Experimental fiction can be a risky gamble for the reader, but when it is beautifully executed, as in the case of Elizabeth Tan’s debut, Rubik, the dividends are sweet. Rubik is a looping narrative, a filmic novel told in short stories, where time bends and reality blurs ‘as if truth is no solid thing’. Each story opens up like a new browser window, seemingly unrelated to the last. Tan dares the reader to float untethered until the hyperlinks start to emerge: ‘everything is just an alt-tab away’. This is a novel that demands trust from the reader.
The book kick-starts with the death of Elena Rubik, run down by a car outside a petrol station, where she has just bought a pie. Elena shape-shifts. She reappears in various forms throughout the novel: as a set of transplanted corneas; as a member of an online community. She won’t stay dead.
Through Elena we meet: her best friend Jules Valentine; aspiring investigative journalist April Kuan; bereft schoolboy Peter Pushkin; his missing music teacher Kish Amar; artist Ursula Rodriguez, and a cast of others, including an anthropomorphised octopus named Tako. Tan moves seamlessly among these points of view and as the book unfolds, portals between the stories open to reveal the connections between them.
We follow this improbable cast around Perth, both an unlikely and completely obvious setting for the novel, a city that has reached peak hipster with its designer lattes and unisex clothes stores:
At the moment you can find me in the brochure for the Ampersand Spring/Summer collection. In each photo, which is printed on matte paper with an Instagram wash, I am posing next to this year’s male Ampersand ambassador, who is wearing the same outfit as me with minor modifications. We manage to finesse vague, casual expressions, as if it’s only natural that we would be wearing identical outfits while socialising in a sun-lit sharehouse full of sensible bookshelves and creamy stationery.
Tan’s characters are apathetic. Their society is vacuous, defined by conspicuous consumption, technology and brands: Samsung, Panasonic, Coca-Cola, IKEA, Google. While hyper-connected, they are also alienated. They are slouching towards a digital dystopia where lolcats and memes are currency, where real birds, frogs and silkworms have been replaced by corporate-sponsored replicants, and where children work grocery production lines to keep blue-rinsed pensioners well fed.
Looming over the human and human-like characters are omnipresent corporations, including technology company Seed, whose products dominate billboards and consciousness with a sinister edge. And weaving through the stories is Ulysses, a mysterious black cat with a red collar:
… cats can slip in and out of a parallel dimension, a realm which permits them to move invisibly, to reappear without sound. To swap places, even. Certainly, looking into Ulysses’s eyes, those blurry hexagons, Tim knows that Ulysses is acquainted with a separate, softer world.
It is this separate, softer world of parallel dimensions, ghosts and shadows that Tan invites the reader into, tearing a rip in the fabric of the mundane lives of her characters and pushing past the noise of Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and Facebook. Tan’s commentary on our relationship with technology is not a cheap shot at an easy target. It is nuanced and clever, deftly mixing witty satire with speculative fiction to create a novel that is at once both cutting social commentary and a heady adventure.
A number of the stories in the novel have deservedly been published as stand-alone pieces of short fiction. Read together, the novel’s structure is daring and genius. There are moments when you simply need to stand back to admire Tan’s breath-taking architecture, an architecture scored with repeating sequences and reinvented scenes. Like Ouroboros, the serpent caught in a cycle of eating its own tail, Rubik destroys and recreates itself.
A recurring motif in the novel is ‘falling girl’, a girl from a scene in an indie film that becomes a viral meme that becomes a falling cat meme that becomes a T-shirt. We witness falling girl defy physics over and again throughout the novel:
Jules double-clicks. And re-watches that part of her day, looping over and over. Each fall is different but she always returns, like a typewriter sliding back into position, or a teleportation device malfunctioning relentlessly, blinking her backwards and backwards. She’s already forgotten the chosen take. The loops are becoming indistinguishable. Backwards, backwards. Like a thought you just can’t get over. Rocketing through that starry sky in reverse.
In Rubik, Tan forces us back again and again to re-examine the puzzle from different angles. Just when you feel you have a grasp on the story, she leaves you unmoored once more. It is a book that requires full attention. Look away, the network will dissolve and you become lost in ‘a glitch in the matrix’. On finishing, you emerge from Rubik blinking into the light, wondering if it was all a dream. This richly layered novel begs to be read more than once to fully appreciate its complexities and connections.
Rubik is a wonderful experiment in fiction. Tan has created a vast landscape to explore within the contained borders of a novel. Jump in with your eyes and mind open and be prepared to hand control over to the author. She is an expert guide who will steer you elegantly to the conclusion of this wild ride: ‘you have everything necessary to begin.’
Elizabeth Tan Rubik Brio 2017 PB 336pp $29.99
This review was originally published in Newtown Review of Books