Rubik by Elizabeth Tan is a book you need to sink into. A novel told through a series of short stories, it spans times, genres and characters to tell a story of trickery and tenderness. It starts with the untimely and ordinary death of Elena Rubik, tragic in its very everydayness; and as each chapter traverses science fiction, satire, fantasy, we fade in and out of different elements of the same complex story.
We leave suburban Perth in Chapter One, and Chapter Two introduces us to Pikkoro, and Tako her multi-purpose octopus. Each day Pikkoro goes to primary school while Tako knits and drives the local ice cream truck. Pikkoro is in the school play, and one day mysterious suited men appear, taking control of their teacher and their performance through an insidious powerful influence. Pikkoro won’t take it, and at her rebellion they run and she takes chase with Tako proving to be of much multi-purpose use:
“The ice-cream truck makes the leap – the giant novelty cone cracks away from the roof and plummets into the river. SPLASH! Trumpets groan. The drums fumble while the truck crunches onto the road and skids back into action. Tako leaps after the truck, and for a moment, Pikkoro, hanging onto by the handle bars, feels her poncho parachuting open, the arms streamlined perfectly for flight. Red-cheeked, lightning-eyed, so far away from school, home, the ground – Pikkoro has never felt so precariously alive.”
It is an odd and delightful complete and utter tonal shift, one that very readily sets up the somewhat false expectation of a collection of short stories, when really this is one individual piece of the puzzle given its room to breathe. After we leave Pikkoro and Tako, in subsequent chapters it emerges that these stories add up, and are telling a different tale.
The stories connect artfully, and sometimes reference to each other in a sly way. There are reoccurring characters and narratives: and a supporting character in one tale may later emerge in another fully realised; a character we are wholly introduced to may later be contextualised and our initial interpretation completely challenged by another character’s view. It is unusual and deeply intelligent storytelling.
It might sound tricksy and over-engineered and while smart, Tan’s book is actually deeply compassionate and tender. Tan pivots around a general axis ensuring that while we switch tone, character, genre, the centre is simple and full of heart. There is a clear-eyed view of certain reoccurring themes in this puzzle, such as technology, consciousness, and loss. There is incredible reward for the reader as the interconnectedness is revealed, and alternate elements of the same experience are explored.
This was a creative, delightful and perplexing collection, the sum of which is greater than its individual parts. Tan’s writing is entertaining and bright, but as you progress through the world she is creating you see that it is so much more than you first think. In the end, I was enthralled.