Slightly Rearranged, But Always the Same

Anna MacDonald reviews Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik

Elizabeth Tan, Rubik.
Brio Books, $29.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

“I have made up a totem,” Pikkoro confides to her octopus friend and protector, Tako, in one of the fan fictional threads of Elizabeth Tan’s novel-in-stories. “[I]t’s a Rubik’s cube with seven colours. … Seven colours for six faces. An unsolvable Rubik’s cube. Kind of like you, Tako. … You have more moving parts than an octopus should have. You are endlessly formful and formless. You have everything necessary to begin.”

Like its namesake and Pikkoro’s totem, Rubik is a puzzle that is endlessly formful and formless. This imaginative novel slips between genres, borrowing from the conventions of fan fiction, speculative fiction, and surrealism. Indebted as much to film, social media, online fora and advertising as it is to literature, Rubik is perpetually shifting shape. Like the changelings, parasites and instances of metamorphoses which fascinate Tan, each story — each part of the irresolvable whole — folds into another, is looped into an apparently endless cycle of recursive events, and becomes one element of an expanding network in which these recursions form alluring, connective nodes that could be clues, but instead deepen the mystery of its unsolvable puzzle.

Elizabeth Tan, Rubik.
Wundor Editions, £10.00.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Rubik belongs to a posthuman universe in which systems and machines are curiously sentient, and human beings take on the characteristics of the technologies that have come to define their interface with the world. The labyrinthine IKEA floorplan wants customers to move in a particular way. A contact lens “wants to be in your eye”. For reasons unknown, mechanical birds (devised and “networked” to resolve a “disaster of first nature” not unlike the recent collapse of France’s avian populations) are compelled to migrate. A robot at the Royal Australian Mint is “seized by the eternal problem of subjectivity” and becomes shy before a crowd of tourists. A woman “finds that her brain… slips into something like one of those Windows 95 screensavers”. A man is “some low-res trial version of a film student”. To relax one’s attention is to be in “power-saving mode”. To become unconscious is to “enter off-mode”. “Light fades like a touchscreen drifting into standby.” The pervasive images of corporate branding become “implanted memories”. ‘Real life’ is “an untrustworthy universe”. But in the circuitry of fan fictions that enfold one and another and another — in an expanding network of infinite becoming where every unsatisfactory ending can be “repurposed” — you will find “everything necessary to begin” again.

Elizabeth Tan, Rubik.
Unnamed Press, $16.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

A novel-in-interconnected-stories, Rubik is composed of serial beginnings. But none of these, not even the first — Elena Rubik waking in “[c]inematic untidiness” to “looped music” and “a DVD menu screen” — represents a fresh start. There is no ur-event in Tan’s novel. Elena is one part of an expanding network that is woven as much from her Facebook profile and “the Luxury Replicants fan fiction forum” as it is from the memories of her friends and associates. Long after her death, that network continues to spin-off other narrative beginnings, which loop back to Elena, to the “heartthrobs” pasted to her bedroom walls, to the Homestyle Country Pie she eats before she dies, to the 1991 Ford EA Falcon that kills her, to the corneas that are transplanted from her eyes into another’s, to her friend Jules Valentine, and to the Luxury Replicants forum. In summary, then, and in the words of Ursula Rodriquez, one of the novel’s recurring characters: Rubik is narrated from multiple perspectives via “relentless, infinite loops.”

Repeatedly, these loops allude (self-reflexively) to a novel-within-the-novel, Seeds of Time. With a nod to John Wyndham’s 1956 short story collection of the same name and, surely, to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), “each chapter [of Seeds of Time] seems to take vast leaps forward in time; characters disappear and return in strange ways, or they do not return at all”. A schoolboy, Peter Pushkin, is one of the characters who strangely returns throughout Rubik. Reading Seeds of Time, he discovers that

[a] seed contains (in perpetuity) all the information necessary to begin. It is an heirloom (a continuation of our conversation) (a speech act) (stories passed on).

Every beginning, then, is already historical. (This despite the fact that in Rubik’s universe, “past, future, and present… [are just parts of a] comforting strategy for beholding existence. They aren’t real things.”) Every new story is a continuation of another. (Even if “[c]ontinuity’s a cheap trick. Everything can be repurposed.”) A seed is the promise of a beginning. But a beginning — already an heirloom, the continuation of an inherited narrative — is nothing new. Everything is, rather, “slightly rearranged, but always the same”.

Rubik grows from the seeds of stories that have been passed on. The intertextual references run thick and fast: to The Simpsons, Lost (2004-2010), Groundhog Day (1993), The Matrix (1999), Inception (2010), Blade Runner (1982), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Jumanji (1995); to Don Delillo, George Orwell, Haruki Murakami, and David Lynch; to American Psycho (1991), Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Jack and the Beanstalk. Taking its cue from fan fiction and celebrating repurposing in all its forms — from machine parts and human organs (which, in this universe, amount to much the same thing), to characters, events, “glitches in the matrix” and so on — it should come as no surprise that this novel proclaims the (by now somewhat tired) notion that nothing is new.

Archna Desai, or Arch, is another of Tan’s recurring characters. Editor of a student-run university magazine, she interviews Jules Valentine whose image, embodied in “the falling girl”, was used in a viral advertising campaign by a telecommunications giant called Seed. For Arch, Seed (and the tech it touts) exemplifies the illusion of the new. According to her,

Seed missed the memo that there’s no such thing as newness anymore, no such thing as authenticity, as pureness, though bless-our-hearts we do try. Whole industries dedicated to the elusive business of making new, of defining again and again the real personality of a corporate entity — rebranding, rebadging, updating, upscaling.

