Cyril Wong reviews Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho

Look Who’s Morphing

by Tom Cho

ISBN 978 192088 2549

181 pages


reviewed by CYRIL WONG

Reading all of Tom Cho’s stories in a single sitting proved to be an exhilarating experience that left me reconsidering past and broken familial relationships, the politics of identity-formations, as well as the insecurities and uncontrollable desires that rule both heterosexual and homosexual bodies alike.
Kafka crept into my mind the moment I entered the first story, “Dirty Dancing,” about a man who becomes a third-person observer that watches and comments as his old self engages in sex with another man; this observer-self is later coddled like a baby in the arms of his parents, but he swiftly manages to convince them of his adulthood by performing a “big raunchy dance number” at Melbourne airport, joined in by everyone around him.I am always surprised that not more writers execute surrealist fiction like this, with its Kafka-esque mis-directions and its exploration of the uncertainties of human communication. The authorial sense of freedom is mind-blowing. The form allows that wall between the structured mind and the broiling subconscious to go up in flames as one crazy plot twist leads to another. Theodor W. Adorno wrote that every sentence in Kafka’s writings seems to cry out, “Interpret me.” Unlike Kafka’s stories, however, which can be read allegorically or as absurdist fables (such as the famous one about a man who wakes up as a cockroach-like creature), Tom Cho hides little of himself behind his dazzlingly warped narrative threads, which includes how he once turned into a protocol droid which attacked the United Nations Headquarters, or how he was forced to become a Muppet on Jim Henson’s show.

The most psychologically revealing is the final story, “Cock Rock.” In this terrifically self-indulgent close to the book, the narrator turns into a giant rock musician who ends up being cock-worshipped by Lilliputian, Japanese fan-girls; at the heart of the story is an individual, existential complex about the writer’s unique attraction to both the world of fantasy and of the literal: “Am I drawn to the world of the literal because of its apparent certainties…Am I drawn to the world of fantasy for the very opposite reason…What would an experience that perfectly combines fantasy and the literal look like?”
There are those who will tell you that Kafka himself hid little about his own daddy issues in his work, but Cho’s fantastical forays into the Twilight Zone of the diasporic-Chinese-queer-male mind tell us readers straightaway that his bizarre tales are, without a doubt, autobiographical, even confessional. Cho is clearly fearless and has nothing to hide. As you enter one crazy piece of short fiction after another, you will come to recognise the writer’s deepest fears and desires. But if you are not interested in ever meeting someone like Tom Cho in your real life, you could be quite put off by what you will read about him in these pages. (In the author’s defence, I would be quick to argue that any aversion you might have in reading his book would necessarily make you a poorer soul; you must have been reading it through a homophobic, self-censoring lens or something.)
The particular insecurities of belonging to an immigrant culture in Australia and having to fit in come to the foreground particularly in such stories as “Suitmation” and “Look Who’s Morphing.” In the former, the narrator’s mother buys a “suit” that makes her look like Olivia-Newton John, while in the latter, title-tale, the Kafka-esque transformation gets weirder or nightmarishly contemporary: “I began to morph into a kind of infomercial cyborg – half-human, half-home-fitness-system.” It is all in the name of gaining re-imagined entry into hegemonic, cultural discourses of the western world. This also explains the recourse to popular films like The Exorcist and The Bodyguard, movies whose scenes the author steals and refashions in his own calmly psychotic style, inserting himself frequently as a significant character.
In “The Sound of Music,” the narrator, as the new Maria, develops a sexual, but also profoundly complicated, relationship with Captain von Trapp, in which he slowly becomes an isomorphic version of the latter. With Mother Superior’s blessing, Maria is encouraged to go to Switzerland to try living as someone more like the haughty Captain and he soon realises that “while our fantasies allow us the pleasure of imagining who we might be, can’t they also make us painfully conscious of who we currently are?” All this while Mother Superior is singing “Climb Every Mountain” in the background, of course. But the collection is grounded in the need to reconcile with loved ones and to celebrate the vulnerability of relationships, as when the narrator’s family all morph into The Cosby Show at one point, just so that they can get along.
We are never made to forget that not only are these stories about the author’s life, but that these stories also function as a means of catharsis, or a means of coming to terms with difficult truths about the delusions of the self, with internalised frustrations of being sexually deviant and diasporic. The imaginative ride for both author and reader is long, hard and nasty, but ultimately mutually beneficially. All of us learn that nothing should be taken seriously. And that being too concerned with our cultural identities can drive us mad. And a dark and cynical laughter, mingled with a little empathy, remains the only cure.