Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Elizabeth Tan

How many writers am I waiting for their next book? I suppose that should be How many writers are there whose next book I am waiting for? I wonder if I can get that for away from the end. How many writers are there for whose next book I am waiting? It feels like it should be for whom’s. Grammar’s not my strong point.

Elizabeth Tan is the only one I can think of I said I was waiting for (sorry, for whom I said I was waiting) but if you said Kim Scott, Claire Coleman, Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane had a new book out I’d be down the street in a flash – the iso rules for truck drivers in WA permit essential shopping. I wonder who else. There can’t be many.

As it happens the flash was a bit muted for Tan. Smart Ovens has been out about six months.

I could die happy with Tan and Coleman writing (good) Western Australia based SF. I suppose there are others. I wonder what happened to … . DuckDuckGoes “WA SF”. There’s a Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation! With its own radio show!

You might remember Tan’s last (and first) was Rubik, a novel of loosely connected episodes, set in Perth WA, up the surreal end of SF. Smart Ovens is the same but the ‘episodes’ aren’t connected.

A children’s slide ups and runs away; mermaids kept in a restaurant fish tank, in the casino of course, metamorphose, find freedom; long after pens are a thing Ira gives one to a homeless man who scrawls kilometres of ink on the subway walls before stepping in front of a train; Pikelet was born in the Year of the Rabbit after the Year of Unprecedented Ecological Terror, her family moved to New Zealand following the Year of Seven Different Prime Ministers, and she now works at “Eighteen Bells Karaoke Castle, Perth’s premiere karaoke destination, in the heart of the city with a view of Old Swan River”; Tom and Ant are lovers, Tom knows that Ant is a spy but Ant doesn’t; and so the stories go on, lots of them concepts you wouldn’t dream of and yet Tan makes them real, spins them out for 5 or ten pages. In Would You Rather things start to disappear:

What did it look like? A flaw in the morning, a hanging pixel. An iridescent chip in the shape of a rhombus, shimmering in the sky. Unnoticed for days, until all the bicycles lifted up on one wheel, and then the other; turned counter-clockwise in the air, handlebars raised like the antlers of a stag, sliding riders from their seats; floated towards the hole, and then through the hole, and then …

So it’s not just the ideas, it’s the writing; writing and ideas and stories and Perth and young Asian-Australian women and a post eco-apocalyptic future of decay and magic.

And the smart ovens? “After that day at the overpass I was assigned an oven.” That day at the overpass, she of course jumped, and so was assigned an oven for a year to be her friend in the kitchen. With an extra six months if the oven’s end-of-year report was unsatisfactory.

After Neko Oven had been activated for two weeks she [for Neko Oven was programmed with a female voice] sent a recommendation to Biljana to let me return to work…

On my lunchbreak I used the kitchenette microwave to heat up a little plastic container of Neko Oven’s leftovers (some kind of casserole she’d improvised from tinned chick-peas, bacon, and gin) and took it to the food court to eat alone.

When she runs into the guy who chose that overpass, that day, that same minute to jump, they discuss ‘why’.

When people asked ‘How are you?’ did they really mean ‘Why did you?’

Because I was tired.
Because I wanted to die, the same way you might want a drink of water, or want to sleep, or want someone to love you back.

That last is it of course. But with a smart oven life goes on.

.

Elizabeth Tan, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Brio, Sydney, 2020. 244pp.


*The SF book I was thinking of [… Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes. I found it, randomly shelved, when I got home, and he has 12 more, going by ‘images’] involves a young entrepreneur with a bucket of bolts space ship and an android pilot. The name Matt is in there somewhere. I used to know the book’s editor. Fremantle Press. I DDG Fremantle Press, they don’t have SF as one of their genres! They do have a new Dave Warner. One of you is having a crime fiction month soon [Kim/Reading Matters in March], so that’s my book sorted. They’re also still advertising Robert Edeson, so there is at least some SF (here and here). From two or three years ago.

