you alerting me to the fact the book is about people's internal monologues that made it all make so much more sense. I need a quiet moment to watch the Compass piece - and thanks for reminding me about that too.

Kate said...

I must watch that interview. I think you are right about their being less of this inner voice in the tv show, it made them less dislikeable, but I quite liked some of the characters in the book anyway.
I chose this book for cookclub when it cam out and it still comes up for discussion. I can't think of any other book that has come up again and again for discussion.
I am very very glad my inner voice is not on show to the world.

Ali said...

I read the book and disliked it thoroughly. But having read your take on it I am almost compelled to pick it up again and think about it a little more. Thanks for making me reconsider.

sooz said...

Thanks Adelaide, Kim, Kate and Ali! I don't feel I fully developed those thoughts - perhaps as the show progresses I'll get a bit clearer. But I really liked the second episode so I'll be staying glued for sure. There's so much more in this!

Christie said...

I liked the book ALOT & found it interesting that many people who didn't cited their dislike of the characters as the reason. I guess for me the book was thought provoking & that is what I look for in novel, rather than characters that I like or who are nice.

The book certainly is grittier & I feel that the loss of the inner monologue from each character has sanitised the storytelling to a degree, possibly to appeal to a broader audience. From memory the first page of the book certainly packed a punch!

I wonder however how likeable or more importantly dislikable each & every one of us would be if our own personal inner dialogue were to be broadcast to the world? Isn't that a big part of what the book is about. What we hide, what we show, the desires we choose to express/repress. All these choices make us who we are & a lot more complex than what we may appear.

Julie said...

Once again you articulate so beautifully the reactions I have had to both book and show. Loved the book and have been really enjoying the show. I could relate, at least to some aspect, of nearly all the characters. Perhaps that says something nasty about me, as others seem to find them so repellent. But I found them very human and real.

Natasha said...

Yeah, I enjoyed the book (thought it was a couple of chapters too long) even though most of the characters were unpleasant. I am enjoying the mini series (I love seeing Melbourne on TV) and am keen to see how it all plays out. Don't understand why some of the reviews have been so cutting!!?? Thanks for the link to the Compass interview. Great.

thornberry said...

I usually say that I hated the book. Although if I really stop and think about it, I think that it is an excellent book - I just hated the characters. I am watching the TV show and am enjoying it, although I do think that the characters do seem more likeable without knowing what is going on inside their heads. It's certainly a discussion starter!