The Weekend Australian - Review
SMART OVENS FOR LONELY PEOPLE
By Elizabeth Tan Brio, 226pp, $29.99
Grunge fiction in the 1980s and 90s featured young people living in grimy inner-city suburbs and colouring their discombobulation with drugs, booze and awkward or unfortunate sex. This kind of novel is no longer possible. The inner cities such characters once slouched around now gleam with renovation, and their bohemia is a nostalgic concept. Australia’s cities are more cosmopolitan but somehow less free as a consequence of the economic grind it takes to live in them.
Yet the necessity of self-discovery continues as a narrative drive, in life and fiction.
Contemporary novels gift us Tinder and Grindr disasters, online anomie and mishaps with pills. Graduates of creative writing programs gift us with novels (and, increasingly, memoirs) about their 20s. Rather than slacking off (hardly anyone can afford it anymore), they tend to deal with the pressures (and dissatisfactions) of seeking success.
A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, the excellent debut novel by Sydney journalist Jessie Tu and one of six books short-listed for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, is a case in point.
Set in Sydney and New York, it follows violinist Jena Chung as she deals with the pressures of being a violin prodigy and struggles to find some basis in her life for happiness.
Primed by her prodigy grandfather, tiger mother and uncompromising teacher, by 14 Jena has won a stack of violin competitions, to the extent that she has been invited to solo with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.
However, just before she goes on stage she sees something she wishes she hadn’t and as a consequence chokes the performance.
The action of the novel occurs as Jena, by now in her 20s, attempts to deal with the aftermath of her “disgrace”. She continues to play violin professionally, but at a lower level, as a casual in orchestra sections and gigging at functions. It’s a limbo existence for her which she fills with compulsive and indiscriminate sex, culminating in an exploitative relationship with an older man, Mark, who is corporate and cashed-up.
In some ways this is a cautionary tale, as getting of wisdom narratives often are. Despite all the sex Jena has, there is no happiness in it. Instead, she seems to be seeking a kind of selfannihilation by offering her body up to be abused, or sacrificing friendships for unsatisfying but illicit trysts.
It’s a story of life in a transactional city and how this culture militates against the kinds of intimacy that facilitate healing. In a patriarchal novel, this would be a tale of a naive young woman being exploited until her knight in shining armour arrives. But in this case, it’s more a feminist novel of a young woman battling with her demons, which to a large extent are the product of the expectations placed upon her.
Importantly, Tu eschews the idea of victimhood while staying aware of the persistence of patterns of structural social inequity. Jena has agency over her self-destructiveness, which stays with her until an opportunity allows her to return to the US, where she discovers the value of friendship as a partial cure for her unhealthy trajectory.
Perth has the distinction of being closer to Singapore than to the eastern capitals. While it has attracted many emigrants from South Africa and England, this proximity is something Elizabeth Tan, born in Perth to Singaporean parents, uses to great effect in her fiction.
Smart Ovens for Lonely People is a short story collection that builds upon the innovations of her 2017 debut novel, Rubik. It has also been shortlisted for the 2020 Readings Prize, which will be announced in October. (The other shortlistees are Laura Jean McKay for The Animals In That Country, Lauren Aimee Curtis for Delores, Joey Bui for Lucky Ticket and Yumma Kassab for The House of Youssef.)
One of the highlights of Tan’s collection is the futuristic riff of the story, Eighteen Bells Karaoke Castle (Sing your Heart Out), set in a Perth that is the aftermath of another story, A Year of Unprecedented Ecological Disaster, where Pikelet (a nod to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet) works part-time in a karaoke lounge where people such as herself, born in the Year of the Rabbit, are doomed to die sooner than their peers belonging to other annualised animals.
In the lounge, people sing songs while watching nostalgic videos of everyday life in pre-disaster Perth, such as ‘‘Attractive Caucasian Woman Laughing in Kings Park’’ or ‘‘Group of Multiethnic People at Sundown on Ritz-Carlton Hotel Rooftop’’. Pikelet’s enjoyment of her work is juxtaposed against the precarity of her continued existence. The drily made point is how much we take our present way of living for granted.
Tan is interested in positing unusual convergences. In the titular story, she fuses the increasing popularity of devices such as Alexa and Siri with the paradoxical loneliness caused by the frantic interconnectivity of an online experienced world.
The narrator of the story has been sent a therapeutic oven after a suicidal moment at an overpass. The oven is a Neko (Japanese for cat) Oven, which interacts with its owner, asking her what she would like to eat, playing music, avoiding answering certain questions at the same time as it reports on the mental health of the person to whom it has been sent to live with.
Although the setting is Perth, the comfort of cooking and baking meets with the paternalism of online surveillance in a way that is more Singaporean. Tan’s themes are often domestic. The story Washing Day, for example, fuses fitness classes and clothes washing, through one woman’s experience of a washing machine anomaly that causes one of her favourite dresses, along with other people’s clothing items, to disappear. It is left to a university physics department to try to figure it out.
There’s some correspondences here with the work of Sydneybased Julie Koh. Both play with the tropes of kawaii culture, yet Tan’s work operates on a more conceptual level, mining indeterminacy for its effects, whereas Koh’s work frequently has the visceral thrill of transition into the macabre.
Tan’s stories are speculations that unstitch reality and stitch it back together using diverse and fascinating threads of culture, consumer goods and sensibilities. Often, lurking in the stitching, there are characters on the brink of desolation, yet unable to articulate their cry for help. The effect on the reader is one of displacement, sliding doors, and of being led on a merry dance through the connective tissue of an unusual and brilliant mind that teases (and spooks) us with gauzy mishmash visions that hover between now and the whatever comes next.