26 October 2011
Section 1: Hector…
…all, more or less, from the point of view of a 40-something son of Greek immigrant parents in Australia. The mind of such a person is a private place; on the first page we get the protocol of farting in the marital bed (to be avoided unless the wife is already up and out of there) and the imagined smell of illicit sex with someone who, by the sound of it, might be under-age. The language this is described in is much raunchier than what I’ve used, because this is Australian man in suburbia…. Hector isn’t an archetype, but he is a believable sort of bloke. He has his vanities, his keep-fit routines – he hasn’t let himself go – and his periodic resolutions. Today, we later find out, is the last day he’ll be smoking, and when he gives up tomorrow it definitely won’t be like all the other times over the past five years, oh no.
He gets along in his Aussie bloke sort of way with the other family members. Aisha, his wife – we later find out she’s apparently the daughter of Indian immigrants – is good at most of the things a bloke like him would want. She’s a great cook, great with their young son and younger daughter…. Like when they have a row over a video game and Hector just wants to shout, Aisha sorts it out with patience and fairness. We wonder why he’s having an affair.
The chapter covers the day of a barbecue they’re having, organised to pay off some dinner-party obligations and tick off a few other useful boxes amongst family and work colleagues. So far, so believable. The possibly underage sex interest is Connie, and on the way to the shops Hector makes sure he goes to see her at Aisha’s vet’s clinic where she works. If she’s in her teens – Hector is vague with himself on this count – she’s also a fully-grown woman. So that’s all right. He isn’t thinking about the fact that she is young enough to be his daughter, but Tsiolkas knows that’s what the reader is thinking.
Back home. His parents – open, generous, old-school Greeks – and then everybody else. Tsiolkas is good at the kind of jockeying for position that you can get amongst adults, and the many shades of class- or politics-based snobbery. There’s the inevitable argument about how acceptable it is to send a child to a private school, and another about whether it’s ok to write the scripts of a soap opera that stereotypes Aussies. (One of the guests – I’ve already lost track of most of them – does just that, according to one of the others.) Gary, the husband of Rosie, an old friend of Aisha’s, is drinking too much. The other guests don’t make a point of it, but he is self-conscious about the unskilled, low-paid job he’s ended up in.
Meanwhile, a not wholly dissimilar kind of jockeying is going on among the kids. Hector’s two are having to accommodate some who are older, others who are younger… and it isn’t easy for any of them. Hugo, the almost four-year-old son of Gary and Rosie – some of the other guests look away, appalled, when she breastfeeds him in public – seems to like to get his own way. It takes all of Aisha’s powers of diplomacy to settle a dispute with him at the centre of it. And, while all this is going on, Hector is wondering when Connie will turn up. He knows she’s been invited, obviously.
What we’re wondering is when the slap is going to come. We know that this is the event that will kick-start the rest of the novel, because we would have had to be on Mars not to have heard about it. But we don’t know who will administer it, or to whom. Hugo is a good guess for the latter, but who will administer the punishment which, on current form, he seems to be asking for? Could it be Hector, still buzzing from the speed he took (and that I forgot to mention)? Or could Gary be the perpetrator, and some other kid the victim? And, when Hector realises what an idiot he’s been to put his marriage at risk, will his ending of the affair – which we witness – really be the end of it?
Yep, Hugo it is. He’s having a tantrum, gets picked up by Harry, Hector’s perfectly affable cousin, kicks him repeatedly, and… wallop. Gary is immediately talking about the cops, suing the pants off Harry – it has nothing to do with the fact that Harry runs a successful business while Gary, er, doesn’t – and generally behaving like an arse. Rosie is comforting the poor little mite, if you catch my drift, to almost everybody’s disgust. Then, not long after everyone clears off sharpish, Hector seals his resolution to drop Connie by shagging the missus in the kitchen – and he’s already had a speed-fuelled wank today after seeing Connie at work in the morning. Bless.
Anouk and part of Harry…
…as far as the first meeting with his lawyer. Who is an old schoolmate of his, as is his employee Alex: Melbourne, which is where we are, seems to be as closed in Tsiolkas’s universe as it is in that of Neighbours. But, unlike that tv world, this one is about as ethnically diverse as you could wish for.
