by Tom Cho
Giramondo Publishing, 2009
Review by S.F. Winser
I hate reading short-stories. Hate it. I especially hate reading short-story collections. Not because I'm against the form. Some of my favourite pieces of writing are short-stories. But – well – if I'm going to invest in characters and ideas I usually want it to last a while. That's why I read novels. That's why I write novels.
And collections. There's a very real dread that strikes whenever I open a short-story collection. What if one sucks? Will I be able to keep my motivation to read the next? And what if that one sucks, too? Or worse... What happens when I read a great story? The others in the collection: they're doomed. There's no way they could compete! Can I force myself to risk disappointment by attempting another story?
But, last month I decided I was going to be good. I was going to support my country-people and go on an Aussie literature binge. I picked a classic (Nevil Shute), a modern-master (Tim Winton), a ringer (J.M. Coetzee) and a short-story collection by an up-and-comer: Tom Cho's 'Look Who's Morphing'.
The first three were good. Even excellent. But Cho's book was the best surprise of the lot. I read the whole thing. With no gaps between stories. No angst. Just the feeling that that was a good read, now on to the next bit!
What makes this particularly weird is that 'Morphing' is neo-surrealist. What makes it weird is that this book is weird. Unashamedly, deliberately odd. One minute, Cho is himself, the next, he's The Fonze. He's male. Female. Gay. Straight. Giant-sized and destroying Tokyo. In every story, someone undergoes a metamorphosis. Most often, this metamorphosis is dramatic and strange on a Kafka-esque level. Usually, it's Cho. Sometimes it's everybody. And it's always delivered with a straight, matter-of-fact tone. Of course, it's completely normal for Jim Henson Studios to change you into a Muppet via surgery. Who suggested that it wasn't?
The theme – well, the main theme – is obvious. Cho is an immigrant, forever unsure and uncertain in his identity. Wow. That was hard to spot, wasn't it? However, there is a very positive undercurrent in this. The Absurdism (The capital letter here is intentional. Showing off of my philosophy degree is pretty much all it's good for) that runs throughout is there to illustrate the idea that identity is, in itself, mutable. Who you are is not only unsure, it's unsure for everybody and can be chosen. You can change as and when you want, for whatever reason you want. Cho, apparently, wants to be various celebrities and – also – a rock god/sexy superstar. In this, Cho is actually ahead of the game. His insider/outsider status makes him more aware of this natural changeability and more able to use it to his advantage to be whoever the hell he wants.
In a greater way, Cho plays with pop-culture in a manner that shows that this part of our shared experience is just that: shared. Pop-culture belongs to everyone, regardless of stereotypes or background. In this way, things like the music of Meatloaf or the movies of Whitney Houston are actually important parts of shared identity. They form us as much as our country of birth or religious leanings of our family members.
The stories in 'Morphing' link into each other thematically but the characters, who often have the same names, are different in each story. Cho is the main character in most and his circumstance and personality change depending on context. The oddness is kept at a constant level throughout, and the pieces almost end up reading as blurred chapters in a long-form text. They are also extremely funny. The content is absurd and neo-Absurdist. That means it's allowed to have jokes under “The Rules of Literature” without being dismissed as 'genre'.
Sometimes 'Morphing' felt a bit padded. Cho was working with arts-funding to expand some short stories into a text as part of a Postgraduate study and some of the stories, while entertaining, felt like the editor (or professor) was complaining that the book was too short. Especially the one where Cho (actually, his possessed Auntie Wei) goes on and on about filling out arts-funding application forms. That struck me as both self-indulgent and unnecessary. It was almost too obviously chucked together. Of course, it was still extremely well-written. And funny. But short-stories – and collections of short-stories - are supposed to be about quality, not length.
The standout was 'Cock Rock', the conclusion to the book, that was as weird as any other story in the collection. It was self-indulgent reveling in fantasy. In rock-stardom, power, size, sexual conquest and self-bestowed god-hood. But, throughout this story, it's obvious that Cho knows all this and is convincing you to come for the ride anyway. And you do. He grows the skyscraper height, destroys buildings, puts on an impromptu rock concert and gets up to things with tiny women that would make my grandmother's head explode. But the discussions of fantasy, of sexual morality, the power of pop-cultural heroes and of personal worth work to emphasise the strange imagery so that this is the story that keeps coming back to you, weeks after you've read it.
So is the short-story curse broken? Not even close. I don't want to pick up any more short-story collections. What if they're not as good as 'Look Who's Morphing'? Could I stand the disappointment?
Note to non-Australians: This book has so far only been published in Australia – don't look for it on Amazon.com - but you should be able to order it through your local bookstore using the ISBN..