Stacey Trick reviews Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh
By Julie Koh
University of Queensland Press
Reviewed by Stacey Trick
“There is something wrong with those who won’t see the laughing, and something is wrong with those who won’t see the crying. Don’t play dumb with me, China Doll.” ~ ‘Sight’ in Portable Curiosities.
The short story form, historically, has been regarded as a literary art form in its own right that often creatively explores the zeitgeist of a particular time and the psyche of the human condition. Throughout history, celebrated writers have often influenced a fixed supposition in their reader’s imaginations. When we think of Ernest Hemingway, the trials and tribulations of being a poor writer and expatriate during war times particularly in Paris comes to the forefront of our minds. To think of Arthur Conan Doyle evokes, at once, impressions of Sherlock Holmes solving mysteries in the bustling streets of London during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, between about 1880 to 1914. And certainly, when Edgar Allan Poe comes to mind, impressions of macabre and mystery influenced by the darkest corners of the human psyche are often explored in the most extreme and grisly circumstances.
The short story form invites us to dig deep within ourselves and search for meaning and connection to the external world around us; connection to the other; and ultimately, connection to our own internalisation of social, historical, and cultural world views. No other genre of literature has the same power and potential for such deep meaning-making. You may have heard the adage ‘everything is all well and good in hindsight’. This is particularly true when trying to make sense of the current zeitgeist of our times due to being so immensely involved in it. It can be incredibly difficult. However, a rising short story writer, Julie Koh has done quite an extraordinary job of exploring many different aspects of our zeitgeist and the internalisation of certain social issues. It seems that a new wave of literary satire is prevalent in Australia and a new notable author has been compared to the likes of Nic Low, Sonja Dechian and Marlee Jane Ward.
In her collection of darkly satirical and witty short stories, titled Portable Curiosities, Julie Koh explores issues in contemporary society including rampant capitalism, toxic masculinity, sexism, racism, and even our obsession with reality television series. Born and raised in Sydney, Koh came from Chinese-Malaysian heritage and studied Politics at University, before giving up a corporate career in Law she pursued a career in fictional writing. The new Australian success in the literary scene, Koh’s stories create new ways of understanding the societal, historical, and cultural issues in contemporary society. Koh was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2016 and shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards in the Australian Short Story Collection: Steele Rudd Award, 2016.
Portable Curiosities, published in 2016 by University of Queensland Press (UQP), is Koh’s first collection of short stories. The collection consists of ‘Sight’, The ‘Fantastic Breasts’, ‘Satirist Rising’, ‘Civility Place’, ‘Cream Reaper’, The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’, ‘Two’, ‘Slow Death in Cat Café’, ‘Inquiry Regarding the Recent Goings-On in the Woods’, ‘The Procession’, ‘The Sister Company’, and ‘The Fat Girl in History’.
In Koh’s Portable Curiosities, her reoccurring thematic approach of the entrapment of the individual in social structures are explicit and painfully pertinent in each story. In each story, Koh delivers a satirical twist in critiquing contemporary society’s pervasive and entrenched consumerism, casual misogyny, and the insidious nature of fearing otherness. Brimming with a unique and social critique from the mundane aspects of the everyday human life such as work to sexism, capitalism, racism, objectification, egos, and politics.
Koh’s literary style and techniques are used expressively in portraying those contemporary issues in a way that positions the reader outside of their comfort zone. She reveals truths that hide deep in our society; deep in our history; and deep in our culture. Throughout the collection, Koh experiments with style. Her short stories incorporate elements of science fiction, speculative fiction, magical realism, as well as satirical journalism. Koh imagines worlds where skyscraper floors are limitlessly high, a third eye can see ghosts, spirits embody lizards, and ice-cream eating is a sport worth dying for.
Julie Koh, a writer of satire; it only seems fitting to mention a particularly intriguing story titled ‘Satirist Rising’. Koh blurs the boundaries of fantasy and reality by embodying satire itself. Satire is an actual person in this story; the last living one to be precis. Another mentionable story in the collection, also brimming with social satire, is ‘Civility Place’. A man finds himself stuck in the never-ending loop of work that he cannot seem to physically escape. Koh explores the internalised entrapment humans have when it comes to capitalism and work.
The ‘Fantastic Breasts’ is pointed at the sexual objectification of women. In our zeitgeist, Koh’s story is highly relevant particularly in relation to the political turmoil our society is facing, rife sexism, and the consistent objectification of women. The following is a fine example of Koh’s satirical approach to literary style and social critique in this story:
“And as I sit there, stroking them to sleep, I think about how the Fantastic Breasts need me and how the metropolis, in turn, needs the Fantastic Breasts and therefore how, without my continued commitment to the care of the Fantastic Breasts, the metropolis faces doom. Then I close my eyes and I don’t feel so bad anymore, comforted by the knowledge that I am the manliest man the world has ever seen”.
The language used here implies that a woman is nothing more than her breasts; than an object purely for the purpose of a man’s ego. The short story form is a certainly an effective choice for Koh’s stories. This particular story touches on feminist critique and egocentrism which again, is rife in our zeitgeist. Many of Koh’s stories are intelligently written and her subject matters are chosen incredibly wisely and with tact.
The social satire and critique in Portable Curiosities is not only entertaining and thought-provoking to the literary community and the avid reader, but it is highly effective in encouraging ourselves to be mindful of our own prejudices and to question why we do the things we do. As an enthusiastic consumer of Australian literature, it is rare to come across an author with such a unique style and perspective on contemporary issues expressed so compelling in literature. Koh’s work is an incredible credit to her originality and has certainly set a benchmark for other Australian writers looking to make their mark in the literary world.
STACEY TRICK is a freelance book reviewer and journalist based in Brisbane. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing and Publishing, specialising in Creative Writing and English Literature. Stacey is currently writing her debut novel and blogs about her experiences as a writer at StaceyTrick.com.