Enter Anouk, a couple of days after the barbie, who turns out to be Jewish. She’s being sick in the morning, so we guess what her boyfriend, almost exactly half her age, doesn’t: she’s pregnant. Anouk is the one who is a writer on a soap, and he is the heart-throb star of the same show. Ok. She hates her job at the same time as loving the money it pays – I’ve lost track already of how many of these people’s thoughts revolve around money – and is as self-absorbed as everybody else in Tsiolkas’s little world.
But anyway… the hormonal cocktail sluicing around inside her – Tsiolkas likes to remind us about it by having Anouk remind herself all the time – seems to be pushing her closer to the edge than usual. She’s just submitted an impossibly provocative script – turning a favourite girl character into a manipulative monster – and we’re at the meeting in which her producer not only rejects it but tells her she won’t be paid. Her response is… forthright. The sexual violence of the imagery she chooses in response – he’s gay, so you can imagine – marks her out, in this world, as a feisty Aussie survivor, and she wins the day.
Her section is all like this. She’s already had a nasty encounter with a taxi-driver, a Muslim who, she decides, is judging her when she tells him that she’s pregnant but unmarried. Later, she disagrees with Aisha on the phone about the slap, saying something Aussie about how the little brat deserved it. Aisha is taking Rosie’s side – they’re all friends from their punky teenage years – and we begin to see how Tsiolkas is drawing up the battle-lines among these people. In a later episode – her section takes place over several days – all three of them meet for a drink and, despite her best resolutions, she has it out with Rosie about the way she and Gary are bringing up Hugo.
And always in the background is race. The three women talk about Terry and his wife, an Aborigine and a (very) white Australian who are converts to Islam. They were at the barbie, and Terry’s transformation from near-alcoholic party animal to, well, something rather different is a big topic. They’ve even changed their names (they’re Balal and Shamira now) and the women disagree, inevitably, about her headscarf. Aisha is ready to believe that she finds it empowering, and Anouk says something dismissive. She herself remembers first seeing Jewish women who covered their heads, and has a ‘born-again’ Jewish sister…. What Anouk is not prepared to talk about is her pregnancy. She’s rehearsed in her head the precise course that the conversation would take and, as with so many difficult things, decides simply to leave it.
The section ends with her having taken advice about an abortion – it’s ambiguous as to whether she’s already gone through with it – then sitting down to write her letter of resignation. She’s going to write that book.
And along comes Harry. I called him ‘perfectly affable’ at the end of the first section. Wrong. He’s self-absorbed, complacent, routinely dismissive of everybody and arrogant almost to the point of megalomania – ‘I’m king of the world!’ he shouts to the sky, only half-joking. To him, commuters driving into work are losers, the suburbs where they live are hideous compared to the beautiful place where he can afford a view of the Bay. There’s casual racism – the problems of the Middle East are down to Yids and towel-heads – and, well, very little to like. He rubs his swelling penis against the low barrier on his balcony as he watches the nubile young sunbathers below. Later, they’re just cheap floozies to him, as he contemplates sex with Sandi, his wife. She’s too tired, as it turns out, which no doubt accounts for the ten-minute break he takes from work next morning. He visits the lover who is happy to jerk him off. (He salves his conscience with a present, a music-box, for his wife.)
Any evidence in mitigation? We find out his father was violent – which might account for the graphic smashing-in of Hugo’s skull that Harry allows himself to imagine. He’s rather kind to Alex, and appears to have a rather conventional faith in Orthodox Christianity, having made a promise to God to look after Sandi forever in gratitude for Rocco, the child they’d almost given up on. And when he discovers one of his employees (not the old school-friend) has had his hands in the till, he gives him the chance to pay him back instead of sacking him.
Which reminds me: days after she was rude to the taxi-driver, Anouk phones the company so that she can find out who he is and apologise. Maybe these people aren’t entirely monstrous. Maybe they’re just trying to pick their way through a society – mainly described in terms of the nanny state – that seems to get in the way of what they really what to do. Tsiolkas’s Australia is a remorseless place.
