When Philip Sharpe – philosophy professor, bestselling author, and left-wing public intellectual – makes a phenomenally ill-advised remark on live TV, his “slip” goes viral, sending the rest of his life into a tailspin. It’s a topical premise, but one that the third novel from Mark Sampson (a frequent Q&Q reviewer) nonetheless pushes into some unexpected, and unexpectedly comic, territory.
Told in Sharpe’s own voice, The Slip follows a week in the bearded, tweedy professor’s life, from initial gaffe through damage control. As the novel opens, he’s sitting fairly pretty: owner of a beautiful three-storey home in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood, husband to a beautiful wife, and breadwinner for two clever children. But Sharpe’s home life has other distinct obligations, and he isn’t holding up his end of the bargain. The weight of those domestic problems distracts him, allegedly, once the TV cameras are rolling. (He also can’t for the life of him get a Remembrance Day poppy to stay attached to his jacket – a cardinal sin in Canada in early November.)
The gaffe happens in the book’s early pages, and Sampson does a fine job teasing out his hero’s fundamental naivety. As it happens, Sharpe has actually made two slips on air: one a comment unwittingly implying sexual violence against his female co-panellist, and one a philosophical mistake about enforcing laws that don’t yet exist. But Sharpe, oblivious to his co-panellist’s reaction in real time, and later too dismissive to even read his Facebook notifications, spends an agonizingly long stretch of the book mistaken about what, exactly, is causing columnists to berate him in print and students to boycott his classes. “I’m supposed to be a leading expert on Immanuel Kant,” he laments. “What I said was the worst example of the hypothetical imperative I can imagine.”
The Slip turns out to be less about morality itself than the way technology can turn our sense of right and wrong into a game of broken telephone. At various points, Sharpe pines for the kind of in-person, straight-shooting conversation he is familiar with from his father’s pub in Charlottetown. That alone wouldn’t have saved him, of course. But Sampson’s novel is a brisk and well-rendered reminder that those who dismiss social media are the ones most likely to get trampled by it.