‘The Slip’ by Mark Sampson

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Keith Cadieux

The Canadian literary scene is no stranger to so-called outrage culture: the all-too-public screaming matches that often surround particular news items, TV appearances or blog posts. This is the atmosphere that Mark Sampson wades into with his latest novel, The SlipThe Slip is told from the perspective of Dr. Philip Sharpe, a University of Toronto philosophy professor. He owns a giant house in the affluent “Cabbagetown” neighbourhood, and he has a gorgeous and much younger wife and two daughters. He is a minor celebrity because of his books on philosophy and politics, one of which was a surprise bestseller early in his career. The narrative alternates between current scenes, each taking place on sequential days after the titular slip, and scenes from Philip’s past, which fill in the backstory.

The opening scene is one of fairly generic domestic chaos. Philip struggles to collect his thoughts, dress appropriately, and pound back cocktails on his way out the door to a CBC interview about the collapse of a giant financial group responsible for thousands of Canadian pensions. While Philip is focused entirely on himself, his wife Grace struggles with caring for their two daughters and maintaining an aging house in need of serious repairs—all things Philip considers to be “domestic trifles” that are beneath his attention.

The pair is soon shouting at each other, and as Philip tries only to shut down the argument so he can leave, Grace throws out a lazy sitcom-cliché of a putdown: “I’m getting pretty used to your inability to satisfy me whenever I want.” This frazzles Philip to the point of distraction during the interview, where he must debate his right-wing rival, Cheryl Sneed. In the middle of the interview, he rails against the management of this financial group and declares that they should be thrown in jail, even though they have not technically broken the law.

The statement actually goes against Philip’s core beliefs as a Kantian, and he is sure that the audience is in awe of the hypocrisy of this statement. Soon after, he throws a sexually-charged insult at his rival and the interview comes to an awkward end. None of the crew or producers will speak to him or look at him, but Philip thinks it is because of the philosophical gaffe he has made about the CEOs being jailed. The situation grows only worse from there as students begin boycotting his class, a rally is held to call for his dismissal, and his wife becomes increasingly frustrated and enraged with him.

And herein lies the novel’s biggest problem. It takes 219 pages for Philip to even realize that people are not upset about his failure to uphold Kantian ethics, but rather with the sexist and threatening insult he flung at a female colleague. All of the non-flashback scenes comprise near-misses where Philip speaks with someone important—his wife, his boss, his ex-lover—about the media storm that has erupted, but all parties use such inexact and vague language, everyone tap-dancing around the issue itself, that Philip never realizes that they are not speaking about the same statement.

This conceit works fine for the first few instances but after about a third of the way through the novel it simply becomes too hard to believe that either Philip does not realize the backlash is far out of proportion to what he believes is largely an academic mistake or that no one, his wife especially, calls out what he has actually said to Cheryl Sneed. Each scene is designed to reflect a near-miss rather than an organic interaction, and so they often feel forced and shoe-horned into the narrative in an attempt to stretch out the time it takes for Philip to realize the actual issue.

At the same time, Sampson includes an element that seems to signal he is aware the premise is spread too thin. Toward the end, once Philip fully realizes why everyone is actually upset, he addresses the build-up of elisions and near-misses directly to the reader. In a strange transfer of blame, Sampson the author seems to bleed through Philip Sharpe’s narrative voice and declare that if any reader finds the premise to be faulty or far-fetched, it is their fault for having read all the way to the end:

But what about you, dear reader? Do you believe any of this? Or do you think I’ve pulled a fast one, played you for a sap, pushed the boundaries of narrative credibility? If so, then go back and reread these pages. Go on. And it you still feel that way, then can I ask: Why are you still here? Why didn’t you throw this book across the room long ago?

In order for the novel to end where it does—with a series of neat resolutions and Philip’s absolution–a powerful apology is required. Though the narrative does indicate that Philip gives a pretty good one, he can’t remember what he actually said:

I just let it all come pouring out. I did. Do you believe me, reader? I don’t blame you if you don’t, because I don’t believe it either. And the reason I don’t believe it is because I don’t remember it. It’s true. To this day I have no idea what I said, there on that stage. I wish I did.

This apology, of course, would have been the most difficult part of the novel to write. Perhaps it would have even been impossible to write, since it’s unlikely that any single apologetic speech would connect with all readers in a way that would allow them to accept the fairly happy conclusion that is soon to follow. But it is another element that distracts from the narrative and reveals the author working to solve a problem with the text itself.

These flaws do not compromise the whole novel, and there are many scenes that work beautifully, most of them flashbacks to Philip’s earlier life. The descriptions of Philip’s impoverished boyhood in P.E.I., helping his father run a bar with a typo in the title (something that annoys Philip into his adulthood), are filled with life and tenderness. Later, after Philip is married to Grace and they take a belated honeymoon, there is a wonderfully awkward scene in which Grace attempts to coax Philip into sex with another couple, something he wants absolutely no part of. It’s stereotypical to assume that many men would be up for such a dalliance, but Philip’s negative reaction feels genuine and is a rare instance where he shows true insecurity and vulnerability as a character.

There are also scenes that are very funny, something that should be expected in a satirical novel. For example, a scene that features Philip trying to reach a fallen Remembrance Day poppy under his boss’s desk while being chewed out for his comments to the CBC (an early near-miss scene) conjures some great visual humour.

For the most part, I did enjoy The Slip. But it’s a novel that might be best enjoyed if readers are able to keep themselves from scrutinizing it too seriously, and allow it to be a fun, short ride.

Dundurn │ 278 pages │ $15.99 │ paper │ ISBN #978-1459735750

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Keith Cadieux

Keith Cadieux is the co-editor of the weird fiction anthology The Shadow Over Portage & Main, published by Enfield & Wizenty and recently shortlisted for a Manitoba Book Award. During the day-job hours, he is the administrative coordinator for the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.