To the end of Harry
Not so much remorseless as red in tooth and claw. Or it would be if only Harry didn’t have to rein in his urges and could do what he’d like to Hugo and his parents. Three shots, bang-bang-bang – people like them should be sterilised at birth, they’re not even the same species. And so on. (I’m also reading Alone in Berlin, in which people are just beginning to realise what they’ll be able to do to the Jews soon, things they can’t get away with in early 1940….)
I’m having a bit of trouble believing the intensity of the violence of Harry’s thoughts. I’m starting to see the whole novel in terms of characters with tick-box attributes, despite Tsiolkas’s effort to give them a bit of roundness. Earlier on I said that I didn’t see a different character, Hector, as an archetype, but I might be changing my mind. Hector is Decent Bloke. Harry is Reined-in Arrogant Bloke. Anouk is Successful But Ultimately Unfulfilled (In Various Ways) Woman. For Christ’s sake, she keeps wishing she’d been born a man.
What happens is… Harry’s wife has talked to Hector about how it might be a good idea for Harry to go meet with Gary and Rosie and try to settle this thing. Hah. It’s in the context of a DVD party: Van, the Vietnamese who makes a living pirating them in partnership with Harry’s lover Kelly, is there to sell his stuff to their friends and relations. And reader, during this particular day someone remarks on how they are all normal people. They buy their pirated movies, they almost all smoke from a bong, the banter amongst the men is almost all based on routine racism or piss-taking about each other’s taste in movies, the quality of their televisions, their sexuality. And after they all leave, Harry makes his wife genuinely frightened for her safety by the violence of his anger about her conspiring behind his back. And she’s the one who apologises.
You can imagine how the meeting goes. Harry the materialist is genuinely disgusted by the state of the place where Gary and Rosie live – they rent, obviously – because they just don’t look after it. How can anybody…? etc. Gary hovers, offering beers and being indecisive. But Rosie is as entrenched in her own world-view as Harry is in his: she insists on breastfeeding Hugo throughout – something of a far-fetched detail – and plainly regards Harry as no better than an animal. She is happy to let her contempt show – we’ve heard in Anouk’s chapter that she grew up combative because of her no-good parents – and things come to an end as she spits insults at him and he frightens the child by knocking a chair over as he jumps up to leave.
The two sides both feel vindicated. Harry, who has gone there with Hector, is sarcastic with his cousin. He finds himself driving to Kelly’s place, ends up snorting coke there, finds himself driving back to Gary and Rosie’s house. How can such weak people stop people like him from just getting on with their lives, when all they deserve is…? etc. But he goes home, and feels safe for the first time since the incident. He can’t believe that such low-lifes will have any clout in court.
How many issues does Tsiolkas want to tick off in this novel? He seems to want to dissect every last detail of what is problematic about middle-class Australians in the first decade of the 21st Century and… and I’m finding it a bit wearing. For a diverse, multicultural society almost everything that Tsiolkas presents us with is selfish, smug and second-rate. Well, maybe that’s how it is.
This is the longest section so far, and I am beginning to find this novel very tiresome. The tick-list of issues continues. We find Connie in a biology test, answering questions on – guess – heredity. She’s clever, so the test is a walkover for her and she has time to contemplate – guess – what she has inherited from her parents, how much is nature, how much is nurture…. Tsiolkas has hardly left this one alone through all the other sections, dropping hints about how much of people’s behaviour is learnt from parents, or (in Rosie’s case) is a reaction against what they were getting wrong. (I was reading ahead into the next section, which is Rosie’s, and Anouk quotes – guess – Larkin’s lines about what your parents do to you. It’s the only line anybody in novels ever quotes about parenthood.)
