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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Learning to speak Australian.

The Slap is, I think, the first novel I’ve read set in contemporary Australia. Sent to me by friends in Melbourne (thank you John, thank you Hamish), it tells what seems to be a simple story. The crux of the action occurs at a suburban barbecue: A man slaps a child who is not his own.

I’m not giving anything away. That line, “A man slaps a child who is not his own,” is right on the cover of the book. The slap is a bit like a stone dropped into a lake – although this lake is anything but placid – there are reverberations that move onward and outward from this one simple, albeit shocking, act.

Each chapter of the book is told from a different point of view, focusing on eight different characters who have attended the barbecue. The host, his wife, his father, the man who slaps, the mother of the child who is slapped, a family friend, two teenagers – they all get their turn at bat, and each story is rich, compelling, and vivid.

I admire author Christos Tsiolkas’s ability to so sharply define so many different people, so many varying points of view – young and old, Aussie and immigrant, male and female, gay and straight. Many of the characters are distinctly unlikable, but that doesn’t make their stories any less compelling. And even though they are not people you would want to have a cup of coffee with – the male characters in particular are arrogant, sexist, mean-spirited, and dishonest – they are interesting, and there is a measure of compassion, or at least understanding, for each.

The book sometimes teeters on the edge of cliché, especially in the attitudes of an older generation towards the younger (they are weak, spoiled, selfish). But it always pulls back from falling into stereotypes and maintaining the complexity and believability of the characters.

There were a lot of surprises for me in the book, especially in how different a suburb of Melbourne is from a suburb of a similar-sized American city – or at least how differently our suburban novelists portray it. Tom Perotta comes to mind as someone who has captured contemporary American suburban life. Although his books (Little Children, Election, The Abstinence Teacher, The Leftovers) often feel a bit like he’s picked up a rock and examined what crawled out, the people in The Slap are repellant in ways I found surprising, sometimes shocking. They are vociferously racist. I learned a whole new vocabulary of Australian ethnic/socio-economic slurs from this book: wogs are dark-skinned immigrants, usually from Greece, Italy, Spain; bogans are unsophisticated, common working-class types; if you’re boofy you’re hyper-masculine and dim-witted; and daggy – my personal favorite – which means uncool and comes from the term – dag – for the feces that gather in the matted fleece around the anus of a sheep.

The man who hosts the barbecue where the action begins is the son of Greek immigrants. His father derides the Australezi – they’re all drunks, he believes, “It’s in their blood.” The Australians look down on the wogs. The sex is frequent throughout the book and pretty much everyone is cheating on someone. And drugs are everywhere – the parents and the teens are all using something, often more than one something. Is this really how Australians are going about their lives? Despising their neighbors, snorting lines of coke, snapping up speed and X, cheating on their spouses, drinking themselves unconscious? Hating their lives and themselves?

There is a lot of sex in the book and I have to say, most of it is pretty dull. I read that Tsiolkas was nominated for the “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” for this book. He didn’t win, but I’d love to read – and laugh at – the winner.

Sex, drugs, infidelity, abuse, racism…a pretty grim picture of today’s Australia. But true? One online reviewer wrote: “I live in middle Australia, and none of these characters bare (sic) the slightest resemblance to anyone I have ever met. If this is how Australians are living their lives, God help us all.”

I hope she’s right. Because even though I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, and respected that Tsiolkas had compassion for his difficult characters, I wouldn’t want to live in a world populated by these people.

My Australian-American Dictionary
Other than those terms mentioned above, I learned the Aussie words…

A perfect quiff.
Lounge room = living room
Arvo = afternoon
Op-shop = thrift shop (short for “opportunity shop”)
Singlet = sleeveless undershirt, or what the young folks call a “wife-beater”
Boofy = brawny, hyper-masculine, and dim-witted
Wanky = jerky (from “wanker” as in “jerk-off”)
To snaffle = to steal or swipe
Quiff = A piece of hair (especially on a man), brushed upward and backward from the forehead (think Bruno Mars)
Boong = an aboriginal
To Spruik = to speak in public esp. as a showman or salesman

PS. The novel was made into an eight-episode series for Australian TV and was available here on Direct TV. NBC has purchased the rights and is planning a remake, written and produced by John Robin Baitz (Other Desert Cities). It would be interesting to see the Australian version, which was well reviewed, and then the American interpretation. What are they going to do with all that casual racism and drug use?


  1. As an American who has been living in Australia for over 20 years now, 'daggy' is one of my favourite adopted words, so I have to build on your definition of it. I think most of your definitions were very good, but that one was missing a very key element. It’s a term that is always used affectionately. So, while you’re right that it means uncool, it means uncool in a charming, sweet, positive, very likeable way. When you call someone daggy, there’s an implicit implication that you want to give them a little hug, literally or figuratively. It’s never an insult, not in a serious way, at least. When you call someone a dag, you always have a little bit of an affectionate smile on your face. Dags are people you like, who happen to not be cool. Seymour from Little Shop is the quintessential dag.

  2. Fascinating! Thank you. Seymour is a favorite of mine, so I know exactly what you mean. I actually have friends who walked down the aisle to "Suddenly Seymour." It was very romantic.