Words || Cameron Colwell
“Now is not the time for realistic fiction.”
– Margaret Atwood
Like Murakami with more edge, or Kurt Vonnegut but less sentimental, Julie Koh has assembled in Portable Curiosities a collection of potent, morbid short stories, each one hilarious and dark in equal measure. I’ll be honest: I’ve been keeping an eye on Koh ever since I read the brilliant ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man,’ a study of racial stereotypes in media, available for reading on The Lifted Brow’s website. When I heard about her debut collection’s release, I was keen to review it, and it did not disappoint. Koh’s work feels particularly relevant in this time of political turmoil — There’s a difficulty of writing satire in an age where the line between satire and reality is constantly blurring, in which the Simpsons jokes of yesterday are coming true today (Donald Trump’s rise to presidential candidacy comes to mind.) Koh tackles this dilemma head-on in Satirist Rising, about the last satirist alive, whose crowning work was a book that managed to predict the next few decades of world history. In this story, Koh demonstrates her unique gift for jokes that are at once topical and timelessly funny: “A third article gracing the front page features a shot of the recently elected Australian Prime Minister. He is lying naked with a come-hither smile, a national flag artfully covering his private parts. He is on a bed of flags, on a floor of flags. The caption says he is ready to confide in his beloved compatriots the economic benefits of climate catastrophe.”
The best stories in Curiosities are the ones with the right balance of high-concept sci-fi elements and Koh’s signature scathing social observations. See, for instance, Cream Reaper, a story that critiques the facile nature of gentrified uber-hip Sydney through the use of a premise only Koh’s fine-tuned, unrelentingly confident style could make believable: An artisanal ice-cream startup launches a new flavour, with the novelty of fifty-fifty of the scoops being deadly: “Lee is a member of the hot celebrity set G runs with — known among foodies as The Golden Circle. Also a bit of a polymath, he’s an ex-Big Four auditor and now the plaid-shirted king of Antipodean dude food, known for uber-popular Surry Hills joints Hoe Dawg and Douchely.” The most incisive of Koh’s jokes come at the most unexpected at times. Slow Death In Cat Cafe, for instance, contains some dead-on insights into the superficiality of modern internet culture in a story about a cat cafe that secedes from the rest of Australia as its own nation-state.
However, Portable Curiosities will not appeal to all. I’m sort of thankful that Koh has chosen short stories as her medium; I’m not sure I could weather out her distinctive darkness in a novel, for instance. At times, the stories become so weird as to be oblique — Koh is much better at creating an isolating, intense, yet darkly funny atmosphere than she is at creating memorable characters to latch onto. While this is not an issue for the shorter stories, the experience of reading the longer tales in the collection can be fatiguing. Like bitter, quality coffee, Koh’s stories are to be read sparingly: No more than two or three a day, lest you find yourself unable to sleep at night. However, this may be up to personal taste. Each story in Curiosities has its own brilliantly constructed internal logic, and the feel of being painstakingly whittled away to the best version of themselves, as with a scalpel.
Portable Curiosities is a work which I can whole-heartedly recommend, particularly to people looking for an alternative to the dun-coloured realism of too much Australian fiction, or a pitch-black, Antipodean spin on the kind of surrealism of the aforementioned Haruki Murakami (In particular, the work recalls his collection The Elephant Vanishes), Don Delillo, or the more recent work of Margaret Atwood.
(University of Queensland Press, $19.95)