I have garlanded Tom Cho with that most sought-after of literary prizes: the suburban flower arrangement. Do you know what kind of books get this kind of treatment? Ones that I like.

My predisposition to love this book was cemented in two separate instances. First, I read ‘The Bodyguard’ in Black Inc.’s Best Australian Stories 2007 while I was away over the summer. It was, hands-down, my favourite story in the collection, a breathtakingly aware literary roleplay which begins: ‘Someone is stalking Whitney Houston and I have been hired to be her bodyguard.’ No more explanation than that; an assumption you’re familiar with 90s Hollywood tripe; impassive I-strewn narration: I was fully hooked, bro. Second, hoping Cho would do a reading, I went to the launch of Look Who’s Morphing at Hares and Hyenas about a month ago. Lucky me! He read ‘Aiyo!!! An evil group of ninjas is entering and destroying a call centre!!!’, a story which certainly puts the kibosh on the ‘no more than 40 exclamation marks per page’ rule (don’t try it at home, kids). Gold-star funny piece with, rightly, no hesitation or anxious explication about bringing little-valorised South-East Asian shibboleths to Australian literature.

I hesitate to call the works ‘short stories’ (Cho calls them ‘fictions’), because, as with ‘Aiyo!!!…’ the pieces lend themselves very well to performance, and given Cho’s background in spoken word, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them passed through that medium in their development. From ‘A Counting Rhyme’: ‘One, two, buckle my shoe. Two, one, steamed pork bun.’ Don’t want to annoy myself or you by trying to discuss the ‘traditional’ short story, but most of the pieces are short, and feature a first-person point of view. The pieces are also connected through their performativity of the personal, and the inevitability of play in that performance. Reinforcing this is the cover, with Cho’s eyes, framed by cliff-high quiff and leather jacket, gazing out over a neon-pink bleed on his cheek.

Having sobbed many guilty Asian-Australian tears over The Joy Luck Club when I was ten (okay, and Mulan when I was fifteen), I admit to having developed a hardness of heart towards ‘ethnic’ as a literary flavour: writing in that genre (as with other genres, of course) is often not distinct or sophisticated or complex or interesting, and I’m not as guilelessly interpellated by it as publishers would probably like. But Cho interrupts these cardboard cutout performative accounts of racial identity. His narrators’ identities are perpetually changing and fluid, and questioned by themselves and others. With irreverence, too — ‘Learning English’ begins like a typical migrant story but, madlib-like, veers off that road pretty quickly:

Australia is very different from my homeland. I was born and raised in a town called Rod Stewart. Back in those days, Rod Stewart was a very busy town. The major industries were David Hasselhoff and coal. I think it is hard for a non-migrant to understand just how difficult it is to learn a new language while adapting to life in a new country.

Cho doesn’t limit his inquiry to racial identity, extending it also to gender, sexual and even social identity. In ‘Pinocchio’, the protagonist attempts to justify his long absence to his girlfriend, Tara (Cho’s actual partner’s name) by claiming that he has only just managed to transform back from being one of Jim Henson’s muppets. Sure, it sounds silly, but it’s not too bad a metaphor for the lies we tell each other. This piece is a well-judged reminder that the concerns of morphing aren’t only for those who look or act most differently from the norm, but that everyone is every day prodding at the fabric of themselves.

There’s also a healthy amount of irreverence towards the seriousness with which people address these selves and choices. In ‘The Sound of Music’, erstwhile nun Maria asks Mother Superior: ‘Can who you like to “do” also be bound up in issues of who you are or want to be?’, after which the two women begin sharing their fantasies about the Fonz. You might have noticed that I think this book is hilarious, and in fact spurred me to multiple ‘let me read this to you’ moments. Cho selects a matter-of-fact tone in most of the stories, and it works really well. In particular, there’s a fantastic running joke about Chinese food that made me snicker each time it appeared.

If there is such a thing as classically postmodern, Look Who’s Morphing fits that description. It’s relentlessly intertextual, openly questioning and questing, and takes storytelling to absurdist yet never inhumane extremes. But it’s also inclusive and playful. Cho’s written identities defy the linear narratives of self imposed by technology, product lust, received knowledge and ancestry to emerge as shifting sands: the endless metaphors and similes for the self eventually resolving, not blurring, into the person.

A hypocritical by-the-way: there are lots of reviews about this book already, but try not to read too many of them, because lots of them quote highlights of the book, and the book’s not very long. Read them afterwards.

Verdict: the Fonz says yes.

Comments (7)
  1. 'If there is such a thing as classically postmodern, Look Who's Morphing fits that description.'

    I love the techniques that Cho uses. How he borrows from pop culture, the crazy metaphors ('Suitmation' is awesome la!), the over-the-top repetition, the gender changes…

    *sighs contentedly*

  2. Indeed!! The mostly downbeat narrative makes it even better. There's no way you're going to get me to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with that kind of non-judicious OMG overload.

  3. But Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the only way I can entice my The Evil Dead-obsessed boyfriend to read the original Pride and Prejudice.

    And so far it's working. Whee.

    Plus it has pretty pictures and a study guide at the back.

  4. My boyfriend's little brother read Pride and Prejudice at school. He liked it. He's now a muscle-bound athlete. I love having my preconceptions challenged. But it is a wrench getting most boys to read any Austen. I don't think I've ever succeeded…although actually, I don't think I've really tried. I don't mind keeping them for myself.

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