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.

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