Books

Elizabeth Tan
Smart Ovens for Lonely People

As a frantic March rolled into an accepting April, sliding into a complacent May, the “apocalypse”, now boring, has disappeared into June. The “new normal” became old in the time it took to say the phrase; in supermarket aisles, I’m the only person wearing a mask. As if becoming bored of a virus could make it vanish.

Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People reminds us there is precedent for “these unprecedented times” of change; the new, or weird, often swiftly descends into the accepted, the banal. Tan’s collection of short stories contains worlds adjacent to ours and could be framed as gentle, if amusing, speculations. What if, she asks, we didn’t use pens anymore; what would the world look like – would we have the same concerns? What if we didn’t eat solid food, instead gaining nutrients from a drip – if chewing was a foreign sensation? What if a seemingly benign game of “would you rather” between two sisters made irreversible decisions for the world, with the rejected option disappearing up into an iridescent hole in the sky?

These seem like odd parallels to our current situation: what if a global pandemic occurred? Australia’s absurd hoarding of toilet paper could easily have been lifted from Tan’s pages, as could the group of Sydney policemen photographed protecting a stone-cold statue of long-dead James Cook. The world changes, but people remain the same.

The stories that comprise Smart Ovens for Lonely People, when reduced to their particulars, are magnets for a familiar string of nouns: technology, marketing, capitalism, the future. As with Ling Ma’s Severance, Tan twists a future that has already arrived with one in the process of arriving. But where Ma’s speculative work is grounded in capital-R Realism, Tan swerves into a new imaginary. She has been called, somewhat unfortunately, “quirky”, and, on the other hand, a “prophet of our times”. But Tan is best described as a leading experimental fiction writer, one who crafts meticulous worlds, and treats the human condition with sensitivity and remarkable tenderness.

In “Eighteen Bells Karaoke Castle (Sing Your Heart Out)”, a narrator born in the “Year of the Rabbit” describes the karaoke patrons: “I do not mean to make it sound like Eighteen Bells is an unhappy place. I think it is more accurate to say that more people are simply unhappy – here and everywhere – and don’t actually realise it.” It becomes clear that the narrator is, in fact, a talking rabbit; yet the absurdities of the situation don’t detract from compelling truths. This is Tan’s true talent: constructing wild worlds that contain very human feelings and desires. In “Mounting Sexual Tension Between Two Long-time Friends; Tom Knows That Ant Is a Spy but Ant Doesn’t”, Tan takes the epiphanic mode of the short-story form and turns it inside out; she shifts the reader’s anticipation away from the expectations held in the title, and towards a tender love between two long-time friends.

Tan often circles around the expected epiphany only to avoid it altogether. This is not to say that Smart Ovens is anti-narrative, but rather that narrative serves Tan. “Excision in F-Sharp Minor” details the experimental excision of Nora’s overwhelming grief at losing her partner. Transferred onto a CD, Nora’s pain becomes a song that compels the listener to feel immediate and intolerable sadness. Though this is an interesting conceit in itself, Tan also begins the story at the end of the excision process: with sheer mastery of narrative, she reverses the time line, moving towards grief.

The collection speaks often to ugly feelings: loneliness, jealousy, grief. It outlines a desperate and dizzying lack of agency in a neoliberal world. As with the trajectory in “Excision”, Tan narrows in on uncomfortable emotion, scaffolding it in speculative worlds. The titular story contains a “smart oven” prescribed to Shu after a suicide attempt. Any expectations of a menacing AI appliance are swiftly discarded; the smart oven instead cooks and cares for Shu, chatting with her throughout. As the story closes, Shu’s loneliness has not been “solved”, but rather articulated.

This loneliness is a running theme in Tan’s work, stretching into her first book, Rubik, published in 2017. An incredible collage of a novel, Rubik is cacophonous, requiring patience and active work on the reader’s part to piece together Tan’s Rubik’s cube of a narrative. In comparison, Smart Ovens for Lonely People pulls together parts of a similar world – a Perth that both is and is not Perth – without the expectation of an elongated narrative, allowing Tan a certain freedom necessarily missing from Rubik. Smart Ovens is the perfect entry point into her writing for new readers.

As issues of racism permeate public consciousness, appropriate representation in literature has become more pressing, yet even the best intentions can find non-white characters often defined by their otherness or racial traumas, or not depicted at all. But Tan refuses to make either mistake; Smart Ovens elegantly depicts a wide range of diverse characters. She writes about race with a lightness of touch: in the same way I do not spend every moment of my life thinking, “I am Asian, I am Asian”, Tan refuses to write solely about race. When, for example, Ant is called a racial slur in “Mounting Sexual Tension”, it is notable that the story doesn’t pivot on this moment – it is merely one of many facets.

In the penultimate story, two women have a picnic on a cliff, watching as balloons appear, clouding the sky, expanding until they explode the town below: “I think your house just exploded,” one says. “I believe it just did,” the other replies. Unlike in Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “The Balloon”, where an enormous balloon obfuscating the New York sky is packed up without a trace, Tan’s balloons will soon destroy the world as we know it – leaving only “the crumpled castles of humanity”. The only thing left to do is watch.

Smart Ovens for Lonely People asks: what do we do with tricky emotions in the apocalypse? Heartbreak is still heartbreak, even if it’s in an adjacent world, one in which all the chairs have disappeared into the sky, leaving only beanbags. Tan maps Perth onto a new Australian imaginary, and we are truly lucky for it.

Leah Jing McIntosh

Brio, 320pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2020 as "Elizabeth Tan, Smart Ovens for Lonely People".

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Reviewer: Leah Jing McIntosh

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