Review: Look Who’s Morphing, by Tom Cho

9781551525396_LookWhosMorphing>>Published: April 2014

I make one more transformation: I transform myself back into a human. More precisely, I transform back to my former self—although I make myself just a few inches taller and with bigger biceps. I look at my watch and see that it is almost four o’clock in the afternoon. I decide that I will find a place to sleep for the night so that, tomorrow, I can try to make my way back home. However, as I begin walking down the street, a gold 1977 Holden Sunbird hatchback pulls up beside me. I stop and wait as my mother transforms from her car-self into her robot-self. Once she has made her transformation, she and I look at each other. I do not say anything; I wait to hear what she will say to me. After a moment, my mother tells me that she knows about my actions at the United Nations Headquarters. I immediately think that she is going to lecture me for the destruction that I have caused. However, to my surprise, she does not do this. She simply shrugs and tells me, “You always had to do things differently from everyone else.” I have heard her say this to me before. However, when I hear it this time, it does not seem like an insult—more a statement of fact. She even looks impressed when I subsequently boast that, in defeating the United Nations peacekeeping force, I defeated an army representing the entire world. She reminds me that she had always raised me to stand up for myself. I nod in agreement. She smiles at me and then she transforms back into a Holden Sunbird. She opens up her front passenger door and she encourages me to get in. She says that she will help me to make my way back home. Feeling tired, I step into the car and relax into the warm vinyl seat. She begins playing a cassette of her favourite classic rock hits and this makes me smile. Then she closes her door, starts up her engine and drives us away.

***

Asian-Australian writer Tom Cho’s first book, Look Who’s Morphing, is a collection of eighteen micro narratives that can best be described as ruminations on identity and assimilation as seen through a kaleidoscope of twentieth century pop culture run amok. Using the concept of “morphing”—transforming into different shapes and beings, such as celebrities, Godzilla-like giants, and gold-plated, anxiety-ridden protocol droids bearing a startling resemblance to characters from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—Cho paints a series of snapshot portraits detailing the difficulties of discovering/accepting oneself amidst a fractured image of family and heritage.

In “Dirty Dancing,” bacteria and enzymes teach compatibility while algae and fungus represent complacency in a tale of love for unity versus love for convenience, where “coming out” is a dance-numbered step into adulthood. “Suitmation” explores a tabloid culture and our obsession therein through the wearing of suits like in the Godzilla films of old, except in place of monsters people are dressing in the sleeves of their favourite celebrities.

The loose triptych of stories, “Dinner with My Brother,” “Dinner with My Grandmother,” and “Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang,” cover in broad strokes different perceived levels of connection: the weight of familial expectations on the young (re: Chinese nomenclature), the barriers between generations (more than just language—experiences as well), and being forced to hide one’s true self beneath a thin fantasy veneer.

Gradually the tone turns further inward and embraces the increasing absurdity of the pop culture metaphors. “The Sound of Music” targets fantasies within fantasies, using the Fonz and Captain von Trapp to ask just how much one’s sexual desires determines their worth. “Learning English” tackles the daunting task of assimilation into a new culture via the (sometimes blind) adoption of said new culture’s popular consumer content, where individuals learn how to act and speak through what mass market media is readily absorbed. And “Today on Dr. Phil” uses the titular program as a means of critiquing our unhealthy need to publicly overshare our innermost selves for a few minutes of screen time. Also, I approve of any story in which the Texas blowhard gets the stuffing knocked out of him.

While there are no “weak” stories in this collection, there are certainly a couple that stand above the rest. “I, Robot” is a wickedly sharp piece about desiring respect from your parents and wanting to succeed in the world despite knowing deep down that you’re simply too different to ever fit into any one box, and hoping in the end you’ll be accepted for who you really are—told through Transformers, a carbon copy of C-3PO, and an all-out assault on the United Nations. “Pinocchio,” meanwhile, works with even more layers of metaphor, imagining the cast of The Muppet Show as consisting of former humans in positions of power and/or authority who’ve been forced to embrace a simpler, vaudevillian life as puppets, the fantasy of having lived alongside such creatures, and the lies we tell our lovers—and ourselves—to convince them we’re more interesting than we really are.