So, what happens in the 100 or so pages of Connie? A week or two in the life of what Tsiolkas blithely calls an adolescent, so there’s as much of a hormonal cocktail sluicing around inside her as there is in Anouk in her section. I found the writing leaden, and Tsiolkas seems to feel the need to beef things up from time to time. We don’t just get a typical day at the vet’s clinic, we get a day that ends with an emergency operation on a dog that’s gashed its leg to the bone. We don’t just get a party, but one at which Connie, for the first time ever, wears one of her aunt’s dresses, looks stunning, and has her first proper sexual experience. We don’t just get… etc. If I could be bothered I’d go back and count how many pages Tsiolkas gives himself between each new narrative kick in this section…
… and I realise that he’s been doing it throughout the novel. Things getting boring? Have a row/ burst of real or imagined violence/ graphic sex scene – and if it’s a blow-job, make it deep and penetrating. In Connie’s section the one that made me stop reading for a while in sheer disgust was her allegation to Richie – who is the obligatory gay best friend that Tsiolkas has provided for her – that Hector once raped her, about a year ago. What? What? Ok, she’s upset about the way he’s ended their little affair, upset that he never let her have sex with him even at a Monica Lewinsky level… but she’s supposed to be clever, thoughtful, honest. I’m only carrying on reading because it’s one of this year’s must-reads – there’s even a tv series now – and, well, that’s what I do.
Anything else? Connie’s parents, now dead, were surprisingly conventional. As if. In fact, they were hippie types who hated Australia so much they emigrated to England, where Connie spent most of her childhood. (Tsiolkas’s sole, oft-repeated concession to her Englishness is that she can’t get used to calling football ‘soccer’. Yawn.) Her father was – wait for it – bisexual, caught Aids from a dirty needle on one night of shame, and infected his wife. If they were ever actually married. Who cares anyway? Connie now lives with Tasha, her father’s ‘beloved’ but almost estranged sister – that’s what 10,000 miles and a reluctance to use either emails or the phone will do for you – and is like an idealised older sister to her now. Tsiolkas contrives it so that Connie has a copy of his letter to Tasha asking her to look after his daughter, and there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Enough? Er… Connie is forthrightly certain that the slap is unforgivable, and we get some riffs from Tsiolkas – mainly through Tasha – on how adolescents see things in black and white. ‘Brutal’ is her almost serious assessment of one of Connie’s decisive opinions, and this is how the section ends. At last.
The subject on this particular card seems to be how you can take the kid out of [location] but you can’t take [location] out of the kid. Not that Rosie and Gary are kids, even if they behave like it as Tsiolkas takes us through the tension of the run-up to the hearing and then the aftermath once their case has been thrown out. Not only is Gary from the wrong side of the tracks – and Tsiolkas likes to give us dark hints about how Melbourne is divided by almost tribal class boundaries – he’s from a long line of alcoholics. So apparently, in this particular universe, his destiny is clear. Rosie, on the other hand, is from the right side of the tracks, but she’s the daughter of a spectacularly unloving mother and a father who gambles all their money away before topping himself. All together now, what do your parents do to you?
Rosie is Emotionally-Starved Needy Woman, and Tsiolkas is his usual subtle self in demonstrating this for us. She procrastinates so long she is almost too late with the obligatory birthday phone call to catch her mother’s acceptable time-window in Perth – and when she does get through we hear that the old woman really is as emotionally buttoned-up as Rosie thinks. Buttoned, bound, tied up with gaffer-tape. And we hear about substitutes for love that Rosie found as a younger woman not only through an affair with an older, married man during her wasted years in England but, before that, her embracing of the label of school slut by doing a lot more than embracing every boy in the school – once, seven of them in one night. And… we get the uber-difficult birth of Hugo. She was always going to have attachment issues but feeling, as she puts it, split in two by his entry into the world makes her wish he’d never been born at all…
…until she changes her mind. When he’s six months old, she’s about to go out for two hours and leave him screaming. But she realises what she’s contemplating and, basically, makes him the centre of her life from then on. Tsiolkas is as unsubtle as usual in filling in the details, and gives us constant reminders through her references to Hugo as meaning the whole world to her, and to her inability to imagine life without him after he starts ‘kinder’. She does the sensible thing: contemplates putting holes in Gary’s condoms because ‘Hugo needs a brother’: Richie often babysits and Hugo likes him. Case proven.