All of which are just so many ways of repurposing a narrative or one of its component parts.

Arch’s pomo cynicism is partly tongue-in-cheek. The magazine she edits is called Lorem Ipsum, “after the nonsense faux-Latin placeholder text that designers often use to demonstrate the layout of a document”.

Appropriately, the production of Lorem Ipsum often “occurs in reverse — designers create a layout and the writers match it with content”. Arch herself uses placeholder text “to clear up the thoughts in her head: If you do it just right, your eyes can skim over the whole of you and appreciate your form, your typeface, your kerning, without the distraction of having to read into things.” Or, in fact, to read anything at all. Thus, Tan playfully critiques the vacuity of certain forms of representation that privilege form over content.

But, like every other aspect of Tan’s novel, Arch’s cynicism returns relentlessly throughout Rubik. The falling girl has become one of those “implanted memories” of the techno-savvy world.  As such, she has come to

stand for a generation, its privileges and anxieties, the tension between intent and accident, a persistent narrative that delegates control to something external and omniscient — gravity, mathematics — her image, a perfect mimesis of the forces that will make her iconic, an exercise in recursion — across her endless cultural iterations she will evade identification — for some she may even escape context, the pastiche encountered before the original…

For Arch, in a rare moment of sincerity, the image of the falling girl is “absolutely meaningless in a way that’s actually quite frightening”. Taken from what began as a student film but became a “collaboration” with Seed — that distributor of telephones, tablets, notebooks and cameras, that creator of data from which narratives can be repurposed — with each take Jules Valentine falls again and again, her body “slightly rearranged, but always the same”. And it is as a result of her recursive, looping fall that her mind assumes the quality of a screensaver. The networked nodes that link technological recursion with the loss of critical (or any other kind of) thought are difficult to ignore. But, then, what’s new? For at least a decade, scholars have been arguing over whether the internet signals the death knell of imagination and critical thought, a proposition that recurs comically in Rubik as the Blue Screen of Death. Even the loss of human imagination and the emptying of our critical faculties are described in technical terms, as a fatal system error.

For all its imaginative verve and virtuosic composition, I am wary of Rubik. And at the heart of my discomfort is the novel’s retreat into the virtual as a means of making sense of the “untrustworthy universe” of real life (so called, and assuming that the real and the virtual can be separated thus in our own untrustworthy universe). Mine is not a variety of unease that leads towards action, but one that flails at the “surfaces upon surfaces upon surfaces” from which the novel is composed. Rather, it leads me to wonder: under what circumstances does a work of art that satirises a social system, come instead to do the work of the system it seeks to critique?

Since its publication in Australia in 2017, Rubik has been widely celebrated as a critique of contemporary narcissism, neoliberalism, and consumerism. Tan satirises consumer culture in a searing depiction of the chainstore, Ampersand, which specialises in unisex apparel — the Yodelicious flannel shirt ($34.95), the Darling Assassin shorts ($23.95) — and infinitely disposable objects such as the Message-in-a-Bottle Kit, the Crumple Cup (set of four), and the Oh, Buoy! Tea infuser. The stories in this novel are populated with the “safely unconventional”: Avril Lavigne is described as having “turned the rejection of packages into a package”; Ursula Rodriguez is an Ampersand ambassador whose “non-threatening brownness” is found to be “different enough to register as Other without being alienating”. At parties, people spend the evening “cycling through random Wikipedia articles” on their Seed.fons. In spam emails, customers are made empty promises: “A convenient life is arrived for you. … All the electronics, all your needs.” All of which, including the relentless way in which such promises loop, is familiar to a contemporary reader. And yet, there is a kind of recursive return to the narcissism supposedly under examination in these insular references. Tan’s social satire ultimately reads — to borrow a term from the novel itself — as “safely transgressive”. It allows us to laugh at ourselves, to nod in enthusiastic recognition of the IKEA floorplan, iPhone advertisements, and the fashion industry’s brand ambassadors while sipping tea from a Crumple Cup prepared with an Oh Buoy! infuser.

Perhaps this is the point. But because the politics of Rubik never exceeds the network of its self-reflexive references, it feels more like a dead-end than an opportunity to begin again. This is most evident in the figure of “Corona girl”, whom Jules Valentine encounters after filming what will become the falling girl footage. Corona girl was formerly involved in making the film but, wise to Seed’s “collaboration” and the “packaging” of her own and Jules’s images, she is now convinced that it is “the spawn of fucking Satan”. When Jules dismisses her protest — “You sound like a first-year who’s discovering capitalism for the first time. Everyone is a package. Everyone knows that everyone is a package. … What you’re saying is old news” — Corona girl counters with an argument that is, to borrow from Arch, “actually quite frightening”: “But this isn’t a Fuck the Man thing! This is personal!” I’d like to believe that this statement of intent — that one must act only in the face of a personal affront — is part of Tan’s critique of contemporary narcissism and alienation. But the surfaces of this novel shift and reflect in such a way that only recursive events — those connective nodes of its narrative network — resolve with any clarity. And each of these recursive events insists that “truth is no solid thing”, that every perspective is “slightly rearranged, but always the same” and, thus, that “you have everything necessary to begin”. Again.