Rubik, Elizabeth Tan

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Elizabeth Tan is a young woman writer from Perth,WA. She is not a 25 year old pop singer from Malaysia, well I don’t think so anyway. The Brio site says,

In 2015, [Tan] completed her PhD in creative writing at Curtin University. Her thesis investigated the intrusion of science-fictional tropes and iconography onto our current social reality, and the cultural anxieties that this has produced. This practice-led research culminated in her first novel Rubik, published in 2017.

It’s a bit of shame about that PhD, although too common to worry about any more. I like to think of the author as slaving away in a garret [from the old French “guerite”, meaning “watchtower” or “sentry box.”] to get her dreams down on paper, not poring over textbooks to assemble concepts in an order acceptable to her supervisor, and  I’ve written before that I find novels by literature academics often too self-consciously post modern. But not, I’m happy to say, in this case.

One of the great pleasures of reading C21st writing – for me – is the way Science Fiction has leaked into the Lmainstream. Think Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light, Claire Coleman, Terra Nullius, and all right, Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Wait, there’s more, Krissy Kneen, Rodney Hall, Georgia Blain, Robert Edeson, Nathan Hobby, and these are just authors that I’ve reviewed.

SF is a way of making sense of the world, and this is a world that needs to be made sense of. Early, 1950s SF fought WWII and the Cold War in space, America to the rescue, a trope laughably referenced recently by President Trump.

In the 1960s and ’70s SF reflected not just psychedelia, experimental writing, the drug culture, different ways of living, though there was lots of that, but also the consequences of nuclear and climate disasters. Sadly the literature was regarded as genre, and to be honest, the purview of nerdish young men. Consequently, great writers like JG Ballard, Doris Lessing, Ursula le Guin, Phillip K Dick received far less attention, as writers, than they deserved.

Mainstream writing proceeded on its way with social realism. Mostly. There were outliers like David Ireland’s A Woman of the Future and Thomas Keneally, A Dutiful Daughter. Postmodernism which had begun in the 1950s as a way of describing and deconstructing writing was by the 1980s merely a fashion in which all literary works had to contain elements of meta fiction. Likewise Magic Realism, interesting in a South American context and later in Indian, African and Indigenous writing, but just a base to touch for Anglos, pointless and handled badly.

So, to Rubik. First, this is a work set unselfconsciously in Perth, not in a descriptive way, you won’t get much of an idea of what Perth is like, but fun to follow for a local as characters flit from Northbridge (inner city arts and restaurant precinct) up and down the Mandurah (south) and Joondalup (north) rail lines.

Rubik is a novel about the intersecting lives of a range of characters, through a series of vignettes, not sequential, and sometimes exploring alternate time lines. Even if you miss some (or most) of the connections, and I’m sure I did, it is immensely enjoyable. In particular, Tan writes likeable characters and I hope in a future novel she takes the opportunity to let us know two or three characters really well.

The eponymous Elena Rubik is knocked down by a car and killed in the first scene but persists in various ways throughout. Her housemate Jules Valentine is asked to stand in for the ‘falling woman’, a widely distributed meme associated with the new in-phone. A little girl is cared for by an octopus/transformer. Peter’s piano teacher disappears and he and his new school friend attempt to find her. Ursula and Penny create mobiles for an exhibition at the Cultural Centre (in Northbridge of course). They fixate on a voice-over man whose cat may exist in alternate universes. Everyone sort of recognises Jules, as she has been the face of the Ampersand product range. Audrey repairs robot birds and insects, which are all we have left. A student newspaper begins pulling some of the strands together. With surprising results.

Some of these strands may be stories on an old fan fiction site of which Ampersand sales people Michael and Bette are or have been members. As was/is Elena.

This is a novel for our neo-liberal times where corporations run by faceless old white men both know and control everything about us. Tan fights back subtly, with satire, with ‘acceptably brown’ characters, with off-hand analyses of the way we submit to being manipulated. I forget who recommended Rubik now, but thank you, I loved it.

 

Elizabeth Tan, Rubik, Brio/Xoum, Sydney, 2017