Gary. Like Rosie, he is two characters: the one we are given in the novel and a completely different person that we don’t recognise but who allegedly existed at some time in the past and has the same name. Gary the near-alcoholic slob is also a bohemian in a suit, self-taught arbiter of taste and behaviour that a younger Rosie meets at an exhibition. The only thing we might just recognise is his dismissiveness of almost everything and everyone as middle-class. But it’s hard to believe the Gary we’ve met has actually read those books on the shelves, never mind impressed anyone with his pronouncements. We’re supposed to believe that she mistook his bitterness for intellectual rigour, but who is Tsiolkas trying to kid? The Gary we know is an idiot.
So anyway. They lose the hearing, and as Gary consoles himself with drink, Rosie does her best to console herself through her increasingly dodgy relationship with Hugo – she breastfeeds him after promising herself that it really is time to wean him off it – and through her increasingly creaky friendships. She keeps telling little white lies to Anouk and Aisha that aren’t little at all – anything to make it seem that things are ok between her and the world. The only person she is ever truthful about is her mother, safely 3,000 miles away; Gary is fine with the way they are bringing up Hugo, Harry is a monster who had a glint of pleasure in his eyes as he assaulted her child… and so on. But she has to come clean after Gary doesn’t get home from the pub. She is drunk herself, but drives to see Shamira, formerly Sammy and Balal, formerly Terry.
Bad move. She insists on going with Balal when he offers to find Gary, and it ends in humiliation for both of them. Gary insults him in front of some other Aborigines he’s drinking with and the barman throws him out when he tries to force Gary to come with them. As they drive home, Balal makes Rosie promise she will never contact either him or Shamira ever again – even though only a couple of weeks or so ago she was accompanying them on trips to look at houses she knows she and Gary will never be able to afford. And when she finds Gary unconscious outside their house next morning, he’s soiled himself. Rosie’s life? A mess? Tsiolkas hasn’t missed a single opportunity to write it for us in foot-high letters.
… is the old patriarch so the subjects on the card, in order, are death, and families. Shall I leave it there?
You wish. In fact, he’s nothing so grand as a patriarch, just an old dad trying to do his best for his grown-up kids and a husband trying to get through the final decade or two of a marriage that has clearly never been plain sailing. We happen upon him when he’s reading – guess – the death notices in the paper. He seems ok with them, unless the dead person is young. And the kick-start to this section is… he recognises the name of someone he used to know, so Tsiolkas can take him and his wife to a funeral. Where they can meet a lot of people they used to know. And they can think about life, death, the afterlife (or not), whether it amounts to a hill of beans (or not), whether there’s any spark of life left in any of them… etc. And God, it’s dull.
Of all the sections so far, this has seemed the most like a rather sterile exercise in creative writing. Tsiolkas must have parents of about this age, so he’s thought, What must it be like? And these pages are the results of his efforts to answer the question. Recently I’ve read several novels in which old age is dealt with properly, and this isn’t one of them. Tsiolkas’s insights seem to consist of old age being rubbish and that there’s little left to enjoy but memories and grandchildren. Of course, this being the book it is, we have to get at least one erection. It’s the one that Manolis wakes up with one morning, and he regards it as a kind of mockery. His relationship with his wife hasn’t been a sexual one for years – and, ironically, when he thinks back to his ‘virile’ days he remembers a drunken visit to a brothel when he couldn’t get the erection he’s got now. How we laughed.
Eventually Tsiolkas seems to remember that this is supposed to be a book about a slap, so he has a rift developing between Manolis (and his wife) and Aisha. She’s not coming to Harry’s party because she’s decided to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her friend Rosie rather than with what Manolis calls her family. This is an insult to them. That’s the Greeks, y’see: family comes first every time. For Manolis’s wife Aisha’s attitude proves her point: after fifteen years, her daughter-in-law is still ‘the Indian’, and Manolis knows this is never going to change. That’s the Greeks as well: routinely and proudly tribal. Just don’t ever mention their daughter’s divorce. After the first section of this novel I described these two as ‘open, generous, old-school Greeks’, and that’s what they are. But only to people connected to them by blood. That’s the old-school Greek way.
Can I stop now?
I can’t remember another book which I’ve started off enjoying only to dislike it more and more the further I read. I hate plenty of the books I read, but usually I can tell from Chapter 1 that I’m not going to enjoy them. I rather liked the first section or two of The Slap, but for some time now I’ve hated each section more than the one before.