Cho’s collection, which reads more like a singular vision than it does a series of individual tales, relies on the velocity and breadth of its metaphors of metamorphosis in place of depth, literary or otherwise. The pop culture riffs are, for the most part, surface-level slices, each one sheering off a different layer of psychological tissue. In this sense, it works much the same way as Andrew Kaufman’s All My Friends Are Superheroes—while the latter was a proper novella and not a collection of stories, the thin coating of metaphor was similarly just enough to subvert expectations without overwhelming the writing or the characters.

Look Who’s Morphing is at once cutting and light-hearted in its message. Cho gets a lot of distance out of his pop culture ephemera, successfully commenting on the sometimes-overwhelming shadow of familial expectations and cultural diaspora—the twin unifying threads throughout this collection. The book is gleefully absurd, opening a window into Cho’s pop culture card catalogue of a brain capable of bridging the gap between Elvis and the atom bomb and the von Trapps and Whitney Houston with equal degrees of ease.

Review: Loving Sabotage, by Amélie Nothomb

LovingSabotage_300_481>>Published: 1993 (French); October 2000 (English)

>>Finally got around to it: April 2014

In 1974, I read neither Wittgenstein nor Baudelaire nor even The People’s Daily.

I read very little: I had far too much to do. Reading was fine for those underemployed creatures, the adults. They had to find something to occupy themselves.

As for me, I had important functions to attend to.

I had a horse that took three-quarters of my time.

I had crowds to awe.

I had a public image to maintain.

I had a legend to build.

And above all, there was the war: the terrible, epic war of the ghetto of San Li Tun.

Take a crowd of children of various nationalities, enclose them in a restricted space built of concrete, and then let them loose, without supervision. Anyone who thinks the kids will extend the hand of friendship to each other is an idiot.

My family’s arrival coincided with an international summit at which it was declared that the outcome of the Second World War had been mishandled in the haste of the moment. The whole thing had to be refought, but the essential remained: the Germans were still the Bad Guys.

***

If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity over the past few years, you’ve no doubt become aware of my love for the Japan-born Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb. The first book of hers I read was, incidentally, her first novel, though not the first of her works to be published in English: Hygiene and the Assassin. It remains one of my favourite books to this day, one of those precious few I feel a strong need to revisit every now and then.

Since first stumbling upon her work back in 2010, I’ve managed to hunt down a sporadic assortment of her works—whatever I can find translated into English via small hole-in-the-wall bookstores and, when in doubt, ordering from online resources. While it may not come close to the emotional heights of the delicious, visceral war of words that comprises her first novel, Loving Sabotage, the author’s second book and the ninth of hers that I’ve read, is no less a delight to read.

Taking place in the mid-seventies in a diplomatic ghetto in Peking, China, Loving Sabotage tells the tale of the second iteration of the Second World War, fought, as these things are, between the young children of the various diplomats living in the ghetto San Li Tun. However, in the midst of battle, new arrivals move into the ghetto: an Italian national and his family, including his daughter, Elena, a standoffish young girl who immediately becomes the centre of Nothomb’s private universe. More and more the author and narrator loses sight of the surrounding war effort as she fights to acquire the one thing she comes to desire above all else: the love and attention of Elena. And along the way, she learns both the cost of love—especially young love—and the price of obsession.

Much of Nothomb’s work is biographically surreal; she employs her unique upbringing as the child of two diplomats, and the associated travel and life experiences living abroad, as material she freely distorts through a lens that is equal parts innocence and naivety. Recently I’ve taken issue with novels that attempt to write from a child’s perspective—Claire Cameron’s The Bear being the most recent of these. The struggle I find in most novels that try to do this is that the voice never feels genuine—the authors become so entrenched in enacting a certain diction that decent characterization gets lost along the way. Room, by Emma Donoghue is another such offender, though I’ve vented enough about that title to last a lifetime. Nothomb, however, strikes the right balance in this regard; by writing with the tongue and words of an adult but through the ever-so-slightly surreal eyes of a child, she’s able to better “sell” the sense of shifting surroundings, of elements of a world being slightly skewed in one direction or another, away from reality. In Loving Sabotage, a bicycle is a horse, a discarded moving crate is a military hospital, and the fact that the Nepalese are the only ones in the world without a rectangular flag is reason enough to go to war (once the ghetto’s parents intervene on behalf of the East German children that is).

