Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh
Comprising twelve darkly funny and allegorical stories spanning spec-fic, black comedy and mock journalism, Sydney writer Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities is full of biting reimaginings of Australian culture and history that throw into sharp focus the uncomfortable realities of contemporary life.
In the collection opener, ‘Sight’, a piece of magical realism reminiscent of Kelly Link, a young girl learns to use her magical third eye to see ghosts in places they don’t belong. ‘Satirist Rising’ imagines an Idiocracy-style dystopian future where life imitates art in an utterly absurd and sinister way. ‘Cream Reaper’ is a blistering dissection of foodie culture, as a young journalist gets roped in by a media-savvy celebrity chef with a scheme to shake up the world of gourmet ice cream, while ‘Two’ is an oddball but moving tale of a son’s inability to measure up to his perfectionist father.
Standout pieces include ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’, which uses film characters leaping off-screen to highlight the systemic and pervasive racism in Australian culture, and ‘The Fantastic Breasts’, a hyperbolic ode to the titular body parts that is laugh-out-loud funny even as it pulses with rage, shifting into something darker as it approaches its brilliant final lines.
The collection ends on a slightly more reflective note with ‘The Fat Girl In History’, an experimental piece of creative nonfiction that sees Koh skewering literary culture and the cult of body image while also interrogating her own writing influences and personal insecurities.
The stories in Portable Curiosities take place in a landscape that blends the absurd with the mundane – androids lurk in offices off recognisable Sydney streets, and a miniature revolution takes place in a cat cafe in Strathfield – yet Koh’s use of language, like referring to Australia as ‘the island’ throughout, also highlights the strangeness of the Australian situation. Similar in theme to Nic Low’s Arms Race or Sonja Dechian’s An Astronaut’s Life, Portable Curiosities is a stellar addition to a new wave of Australian satire.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.