Books

Jamie Marina Lau
Gunk Baby

A “non-place”, as Marc Augé describes in his 1995 essay-turned-book Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, is a venue whose uniformity of design makes it indistinguishable from another, regardless of where you are in the world. One can think of shopping centres, supermarkets and airports as non-places, although more recently we can also include cafes, Airbnbs and social media profiles. In Augé’s view, a non-place is a “supermodernism” that has emerged out of globalisation, resulting in “places of memory” that are unbroken chains. These places become so familiar they eventually become socially estranging.

In Gunk Baby, Jamie Marina Lau’s second novel, the non-place is king. Set largely inside the Topic Heights shopping complex in the unremarkable fictional outer suburb of Par Mars, Augé’s concept operates in full view as its disenchanted denizens – all connected to the complex as either business owners or employees – try to find meaning in their lives amid the drudgery of their routines.

The story begins when Leen, the novel’s main narrator and protagonist, decides to continue her mother’s legacy by starting a “healing studio” in the shopping centre. When she strikes up a friendship with another young Asian woman Farah – an employee at Topic Heights’ lifestyle mega-chain K.A.G. – Leen notes Farah’s dissatisfaction with her workplace and hires her as the receptionist.

To Leen’s dismay, her small business doesn’t do as well as she hopes: as a shop that offers Chinese ear-cleaning and massage services, it is constantly subject to racialised and gendered assumptions that it is a rub-and-tug parlour, and her few customers exoticise her expertise. Meanwhile, other quiet violences hum in the background: Jean-Paul, an employee at Topic Heights’ chemist, and Huy, the son of the chemist’s owners, conspire to disrupt the area’s social fabric in the form of a Neighbourhood Watch that, while supposedly set up to oppose gentrification in Par Mars, acts more like a pyramid scheme that contains shades of a terror plot.

The novel is a slow burn in three parts. By using Leen’s upwardly mobile business trajectory as an axis for the plot, alongside her apathetic observations about herself and the people around her, Lau captures the acutely neoliberal admixture of business and pleasure as one singular entity. What emerges is what a novel – as it is formally defined – should be: novel. Lau’s talent is in excavating the psyche of her characters and their environments in forceful and sometimes droll detail: people “look up like cats”; the sky one day is “Voss grey”; the ground “mumbles under our heels” as a bus drives off.

A laconic tension swells as the book progresses, a textual translation of the kind of psychological warfare that arises from alienation and anxiety in a world dictated by consumerism. Characters are frequently obsessed with how they appear to others, and their relationships with each other are transactional and never seem warm. Leen’s internal monologue is filtered through with Robert Greene platitudes (of the infamous self-help book The 48 Laws of Power), even if she is mired with doubts about whether she is indeed performing the roles expected of her. This creates an eerie subjectivity that encapsulates what those seen as “Other” often experience: we are moving through the world as autonomous beings, yet this autonomy is almost always mediated by the boundaries of dominant expectations.

Ennui and dread run strongly through Lau’s work. It is a style that is reminiscent of Ottessa Moshfegh’s earlier writing (Eileen), or that of fellow East Asian diaspora writers such as R. O. Kwon (The Incendiaries) and Susan Choi (Trust Exercise) – what I consider an artistic reaction to accelerationism as interpreted by an urbanised and minoritised creative class. The reading experience is far from joyless, but it renders interiorities in a distinctively dissociative way that characterises “capitalist realism”. A Ballardian pall hangs over the narrative.

As with Lau’s debut novel, Pink Mountain on Locust Island, this type of flammable inertia takes precedence – its energy akin to a taut coil or a “fever dream”. Even if Pink Mountain is more visceral than Gunk Baby, both books present a placelessness that is at once comforting and strange – the concurrent feeling of thrill and disquiet that accompanies the globalised condition, perhaps. Juxtaposed with the author’s staccato prose, this manifests as subtle horror, with characters inhabiting a specificity that makes plain that they are similarly products of their environment and reluctant agents of the era in which they live. Each character is a master at sweeping aside their cognitive dissonances.

As Gunk Baby reaches its darkly comic crescendo, Lau’s characters find themselves increasingly communicating only about business or work while their psyches and relationships privately collapse. We witness Leen slowly assimilate to her surroundings as her studio’s reputation grows, her initial distaste of the K.A.G. brand transforming into desire after she moves in with her boyfriend Luis, who is promoted to store manager after the original manager mysteriously disappears. This occurs alongside the breakdown of her friendship with Farah, the employer-employee dynamic between them intensifying to a discomforting degree. Meanwhile, Jean-Paul and Huy’s project becomes more and more sinister.

Gunk Baby is the artistic equivalent of an ongoing disintegration, an experimental critique of the absurdities of consumer culture which, with its many aspirations and distractions, blocks people from truly understanding who they are. As Leen tries to persuade herself halfway through the narrative: “The more we become no-thing, the more we are able to experience life firsthand, unbiasedly.” Lau is skilful at drawing out contemporary existential contradictions, showing Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism” at work. In the end, people become non-places as well.

Cher Tan

Hachette, 346pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Jamie Marina Lau, Gunk Baby".

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Reviewer: Cher Tan