All of that is torn asunder, however, once Elena enters the scene. The author, once drafted as a pathfinder gathering reconnaissance on “horseback” for the local war effort, spends much of her family’s remaining time in Peking attempting to crack the icy exterior of a girl one year her junior yet seemingly stripped of all imagination; Elena is, in many ways, a sad counterpoint to the author. That Nothomb is so inexplicably drawn to her is a testament to the idea that opposites do indeed attract—but while one might be initially drawn to the other, such relationships are not meant to last. Where Nothomb the child is genuinely, romantically touched to her core via her imagination, destined to see the world always as something other than what’s directly in front of her, Elena is designed to see only a series of transactions—of relationships and actions to be massaged to meet whatever needs she might have.

Perhaps my favourite part of the novel, though, is the afterword, in which Nothomb describes how following the publication of Loving Sabotage, the real Elena attempted to get in touch with the author, ostensibly to set the record straight—to argue against her literary portrayal as a femme fatale interested only in herself. Nothomb’s response? She cites the memory of a seven-year-old belonging to both reality and the imagination, and defends herself thusly:

I refused this meeting: there was nothing to set straight.

In French, an old proverb says: “It’s only the truth that hurts.” Elena’s reaction could well be the proof that I invented nothing: if she was furious, it’s because this story is true.

Review: One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, by B.J. Novak

One-More-Thing-Cover1_custom-4f2bf1af5182e2e7894d244687389362907a7e69-s6-c30>>Published: February 2014

>>Finally got around to it: April 2014

“So, do you get to travel a lot?” asked Julie.

“Not as much as I’d like. Now and then we’ll reach some cease-fire, after some especially big massacre, and things get quiet for a bit. That’s what allowed me to take some time off, travel, meet you, stuff like that. Oh, I meant to say: you look even better in person than in your profile picture.”

“Oh… thank you.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to tell you that. Nice surprise. Rare it goes in that direction.”

“Ha. Well, thanks. Um, same. Don’t let that go to your head.”

“Thanks. So… Lost my train of thought.”

“Cease-fires?”

“Right! So, you know cease-fires—they never stick.”

“Yes, I think I saw something about that on Jon Stewart. That must be frustrating.”

“It is! Thank you, Julie. That’s exactly the right word,” said the warlord. “It’s very frustrating.”

“Flourless chocolate cake,” said the waitress.

“Thank you,” said Julie and the Warlord at the same time.

“Can I get you anything else? Another drink?”

“I really shouldn’t,” said Julie. “Are you okay to drive, by the way?”

“I have a driver,” said the warlord.

Julie ordered a fourth and final cocktail.

***

Of B.J. Novak’s talent, there is little question—the stand-up comic wrote for, acted, and even directed and executive produced the American version of The Office, and has also acted in both Inglorious Basterds (where I first knew him from), the recently released Saving Mr. Banks, and the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Now, however, he’s dipping his toes into the world of short fiction with his debut collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, and the results are a decidedly mixed bag.

One More Thing collects sixty-four (!) of the author’s stories, including a few items that border on poetry, some flash fiction interspersed here and there between the larger narratives, and at least one direct authorial address (not to mention discussion questions at the book’s close). Content-wise, Novak’s stories run the gamut from deconstructing fables and turns of phrase to celebrity commentary and even the odd musing on the afterlife. All told it is a strange mix of stories whereupon the Stock Market is anthropomorphized (via depression), two-line flash fiction reveals the stark inadequacies of carrot cake, and we’re even introduced to the creator of the most widely re-purposed math problem in existence.

