Gunk Baby, Jamie Marina Lau

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Welcome to AWW Gen 5-SFF Week! Let the discussion of Australian women’s SF, dystopian and fantasy fiction commence.

And about that ‘Week’. After being on a break, ie. unemployed since Dec. 10, I am now flat out for more or less just this week, so we’d better call it a fortnight (and even then, if all goes well, which it didn’t last time, I will be on the other side of the country looking for a load home) so I can pay some attention at least to your posts and comments.

I didn’t see Gunk Baby come out – at the beginning of 2021 – and I don’t think it was paid much attention, which is odd as Lau’s first novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island (2018) was short-listed for the Stella and it appears Lau’s three-book deal with Brow has been taken over by the multi-national Hachette.

Pink Mountain was a classic debut – a young woman at arts school drawing on her inner suburban adolescence for good/standard grunge autofiction. Gunk Baby is not a sequel, or not the sequel I predicted anyway – “a portrait of the young woman as an art student” – but the story of a short period in the life of 24 year old Leen (Ling) setting up a Chinese ear cleaning/massage business in a suburban shopping centre.

I have squeezed it in under the Gen 5-SFF banner not because it is fantastic or dystopian (except right at the end), but because it has the feel of being set just a few minutes into the future. Of course it doesn’t help that however we might like to think otherwise, we boomers live a few minutes in the past, not fully aware of the present, not as twenty-somethings see it, anyway.

Within the SF tradition, in the 1970s, a number of writers, Sladek, Sheckley, but PK Dick in particular, were able to describe then present-day suburban USA in a way that made it seem slightly unreal, and Lau has that same ability. The ability to make us picture work and living spaces as they might be built tomorrow, sparse and uncluttered, with only the latest gadgets and appliances.

Leen’s father is a “consultant” who has dragged his wife and daughter all round the world. Leen has chosen to settle in the suburb of Par Mars in, let us say, Melbourne. As in Pink Mountain the city is unnamed, but has a Melbourne-ish feel, with occasional references to “Westmeadow” and “Bell St” (an important thoroughfare running east-west across the northern suburbs). Leen’s mother is in Kowloon, and they speak often, in video calls, ‘Face Time’. The father is more distant, wherever he is currently working, but pays Leen’s bills.

Gunk Baby may be a satire on a particular type of consumerism, but it is a consumerism Leen lives with uncomplainingly.

The K.A.G. outlay, for example: so addictive. The genius behind the design of something beautiful is that it can stand alone. We live in an age where we would like things to stand alone, to be one with itself, so that we can, as its consumer, become the one to define it, the one to understand it and its purpose, and curate it alongside other things … we’ve been conditioned to need the product. And a product is rarely ever a product without its brand.

K.A.G. is the principal tenant of the Topic Heights shopping centre where Leen has her ‘Lotus Fusion Studio’. Every few weeks it adds a new product line and forces out a smaller neighbouring store to take over its space. Leen who has been couch surfing ends up sharing a house with Luis who has been made K.A.G. store manager for his total commitment to the job. Everything in the new house is new K.A.G. products being tried out.

I … roll over, pull myself up out of our bed, out of the K.A.G. Elegant Cross-Hatch Sheets in a shade of blue that comforts. The floor is always cold in the mornings. The concrete floor with our Shaggy-Mix Rug in light brown … I look in the big perfect mirror. I’m wearing my K.A.G. Insulating Fleece Pyjamas, white thin stripes and beige everything else. These are not my sexy pyjamas; they’re slightly different. If I’m not in my sexy ones, I’m not in the mood. It’s a silent language… I look at [Luis] in the mirror. I have my K.A.G. Frosted-Glass Toothbrush in my mouth …

Leen’s friends are a wide mixture of East Asians and caucasian, all known to each other, all connected in one way or another through Topic Heights, but she, I guess, compartmentalises. Luis is in one ‘box’; in another are her girlfriend Doms and Doms’ partner Vic, a chemist who has a home lab making artificial urine for faking drug tests; there’s Farah, her receptionist (and budding novelist); and in a fourth are Jean-Paul and Huy. Jean-Paul is gathering followers for ‘acts of resistance’. Leen’s role is to attend meetings where Jean Paul lectures for hours, and to drive Jean Paul and Huy round in her old Saab 9000, leaving while they apparently attack, kidnap, vandalise Topic Heights managers, returning to pick them up, not unaware of what is being done, but also not responsible.

The style of writing is largely emotionless, you have to make your own mind up about the rights and wrongs of what is happening. The end when it comes is inevitable, but still startling. Lau is a fine talent, not mainstream, but well worth following.


