The Weekend Australian - Review

SMART OVENS FOR LONELY PEO­PLE

- Ed Wright Ed Wright is a writer, poet and critic. Arts · Australia · Tinder · Grindr · Tsu · New York City · New York · Carnegie Hall · Carnegie · United States of America · Singapore · South Africa · England · Ritz-Carlton Bahrain Hotel and Spa · Jena · New York Philharmonic · The Animals · Kings Park, New York

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.

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