But that’s enough about me. Aisha… needs some upheaval in her life. Tsiolkas being the kind of author he is, she finds herself attending a conference at which she spends time in the company of an attractive-looking co-delegate, and then on the first holiday she’s spent alone with Hector since the kids were born. Thailand and Bali, since you ask. And guess what? She’s contemplating extra-marital sex for the first time since she married Hector.
Will she, won’t she? She will. Will we get Tsiolkas-style riffs on comparative cock size, sexual technique, physique, style of dress…? We will, we will, we will. Will she wonder about the state of her marriage, the importance of her children in her life, the meaning of the business success she’s achieved? Will I stop asking these obvious questions?
So, that’s upheaval No.1, and she’s able to think wistfully about it all as she waits for the plane to Bali. Time for upheaval No.2: Aisha and Hector. After a lot more information than we could possibly want about the rough sex that Hector goes in for – and that Aisha seems to want, following her adventure in Thailand – Tsiolkas would have us believe that Hector is going through a crisis of some kind. It’s another box to be ticked, I suppose: the mid-life crisis – and Christ it’s dull. Weeping, admission of adultery with a ’19-year-old’ (definitely not identified as Connie), contrition. In return, from Aisha: confession of the affair in Thailand – followed by a finite period of anger about the fact that she’s always known about his affairs but pretended not to. More difficult for her to cope with is her anger that he’s chasing girls less than half her age. It makes her feel – well, how do you think it makes her feel?
There’s an internet site I know that satirises ‘First World problems’, and this section is full of them. The biggest decisions they make in Bali are a) that they will definitely stay married and b) she will make contact with Sandi to congratulate her on – plot device alert – becoming pregnant. The concession she gains in return is that they will be allowed to move to a more up-market catchment area if their kids don’t get on in their state schools. That’s what long-term love is really about, she decides: negotiation. Give me strength.
Soon they’re back in Melbourne for more upheavals. These come in the form of little problems that Tsiolkas presents as huge dilemmas. It’s all preposterously overblown, like how can she possibly be reconciled enough with Harry to contemplate going to see him and Sandi? Especially – further plot device alert – when she thinks of how violent Harry can be to his wife? Reader, do you remember those violent fantasies of his? Well, ten years ago – and I can’t decide whether Tsiolkas had this in mind from the start or whether he just makes it up on the spot to beef up a rather pathetic plot-line – he hit Sandi so hard on his way to see Hector and Aisha that he broke her jaw and knocked out some teeth. And there’s another dilemma: fit conference-delegate has emailed her. Should she reply? Yawn.
Once she’s decided not only on a family outing to see Harry and Sandi, but to tell Rosie about her promise to Hector that she will…. How to respond to Rosie’s raving madwoman act after she’s told her in a coffee-shop? Promise to change her mind? Or stick with the promise she’s made to her husband? Go with the song she’s been hearing in her head since she woke up, about a New Day – throwing up everything she has, including her husband, in order to live as she knows she could if only, if only…? What will she say to Rosie? Yep, your friendship means more to me than Hector does?
Don’t be ridiculous. She tells Rosie she isn’t going to change her mind, lets Rosie swear and storm like the emotional illiterate she’s shown herself to be all along, and goes into the closed-up clinic. Why? Because that’s where she knows she has enough narcotics to kill herself painlessly, a thought she’s always found extremely comforting. And she does it. At last, something unpredictable, something outside the suburban mind-set she’s demonstrated throughout.
You wish. What she really does is turn on the computer, delete the naughty email, and go home to her family. What else would she do?
If only Tsiokas had written this novel in a less earnest tone, so that we could see these characters as satirical types. Imagine what Jonathan Franzen could have done with the smallness of their ambitions and dilemmas: instead of being annoyed by the pettiness of it all, perhaps we’d be stung into a powerful recognition of the absurdity of our own lives. Perhaps.