“The Rematch” is a dark take-down of the old adage “slow and steady wins the race,” revealing an over-the-hill hare desperately wanting a rematch to show that goddamn tortoise his win was a fluke. “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg” posits a heaven I never expected but one I’d love to see, in which all great performers put on nightly concerts for the assembled afterlife population. And “’Rithmetic,” which is one of the more amusing tales in the collection, sees a burned-out public school principal calling an assembly to announce the expelling of math from the curriculum—because fuck math, that’s why.

The stories “Julie and the Warlord,” “If I Had a Nickel,” “Just an Idea,” and “A New Hitler” are, I felt, the strongest in the collection. “Julie and the Warlord” explores the (fairly obvious) themes of expectation versus reality, and differences in individual experiences and how they not only act as commentary on the divide between material and ethical wealth, but how much of the respective cost is taken for granted by both sides—told, naturally, through the first-date conversation between a warlord from the Congo and a single woman from the United States. “If I Had a Nickel” tears apart the colloquialism from the perspective of a young entrepreneur taking into consideration the cost-benefit analysis of, in this case, actually receiving a nickel for every cup of spilled coffee, and the likelihood, or lack thereof, of being able to make a living from such an endeavour. “Just an Idea” is a fairly trenchant knock at the world of contemporary art, specifically that of Damien Hirst and his proclivity for works of art that cost obscene amounts of money to merely exist (I’m looking at you, For the Love of God). And “A New Hitler,” well, that was just a delightful piece of flash-fiction absurdism.

All is not right and rosy, though, as some of the stories are unfortunately less than stellar. “Kellogg’s (or: The Last Wholesome Fantasy of the Middle-School Boy)” is a bit of a plodding mess of one boy’s true parentage told via the vehicle of a one hundred thousand dollar cereal box prize. And the stories “Chris Hansen at the Justin Bieber Concert,” “Quantum Nonlocality and the Death of Elvis Presley,” and “Johnny Depp, Fate, and the Double-Decker Hollywood Tour Bus” all target the low-hanging fruit of their respective icons with differing tales of recognition and constructed public personas.

Most damning, however, and what keeps me from recommending this book, is its near-universal lack of ambiguity. While Novak’s technical capabilities are not in question, his confidence as a storyteller is another matter entirely. Novak refuses to trade in ambiguity—in nearly every story, no matter its length, the last sentence and/or paragraph undoes all the goodwill previously established by taking readers by the hand and guiding them, blunt force trauma-style, to the intended meaning behind whatever metaphor or analogues had been established. Frustratingly, this has the likely unintentional effect of stripping the symbolism of all its worth, which leaves most of the stories feeling rather empty by their conclusions. Two of the more egregious examples of this are the stories “MONSTER: The Roller Coaster” and “Closure.” The former uses the peaks and valleys of a roller coaster to really drive the ups and downs of daily life, while the latter starts strong with a decent killers-for-hire premise offering romantically scorned individuals a sense of finality in their relationships, but then in the end goes so far as to congratulate the protagonist on being the first person to ever truly achieve closure. In these cases and so many more, Novak’s stories would be that much more effective if they simply stopped five feet from the finish line and allowed the reader to figure out their meaning on their own.

As best I can tell, the stories collected within One More Thing have not been previously published, as is the case with most collections of short fiction by established authors. That becomes more and more clear throughout as the aforementioned lack of ambiguity/restraint is made increasingly apparent, oftentimes distracting me from whatever colour or imagery had been peppered throughout. These very much feel like first-timer short stories—not that Novak is a first-time writer, which he clearly is not, but short fiction requires a different muscle than long-form fiction or screenwriting. It survives and thrives on its ability to say more with less, leaning on its imagery and its metaphor to sell whatever point the author hopes to make instead of stepping into the spotlight and addressing the audience directly, which it feels more often than not is exactly what Novak is doing in this collection. One More Thing is a good effort marred by an unfortunate need to over-explain.