I grew up in Sydney but I find it a difficult place to write about. It’s too slippery, its endless redevelopments bound up with my own youth and the way I left, pushed out by the mad expense of life there. The person I was in Sydney was like some of the houses I lived in: slated for demolition. I loved getting lost in its streets and escaping to its close ring of bushland and I hated its choking class distinctions, the imprisonment of its postcodes, its obsession with self-improvement.
Maybe the city’s need for transformation is linked to the way the harbour flushes itself, constantly exchanging water with the ocean – a phenomenon of tides and wind and landscape that keeps its aquatic ecosystem thriving. Maybe it’s the layered wishes of generations of migrants, or a response to a history of violent displacement. Whatever it is, the people I know there seem to hit refresh a lot. And every time I go back to the city, its built environment has radically changed – always more freeways, more demolitions, more aspirational glass.
Constant transformations run through Julie Koh’s new short story collection Portable Curiosities. From the third eye surgically removed in ‘Sight’, to the disingenuous therapy bots of ‘The Sister Company’, through to the final image of the narrator becoming a goddess, huge and proud, the book is a series of looking-glass reinventions, none of them simple. Characters are altered or alter themselves to escape, to protect, to defy, to survive, to make a profit.
I first came across Koh’s work as one of the judges of the Overland/Victoria University Prize, for which her story ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’ was shortlisted in 2013. In it, Yellow Man escapes from his one-dimensional life in ninja films. The rest of the story skewers the many forms of racism that Yellow Man encounters, and satire is sharp throughout this collection. Koh’s work is not just funny but wildly imaginative, somewhere between Tom Cho and George Saunders. Portable Curiosities is not a book about Sydney, but I find the city I hate/love/hate rescaled here. ‘Civility Place’ is that glass aspiration, the wage slave nightmare from which we are all trying to awake. Along with ‘Cream Reaper’, it’s a standout piece of black comedy that shows us a future where things get steadily worse for everyone. There’s a frank nihilism to Koh’s sometimes deadpan dialogue, an acquiescence to bleak reality: the glass artist in ‘Satirist Rising’, one of the curiosities of the title, declares, ‘we’re possessions, not people’.
I get the impression Koh is as delighted by the awfulness of late capitalism as she is horrified by it, and that gives me hope that our imminent dystopian future will at least not be humourless. Though there’s no ultimate getaway, the transformations in these stories offer themselves as a series of trapdoors. The cumulative effect is liberating, so that when the metafictional heroine of ‘The Fat Girl in History’ turns at last into ‘a goddess who doesn’t care about shit’, it seems right and just. She slips into a fresh self, aspirational but also overcoming; equal parts renovation and revelation, cruelty and kindness. Like Sydney.
Coming home compresses the memory, and perhaps it’s because I’ve recently returned to Australia that I keep reading about the city I grew up in, place of my first escapes. Reading about Sydney is like walking around in it: a form of time travel. In Maxine Beneba Clarke’s tender memoir The Hate Race, I visited a suburban childhood that paralleled my own in many ways, but like all good memoir it’s a lesson in the value of specificity, rather than familiarity. I’m learning that lesson anew from a series of essays in the Sydney Review of Books: from Alison Whittaker’s Redfern (‘not exactly a place, but an imaginary made through longing’), from Fiona Wright’s shape-shifting Cronulla, and from Vanessa Berry’s detailed noticing of St Peters, characteristically sensitive to loss.
We personify cities, but they turn us into the people we are. Sydney made me attentive to power. It’s a place of disconnect between image and experience, a disconnect that can be visible whether you’re watching the fireworks from a rich person’s balcony or breaking into an abandoned building to sleep. Once seen, the cracks in its vanity mirror can’t be unseen. The best writing doesn’t just show us the looking-glass, but offers a way through.
Jennifer Mills is the author of the novels Gone and The Diamond Anchor and the short story collection The Rest is Weight. Her next novel, Dyschronia, will be published by Picador in 2017.