Is this book offensive?

September 28, 2010

I finished reading Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap a few weeks ago and since turning the last page have pondered the idea of what causes a book to be called offensive.

This unputdownable novel, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, raised the fur for many who thought it too offensive to be considered for the Booker’s prestigious recognition. The outcry was over the content containing “unbelievable misogyny.”  I wondered why some but not all, including the judges, held that viewpoint. Is a book universally offensive or offensive to a few? And is a book offensive or are the characters offensive?  

In an interview with the U.K.’s Telegraph, Tsiolkas, an Australian author, said, “It’s not a misogynistic book; it’s about infantile men who are misogynistic.”

He’s referring to Hector and Harry, Greek cousins living successful suburban lives outside Melbourne with their beautiful wives and children. Their inner thoughts are filled with pornographic sex, violence, racist commentary and intolerance for the weak. They revert to drugs, booze, infidelity and anger to make themselves feel better, and they’re self-absorbed, arrogant and filled with self-entitlement. Harry almost hits his wife, angry over family business she’s shared with Hector, and when he hugs her in regret, she reminds him of a “faithful, dumb animal.”

We don’t see Harry slap his wife, but we do see him slap the three-year-old son of hippy couple Gary and Rosie at Hector and wife Aisha’s barbecue in the beginning of the book. This slap reverberates through family and friends at the backyard event, dividing some who think the aggressive, undisciplined Hugo deserved it, while others think it’s wrong to hit a child, especially not one’s own.  Gary and Rosie file charges, and as the story moves from the moment of the slap to the court date and after,  Tsiolkas takes us through the viewpoints of eight witnessing characters with such skill you never have the sense of an author at work. It’s pure involved reading.

But is it offensive?  I didn’t think so. Yes, Harry and Hector are disgusting. They as well as the wives we hear from — Rosie and Aisha — lie to their loved ones and to themselves. The reasons for staying married have everything to do with money and appearances. Tsiolkas balances these selfish adults with the viewpoints of two high school kids who also witnessed the slap, teenagers searching for love and confused by what they want and what they can have.  And then there’s my favorite character Manolis, Hector’s father, an aging Greek man who believes his generation bred monsters, sons and daughters who lack humility and generosity, let alone faith and loyalty to one’s family and God. 

Curious about this concept of offensive books, I found a thread on Library Thing, a cataloging and social networking site for book lovers, that asks the question: What is the most offensive book you got through? Among those offered up are Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and John Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. After that, I found a New York Times blog post — “A Library’s Approach to Books that Offend” —  about how librarians handle patrons’ objections to offensive books in circulation. “In general, librarians are trained to tackle any complaints about books with a polite demeanor. But they are also instructed to stand firm in defending the book’s presence in the library.” One example of an objection: The library received a complaint about Pulitzer-winner Beloved by Toni Morrison for sexual content.  

The Slap no doubt is a potential target for library complaints, if not for misogyny then for sexual content and foul language. But offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder. Wasn’t  that at the root of the fatwa issued to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses  in 1989? The Slap gets both “love it” and “hate it” reactions from critics and readers alike, and I’m in the former camp, as well as on the side of the author — it’s the characters that are offensive. What’s most disturbing is how true to life they appear in this riveting story.

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