Jamie Marina Lau, Gunk Baby, Hachette, Sydney, 2021. 345pp

see also:
Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island (review)
Robert Sheckley, Can You Feel Anything when I do this? (review)

21 thoughts on “Gunk Baby, Jamie Marina Lau

  1. I like this : “Of course it doesn’t help that however we might like to think otherwise, we boomers live a few minutes in the past, not fully aware of the present, not as twenty-somethings see it, anyway.” It’s something In just really become aware of h the last few years. I think you feel it when your own children become adult functioning members of society and you have to accept it. It also makes you reflect on when that moment happened for your parents, and how you behaved at that time. All of which is at a tangent to the main point here!

    Lau sounds like she’s truly addressing an Australia I don’t know well (ok, be honest, barely know) and need to understand. But whether I’ll get to this given my actual piles is another thing.

    Two weeks sound good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To address both your paras at once, WG, I think new fiction is revelatory because young writers extrapolate from a data set of life experiences that is both smaller than ours, and starting from a different point.

      I enjoy it whereas I’m quite often bored by the Peter Careys and so on I read avidly 40 or 50 years ago.

      Liked by 2 people

    • That’s also something Mr Books & I have been coming to terms with too Sue. And yes, I wonder how my parents felt as we all left home and set up our own lives, and had very firm opinions about how that should happen. I was very strident about the hole in the ozone layer at that time & insisted the family use recycled paper at every turn and stop using aerosols with CFC’s. As soon as I left home, they just went back to their own ways!

      It’s as it should be – each new gen comes along and remakes the world in their own image, then they get old too & replaced by the next new gen 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think something completely different and that is the break between us and our parents – in its near universality – was unique, and marked the beginning of the end of the patriarchy.

        Bron. Thank you for your contributions. I will devote a proper amount of attention to them at the end of this trip, probably Sunday. (Luckily I have a number of posts ready to go)


  2. I’m excited about reading people’s posts for SFF week(s)! I have Claire Coleman’s The Old Lie up soon on my to-read list, but I don’t think I will have it read and reviewed quite in time for this as I have a few other reading commitments.

    I always find it fascinating to read about how writers imagine near-future settings, what they think will be the same and what will change.


    • The Old Lie is excellent, I look forward to your review. Coleman always has an interesting twist in her work.

      I think it was a stretch having one SFF Week (or fortnight). It might be down to you and me and just a couple of others if I attempt to hold another one.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not usually bored by writing from a different time to now but some travels well, while others doesn’t. I’ve read quite a bit of Carey so don’t feel the need to read more, and yet I’d still read more Astley and Jolley whom I’ve also read a bit of. Are they more sensitive to Carey’s being more cerebral – perhaps? That’s an off-the-top of the head thought about why.


  4. I do remember Pink Mountain on Locust Island being everywhere for a while, simply because the name stands out. It’s interesting that the novel doesn’t have a tone to sway readers on the right and wrong the characters commit. Actually, this might be a good novel for an ethics class. We’re often given scenarios in which case both options are right, but for different reasons. Those are hard. Then there are the obvious right and wrong scenarios in which one person does the wrong thing, but is biting his/her nails over it or feeling entitled to whatever wrong choice they made. Imagine if we had no clue how someone felt doing the wrong thing.


  5. I don’t really like books on 20-somethings these days but am more likely to like them if the protagonists are from a different culture, etc. This does look intriguing, esp as I feel the writing is quite deadpan, which I have a strand of very much enjoying. Anyway I am horribly behind with my blog reading (still!) so I’ll leave it there and work through your other reviews later …


    • I think Leen’s culture is partly Asian-Australian and partly just young. It seems to me, and I don’t have any first hand contact, that Melbourne and Sydney’s western suburbs have a second generation immigrant culture which while it reflects the dominant ethnicities also reflects a general shared second generation-ness, and that this dates back as far as the 1970s when the Greeks and Italians were predominant, then the Lebanese, the Slavs, the Vietnamese and so on through the decades. Christos Tsiolkas reflected this culture, as does Lau, but there haven’t been many writers in between.


  6. You may recall that I didn’t get on with Pink Mountain much at all, so I am unlikely to pick up Gunk Baby. That said, I did like the bit about KAG. In many ways, KAG is the reality (think stores like Zara where turnover is ridiculously high) but the flip side of this consumerism is what I am seeing in many young adults’ choices – less ‘stuff’ made ethically with sustainability in mind (of course this relies on accurate and honest info about a product’s ethical and sustainable credentials).


    • I buy very little ‘stuff’. My going out clothes might be 20 or 30 years old (I remember where I bought my leather jacket for instance and that puts it in the 1990s). Hence Gunk Baby having a futuristic feel (for me). Interesting what you say about KAG/Zara – 20 somethings are definitely leaning left, and I would have thought that translated into anti-slave labour, anti-rain forest clearing as well. But then that feels less like Ms 19’s generation and more like her 40 yo mother’s.


    • Kate, you get 2 replies. I remember your, and Kim’s, reactions to the language in Pink Mountain, but I think Lau is maturing as a writer and she is worth you giving a second chance, if not here then with her next.

      Liked by 1 person

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