Last night I had the excessive pleasure and honour of launching Julie Koh’s new collection of short stories, Portable Curiosities at Kinokuniya Sydney. It was a great night, and I want to thank Julie and UQP for trusting me enough to give me a microphone and actually asking me to rant about how much I love books. So, because I am both efficient and lazy, this Writers I Real Like will be the speech I gave. Just imagine that I am standing awkwardly in front of you, reading off an iPad to get the full experience.
I have issues with how to read short story collections. I don’t tend to devour them like a novel and I sometimes find it weird and contrived to read them one at a time. It seems like serial killer behaviour, something overly deliberate and planned. Like, the next step would be pairing a story with a nice chianti and a rare cut of human flesh. But I didn’t have any of these issues with Portable Curiosities. Perhaps, I was just massively influenced by the title, and I did find these curious stories infinitely portable. Or maybe I just loved them so much, that I found myself racing to finish another story on too short train trips and struggling to read while walking and eating food. You know a book is good when it has food stains in it, and the perfectionist side of me is ashamed to admit that there are several dried smears throughout my copy.
Portable Curiosities is a fantastic collection. It is funny, bleak, weird and wonderfully written. This doesn’t surprise me at all, because I’ve been a fan of Julie Koh’s for quite a while. Fun fact: I first met Julie Koh at a hip literary party in a warehouse, which I think is an amazing meeting of fate and destiny, because I think it’s the only hip literary party in a warehouse that either of us have ever been to.
I was very very honoured when Julie asked me to help launch this book, so I agreed immediately. Then I panicked. Then I sat down and realised that for the first time in a very long time, I need to think critically and deeply about another person’s writing. I studied creative writing at uni a million years ago, and the day I left those hallowed halls, I immediately dumped every ounce of literary theory directly out the back of my brain. I hoped that I would be able to knowledgeably say things like ‘this bold take on the French pastiche tradition may seem to echo Adorno’s post-punk period, but is actually more akin to a Lacanian cross Langaroulipo horror show’. But I don’t remember what any of those words mean anymore, so I’ll just read this list of thoughts that I wrote down while reading it.
- Children are horrible, but undead lizard children are worse.
- This story would be less good if it was called ‘The Very Nice Boobies’
- This story is basically what I already imagine working at a law firm is like
- I like ice-cream, and I like this story
- Maybe I should get some ice-cream to better appreciate this story
- Wait, is my sudden craving for ice-cream part of the biting satire in this story?
- I’m going to get ice-cream
I went and got ice-cream and I wrote no more notes.
Portable Curiosities seems to be best described, or most easily described as satire. Or at least, because it’s sometimes funny, mostly odd and dares to make a statement, people feel obliged to use the satire word. And satirical writing is an ill-defined genre. It brings to mind the kind of humour that has a purpose – like political satire, used to attack and deflate and puncture and wound the movers and shakers in our society, or absurdist satire, making fun of humanity in general, looking at all the things we do and shaking our heads grimly. Satire is described as being incisive, as if it’s a scalpel that’s cutting out a tumour, or flaying open a body to look at all the weird things inside. And some of the stories in Portable Curiosities are incisive, it’s true – but I feel like satire is a limited way to describe Julie’s writing. I don’t feel like the stories in Portable Curiosities are attacking the world and trying to fix it. I don’t think the stories are limited in that way – rather the goal is to strip things back and look at them, and let us decide the truth, if there is any to be found.
I went through each of these stories to try and discover what exactly is being satirised. There’s The Fantastic Breasts, which is about objectification of women and domestic violence and has a clear feminist point. There’s The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man, about race and representation and bigoted politicians which have become way too relevant again recently. Or there’s the wonderful Cream Reaper, clearly taking the food porn trend to the ultimate, deadly and final level of Instagram endorsed death-dessert. All these stories were fairly easy to deconstruct, I suppose. There’s potentially my favourite story from the collection, ‘Slow Death in Cat Café’, which is an incredibly funny and weird story about a cat café that secedes from Australia, but also managed to teach me a bunch of stuff about politics and diplomatic theory. Or ‘The Sister Company’ which is a spec-fic about the therapy industry, which has an awesomely chilling ending.
I knew that Julie had a past working in law, and there was the story Civility Place, which is all about a terrifying corporate workplace that you can never escape from. You can make a pretty A to B argument about that story being a satire. Except, that the story is better than that. Talking about how corporations are monolithic glass rat mazes isn’t new – rather, Julie starts with the premise that we already know this. The satire of the corporation is the recognisable base from which we start, recognisable because we all have jobs and have watched Mad Men before and have seen people walking through the city in heels with briefcases screaming at their phones. Instead the story becomes about the sensation of finding work so stressful that your office literally follows you home. It’s one of the best representations of a stress based anxiety attack I’ve ever read, and made me immediately think about all my looming deadlines.
Or what about the story ‘The Fat Girl in History’, where Julie very cleverly destroys our need to identify how much of the author is actually in fiction. How much truth from her real life can be found in the weird imagined thing you wrote? She writes:
‘Everyone wants to read about real alcoholic fathers, and real divorces, and real stay at home dads. No one wants anyone to make up shit anymore. I decide that I’m going to write an autofictional essay called ‘The Fat Girl in History’.
There’s so many layers in this, that I feel like maybe she is satirising herself. This is wild stuff.
I was finally broken when I considered the the story ‘Satirist Rising’, where Julie actually has the goddamned hide, the sheer brass balls to satirise the very concept of satire itself. In the story, the last satirist alive followers her own cynical self-fulfilling prophecy to the inevitable conclusion that she herself wrote, showing the inherent limitations of both satire and the people who write it. Jesus Christ.
If anything, the target of satire in this book is our expectations, it’s us. Reading this book is incredibly enjoyable, it made me laugh, it entertained me, it made me think and it also felt like I was being gently teased, as I struggled for a quick and easy meaning. Portable Curiosities has taught me that there aren’t any easy, satirical meanings to be found in life – unless, that’s what I was meant to think, and she’s laughing at me right now for getting it so entirely wrong.
Portable Curiosities is on sale now, from all bookstores that are worth a goddamn dime.