I’ve decided to try reading more audiobooks this year, despite not being a big fan of this mode of consuming books. I’m a textual person. I like to see the print on the page, how it is set out. I like to see the words. I like to see how the names are spelt. Given my reservations and the fact that I expect to “read” in short stints, I thought short stories might be the way to go. I think they are, though my overall reservations still stand.
My first book was one that was well-reviewed when it appeared in 2016, Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. It won the SMH Best Young Novelists Awards in 2017, and was shortlisted for several other awards, including the Steele Rudd Award for Short Story Collections (Queensland Literary Awards) and the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards). I checked to see who won the Steele Rudd Award that year, because Koh’s collection is great. It was clearly a strong year. There were co-winners, Elizabeth Harrower’s wonderful A few days in the country, and other stories (my review) and Fiona McFarlane’s High places, which I’ve also been wanting to read.
So, Portable curiosities. I had no idea what this collection was about, and was delighted to find a lively, engaged and engaging interrogation of contemporary Australia, particularly as it intersects with Chinese-Australian experience. It is highly satirical, penetrating the myths and assumptions that underpin our shaky existence.
The order of stories in a collection is always worth thinking about, and it is notable that this twelve-story collection opens with a story called “Sight” which satirises immigrant Chinese mothers who are so ambitious for their children to fit in and achieve success that they discourage any sort of individuality or creativity. Many of the stories have a surreal or absurdist element. They start realistically but suddenly we find ourselves in another realm or dimension. “Sight”, starting off the collection, is an example. Here, we suddenly find our young narrator having a “third eye” painted on her navel. This eye represents her imaginative self, so her mother organises for it to be removed in an operation.
From here, having satirised Chinese immigrant culture, Koh moves on to critique, with biting clarity, aspects of Australian culture, from misogyny (in “Fantastic breasts” where our male narrator looks for “the perfect set of breasts to have and to hold” at a conference on “The difficulties of an objective existence in a patriarchal world”) to crushing, soulless workplaces that pay lipservice to their employees’ mental health (in “Civility Place”). “Satirist rising” mourns the end of the civilised world, with a bizarre travelling exhibition that aims to ensure the continuation of the “landscapes of our mind”, while the cleverly titled “Cream reaper” (you have to read it to see what I mean) tackles foodie culture, turning foodie-ism into an extreme sport. Along the way, it also skewers multiple aspects of our capitalist culture, like the housing bubble, the commercialism of art, institutional banking, and the plight of the tortured writer.
As a retired film archivist, I loved “The three-dimensional yellow man” which takes to task the stereotyping of Asians on film. There’s “no need for a back story”, our one-dimensional (yellow man) Asian actor is told, “you’re evil”. He belongs, after all, to the “cruel, meek blank-faced race”. Again, the satirical targets are broad-ranging from film festival panels to Pauline Hanson – and embarrassingly close to the bone.
Many of the stories, like “Two” and “Slow death of Cat Cafe”, explore success, materialism and power, while the 2030-set “The Sister Company” exposes a cynically commercial “mental health industry” through the application of androids to the problem. All these stories, despite, or because of, their laugh-out-loud moments and forays into absurdity, hit their mark. A couple, such as “Two” and “Cream reaper”, felt a bit long, even though I thoroughly enjoyed their imagination, but this might have been a product of listening rather than reading, so I’m reserving judgement on this.
My favourite, however, was probably the last, “The fat girl in history”, which opens on a reference to the popular (in Australia) CSIRO Total Well-being Diet. The narrator is Julie, and, although this story also moves into surreal realms, there is a strong sense of autofiction here. Remember, though, that autofiction is still fiction so … Our narrator is a fiction-writer experiencing a crisis of confidence. She has written about a depressed girl, androids and the future – all of which appear in this collection. She’s been told that she writes like Peter Carey, though she admits she’s never read him. She reads an article telling her that contemporary literature is “in the throes of autofiction”, that the “days of pastiche are over”, and then informs us that she’s going to write autofiction titled “The fat girl in history.” Australians will know that Peter Carey has written a short story, “The fat man in history”, and that his debut collection named for this story started his stellar career. I will leave you to think about the portents and threads of meaning Koh is playing with here, but her outright cheekiness in daring us to go with her made me laugh – particularly when I saw where she went.
Portable curiosities deals with serious, on-song subjects, and I so enjoyed seeing her address them through satire, absurdity and surrealism with a healthy dose of black humour. At times the lateral thinking in these stories, not to mention Koh’s interest in satire, reminded me of Carmel Bird. A most enjoyable collection, that was expressively read by Lauren Hamilton Neill.
Portable curiosities: Stories
(Read by Lauren Hamilton Neill)
Bolinda Audio, 2018 (Orig. pub. 2016)
5hrs 48mins (Unabridged)