The term “experimental fiction” can be used to cover a multitude of sins: an almost petulant obsession with abstraction and a disdainful disregard for the experience of the reader, among them. When it works, though, we have novels in the tradition of Kafka, Woolf and Foster Wallace. The very best experimental writers have an inspired and weird way of seeing the world that makes much realist fiction seem moribund. Elizabeth Tan’s debut novel-in-stories, Rubik, is in the latter category: it’s wonderful, brilliant and mind-bending, and a worthy heir to the experimental tradition.
Rubik begins with the death of 25-year-old Perth woman Elena Rubik, run down by a Ford Falcon in the driveway of a service station while buying herself a chicken pie for dinner, after pocketing her change. (These details matter.) Rubik is her name because that’s what the book is: a Rubik’s cube of interconnecting and shifting possibilities of what happens next, in various realities and times. Parallel dimensions are tricky to relate in fiction. They are more common in film, and Rubik references The Matrix – with some pivotal red/blue choices, and a wandering cat – Inception and Jumanji. None of these allusions are forced, though, because Rubik is all about the way humans interact with technology and what we have gained and, mostly, lost. As part of this interaction, we are perpetually addressed as consumers, and here we see Tan at her most cutting and clever. “Luxury Replicants” is set mostly in Ampersand, a “hipster gift store that sells unisex clothes and miscellaneous quirky shit”, such as “Executive Decision Guillotine earrings”. Customers ask “if the Pantone socks come in any other shades of blue”.
That’s the secret to Rubik’s success: Tan’s details and social commentary are terrific by themselves, and plenty to keep the reader engaged while the bigger picture slowly resolves like a Magic Eye image. The strongest story, “Coca-Cola birds sing sweetest in the morning”, is about a woman, Audrey Kwai (this detail matters), who is a repairer of mechanical birds and insects, sponsored by various corporations to replace the extinct living varieties. Conceptually a nod to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? antecedent, it’s terrific and would easily stand alone as a piece of short fiction.
Rubik is the kind of book that demands a second read, or a third. And maybe paper and a pen for notes. Or several pens, of different colours. Regardless, it’s worth the effort. LS
Brio, 336pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 1, 2017 as "Elizabeth Tan, Rubik". Subscribe here.