12 short satirical stories make up Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities. And it is a curious collection to try to pin down: it is intelligent and well informed, mocking how unfashionable post-modernism and pastiche is, whilst building a story made of nothing but. The satire is of the sharp, observational kind, applied across contemporary and future contexts; to a parade of beastly gods to a local council report on what to do about the rouge orchestra in the woods. It doesn’t just laugh at the fourth wall, it pisses all over it, referencing the writing and the reader and the other stories.
The back cover promises even more: a young girl seeks ghosts from her third eye, located where her belly button should be; a one-dimensional yellow man steps out of a cinema screen, hoping for a three-dimensional life. Each perfectly-formed story selects a single element of our modern existence and parodies it into magical realism, or takes it to a fantastical gruesome logical conclusion. The 1200-story glass sky scraper, the same in every city across the world, filled with people with the building in their DNA. The Economist god parading through town, being begged by the Minister for Finance for a market prediction, grotesque in its fortune and ability.
But each story falls apart a little or a lot, the edges becoming frayed or the entire premise falling out from underneath you. Stuck in a Cat Cafe as the owner declares a violent secession from Australia, the narrator reflects:
“If the Cat Cafe is hell for cats, it’s some sort of suspended reality for sweet young girls. They’re all so distracted by the cuteness of the cats, they don’t even realise that they – like everyone else ever born – are slowly dying.”
And things get odder from there: the reliability of our narrator becomes increasingly questionable; realising their economic potency for the new Republic, at their request the cafe owner pays for a surgeon to come in to add cat ears and tails to the sweet young girls.
The smoothness of how these cracks in reality completely take over is both delightful and disturbing. In another story it becomes clear that out our one-dimensional yellow man is a stand-in for a much deeper statement about Australia and immigration, but that doesn’t mean the tale ends well, or with a fortifying lesson. Koh is not here to hold your hand.
But her sense of humour, when actually humorous, is bloody delightful. Take this extract from “Inquiry Regarding the Recent Goings-On in the Woods”:
“We resolved that the public was not obliged to tolerate the guerrilla orchestra. Our reasoning was as follows:
1. By definition, the woods were a collection of trees.
2. The official function of a collection of trees was neither:
a. the confusion of local citizens; nor
b. the withdrawal of ‘musicians’ from the productive economy.”
We can’t have artists disturbing the peace, or not fairly contributing to our productive economy, can we? This must be dealt with.
So there is a head-shaking sadness to this satire, as well as dark disturbing undercurrent to a lot of what Koh observes. It feels like an enjoyable, unsettling journey through Julie Koh’s mad mind.