For reasons of plotting – and despite attempting to do serious things, Tsiolkas drives things forward entirely through plot – this novel has to end with boring old Richie. Up to now he’s been underdrawn and uninteresting… but he is the keeper of Connie’s big secret – you know, the one she made up in a way that was so out of character I was ready to give up on the whole thing. Once an author like this has introduced such a startling element, it’s only a matter of time before he uses it to give another of his little kicks to the narrative. The only questions are when and how – not why, because we know why. When it arrived I put the book down for a minute in disgust. Out loud – I’m not kidding – I said, Cheap.
First the set-up. This involves not only the false secret but something else from the same chapter that I haven’t mentioned. At Rosie and Gary’s house, where Connie and Richie both babysit the awful Hugo, they find a photo album containing pictures of some of the adults we know, taken when they were young. The most striking for Connie, obviously, is Hector – but, reader, Richie is the one who has stolen it by the time she next comes to look at it. Ok. Now Tsiolkas needs something to add a (rather thin) measure of plausibility to the revelation that’s coming. He needs Richie to see Hector naked, so he decides that Richie has started going to the swimming pool to get a bit fitter. Finally, he has to make the encounter mortifyingly for Richie, so… stare, almost instantaneous (and highly visible) erection, excruciating embarrassment.
Tsiolkas has spent nearly half this section giving Richie’s character a few more attributes that will help. First is the thing we all know about, the uncontrollable sexual urges of adolescents. You can imagine what Tsiolkas makes of this: all his men are sexually incontinent, so his adolescent masturbates a lot, and we get more descriptions of the consistency (etc.) of semen to go with the others we’ve already had. But Tsiolkas also needs Richie to be so acutely self-conscious in adult company that he tends to withdraw into his own private world when embarrassed. Done.
All that’s needed now is another little kick-start, and he can begin. It’s an incident involving Hugo, whose only role in this novel is to point up the inadequacies of the adults around him. He’s on Richie’s back going home from the park, and he spits at an old man on the street for no reason – no reason, that is, beyond the fact that Tsiolkas has painstakingly established throughout the book that this is the sort of atrocity the spoilt little shit is obviously capable of. Ok. Now Tsiolkas can set it all running.
Tells Hugo to apologise. Refuses. Pulls Hugo by the arm until he cries. Gets him home, where Hugo goes into wounded puppy routine in front of Rosie and Gary. Richie tells the story. Rosie doesn’t believe it. The incident is glossed over and everybody’s friends again – except Rosie wants Richie to apologise. He’s embarrassed, starts counting, blurts out… that he’s seen Hector. Realises his mistake, starts holding his breath and counting again. (Can you believe any of this nonsense?) When he hears how wrong it is to hurt anyone, he blurts out – he’s good at blurting – that it’s nothing compared to what Hector did to Connie.
There. All prepared for a massive climax… which, bizarrely, Tsiolkas allows to fizzle out in a silly scene at the vet clinic at which Gary and Rosie, having gleefully told Aisha what a monster she’s married to, are put right by Connie: it never happened. She says Richie made it up because he’s obsessed by Hector, stole a photo of him from their album – in other words, rather than admitting, say, that she was indulging in some wishful thinking and Richie misunderstood her, she’s as self-protecting and immature as he is. Richie – and how second-rate is this? – wishes the ground would open up and swallow him.
But it doesn’t and his mum, who works at the clinic, slaps his face. What’s a boy to do? Run home and take an overdose, of course. Enter Mum, to stick her fingers down his throat and get him to hospital sharpish. In other words, as so often in this novel, once an extremity has been reached things simply wind back as though almost nothing has happened. Cue reconciliations, forgiveness, everybody all cuddly and warm. What? All that painstaking preparation for a messy little squabble that nobody can win? Is this supposed to be ‘reality’ in Tsiolkas-land, a place where people just stumble on in the dark and try to put right the stupid messes they’ve made?
Yep, I think it is. Families, friends, the differences between generations, sexual discovery, the bringing-up of children…. Tsolkias has spent the whole novel holding up all of these for examination and made them seem both self-indulgent and very dull. And the only possible interest that might have been derived after Tsiolkas has spent so much time setting up the big firework display of Richie’s revelation – Aisha’s reappraisal of what Hector’s confession might really have meant – is strangled at birth.
But at least it means we reach the end not too long afterwards, thank god.