Holding Up a Mirror to Multicultural Society

Despite generally avoiding Australian literature like it was a pub trivia night hosted by Peter Costello, recently I started reading Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap. It’s one of the most highly praised Australian novels of recent times, it’s crossed over to have (relatively) wide mainstream success – and it’s total crap. It’s not crap because it’s badly written or because its characters fail to convince; it’s crap because the whole time I was reading it all I could think of was “this is what a book written by Chris Lilley would be like”.

If you’re reading this blog you have at least a passing interest in Australian comedy, and – avoiding the various “comedy?” jokes that leap to mind – you know the work of Chris Lilley. He’s one of the most highly praised Australian comedians of recent times, he’s crossed over to have wide mainstream success – and his shows are total crap. They’re not crap because they’re badly written or the characters fail to convince: they’re crap because the only thing Lilley wants his audience to do is think “that’s so true!”

For example: when you hear people talking about how “hilarious” We Can Be Heroes or Summer Heights High is, do they repeat actual jokes or funny lines, or do they say “I know someone just like [insert character name here]”? Chances are it’s the latter, because that’s pretty much the whole point of the show: to impress you with what a great and insightful actor Chris Lilley is. Otherwise he wouldn’t be playing every major character and saying every single supposedly funny line.

[There’s a whole ‘nother post in how Lilley’s supposedly sharply observed characters are just the same old clichéd comedy characters, only treated slightly more realistically – Ja’ime is Kyle Mole, the policeman in WCBH is David Brent, the rolling Mum is Kath and / or Kim, and so on. Suffice to say, we’re all waiting for his take on Col’n Carpenter.]

Unfortunately for those of us who like comedy to be funny, Lilley has been a massive success here and a moderate success worldwide. Feel free to cut some cheese to go with this whine: WHHYYYY? After all, he does the same jokes again and again (“offensive” musical numbers, anyone?) and seems to specialise in stale stereotypes such as the brainy Asian (Ricky Wong) and the camp drama teacher (Mr G). But while reading The Slap (remember? I mentioned it a billion years ago?) I realised something: if Lilley’s shows were funnier, they wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful.

The Slap, for those not in the know, is about a bunch of middle-class inner city Melbournites from varying ethnic backgrounds whose circle of friends falls apart when one of them slaps someone else’s bratty child at a barbeque. It’s not exactly narrative driven: each chapter is basically a character study, with the slap and its repercussions ticking over in the background. So the appeal seems to be that Tsiolkas is painting a picture of various character types that the reader will recognise. In short: “that’s so true!”

Whether Tsiolkas is successful or not is up to others: personally, I found his plotting (one of the things I value most in a novel) to be so arse I just couldn’t get past it. For example, an early chapter has a single woman a): throwing up in the morning, b): having unprotected sex with her much younger boyfriend, then c): we got the shock revelation that SHE’S PREGNANT. Even a trashy Hollywood blockbuster would get laughed out of the cinema for trying that – not win the 2009 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Book of the Year.

Then in the same chapter the woman calls up her (sensible) friend to have lunch, knowing that said (sensible) friend will invite their mutual (but sentimental) friend along. As the woman wants to discuss having an abortion, she knows the sentimental friend will block any rational discussion, yet when the sensible friend – not knowing it’s an abortion talk –  says “I’ll invite sentiment-girl” the woman’s reaction is “she didn’t know why she didn’t say no”. I know why she didn’t say no: because Tsiolkas couldn’t be arsed going back and coming up with a reason, despite it being totally out of character.

But you see, none of that matters so long as people can go “that’s so true!”. As a novel The Slap has massive flaws that in other genres would be greeted with cries of FAIL, but as a serious character study… well, in real life people do things all the time without knowing exactly why, right? If it was slickly plotted and packed with hilarious one-liners and surprising developments it wouldn’t seem as true-to-life, would it?

And so we return to Lilley. His shows work for a lot of people because those people seem to think every time he puts on a dress and says something bitchy that “that’s so true”. Lilley’s shows “work” because – just like The Slap – they’re supposedly holding up a mirror to the reality of Australia’s multicultural society. If they were more polished, if they were funnier or better plotted or more satisfying, they’d be less like real life. Real life is full of crap not-quite-jokes and embarrassing pauses and unconvincing dialogue and so on. Just like Summer Heights High.

Call me old-fashioned: I like my comedy to be funny and my novels to have a story and I honestly don’t see why a work can’t be “realistic” and still have those things. But clearly I’m in a tiny minority: for a lot of people out there – the people who just want to laugh at brainy Asians and violent Islanders all over again, and the people who think that the occasional dramatic moment makes a comedy cliché somehow realistic – this kind of crap deserves all the praise it can get. Because nothing’s more entertaining than looking in a mirror.

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1 Comment

  • James T says:

    For a riotous unintentional Australian comedy in the ‘Slap’ vein, may I suggest Hsu Ming Teo’s “Behind the Moon”, one of the most amateurishly-written books I’ve ever read. It kind of dips into that John Birmingham school (at least, of the Tassie Babes Fiasco period) of getting a bunch of disconnected stuff you find interesting and cramming it into a novel, but mostly it just falls prey to the kind of basic pitfalls they’d warn you away from in an introductory creative writing class. Astonishing book.