Portable Curiosities (2016) by Julie Koh
Julie Koh’s first full-length collection of short stories, Portable Curiosities, is a strange journey through an unsettling landscape of curious characters in familiar but altered settings. A young girl’s third eye, located in her navel, sees the undetectable and impolite spirit world. A cooler than cool Sydney entrepreneur fashionista media darling chef explores the limits of art, privilege, entitlement, and ice cream, with deadly results. And a young woman steps out of her boyfriend’s BMW into a parade of the gods, ignoring the all-powerful Economist god in favour of a drunken deity with a small dog under one arm.
Koh takes the world as she sees it and makes the reader see it that way too. She touches on themes of isolation, exclusion, racism, sexism, childhood neglect, the disease of over-achieving, and the sterility of living and working in the city. Several of her stories depict the burden of not living up to a particular image or identity and, most of all, not wanting to live up to it because it was flawed to begin with.
Several of her stories embody biting satire, such as The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man, in which Stand-offish Ninja #13 steps out of a cinema screen and embarks on a life of his own. He resolves to spend time on intellectual pursuits and studies the representation of woman in Italian neorealist cinema. When the man is invited to panels and festivals to discuss his work all he is asked about is his yellowness. Before long more ‘yellow cinema refugees’ emerge from the screen and this leads to the following:
Out of a fish and chip shop appeared a tight-lipped, flame-haired woman.
I don’t like it, she said. We’re in danger of being swamped by yellows. They stick to themselves and form ghettos. They’re stealing our jobs. Political correctness is ruining our island. Please explain, she said, because she really didn’t understand.
Her stories have an interesting variety of endings and lessons, each one full of so many layers that I know I’ll re-read this collection and find entirely new meanings and enjoyment from it. Some of the more memorable characters include: the man who lives by a list thinking it will help him beat death by being too quick for it, over-achieving and completely missing the point of life altogether; the woman in the cat café that becomes its own micro-nation, who grows to embrace anarchy, encouraged by a taxidermied tabby that tells her to ‘Annex some shit’; the local council that documents the complaints of a village against Russian musicians in the woods, culminating in the mass slaughter of the musicians and subsequent complaints from the local villagers that the escalated violence was unnecessary and a bit much all round really.
Koh’s stories are like waking from reality into a dream that is similar to your life; when strange and impossible things happen they somehow make perfect sense because that person, that animal, that inanimate object has a life of its own and is simply going about its existence with no regard for what you expect. The prose is sparse and just descriptive enough, giving the reader a sense of the scene, the mood, and the characters without overbearing it in descriptive language or explaining every strange thing that happens; it is refreshing and complements the content of each story perfectly.
Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities is exactly what it says on the tin; a collection of curiosities that can easily fit on a purse or pocket. Her writing is modern magic realism, updated myth-making, and caustic satire wrapped in imagination and introspection. Expect to be changed at least a little from reading these stories, and try not to read them before bed; your dreams will never be the same.