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Tender trapped: ‘Smart Ovens for Lonely People’

By Andrew Fuhrmann
In Elizabeth Tan’s ebullient story collection, frustrated characters yearn for a grand cataclysm

This book of stories by Elizabeth Tan, with the winsome title Smart Ovens for Lonely People (Brio), goes off like a string of firecrackers. Tan lines up a series of drably contemporary vignettes then blows them apart with sharp little explosions of exaggeration, phantasm, irony and absurdism. The resulting fragments – all gaudy and awry – are new and suggestive in the most fantastic ways. It’s an ebullient collection and the perfect cure for anyone feeling low-spirited or discontented after months of coronavirus lockdown.

Neighbourhood cats with names like O Fortuna and Mr Fluffy Man unite in a solemn fellowship to fight off a flailing Lovecraftian terror that rises from a local swimming pool. A large fibreglass fish in a playground picks itself up one night and runs down the street on stilted legs, never to be seen again. A woman has her grief surgically removed and transferred to a compact disc. When the disc is played a strange music is heard that causes instantaneous and uncontrollable weeping.

Tan’s stories are set against a background of 21st-century consumerist capitalism. They take place in shopping malls and casino restaurants, on reality-television shows and beneath glowing billboard hoardings. One story is narrated by a woman apparently trapped in an underwear catalogue. Another features a woman who works for a company that makes fashionable terrariums and is obsessed with a smartphone game about collecting cute cats.

Cuteness and its complex connection with commercialisation is, indeed, one of the serious themes of this collection. Cute objects can console people who feel alienated and adrift in a world of fleeting and corrupted relationships. In the book’s title story, a depressed young woman is assigned an artificially intelligent oven in the shape of a giant cartoon cat as part of her therapy. Its shape makes the oven more approachable and less threatening.

But, of course, the ubiquity of cuteness is also part of the problem. The desire to buy more cute things – always more and more cute things – ultimately exacerbates rather than ameliorates feelings of isolation and spiritual hollowness. And, anyway, isn’t cuteness and the desire to be seen as cute, terribly limiting?

In “Our Sleeping Lungs Opened to the Cold”, a lavish flight into fairytale mystique worthy of Angela Carter, we discover eight mermaids kept for the amusement of diners at a swanky restaurant. They are all named after precious stones, and sedatives are added to the water to keep them pliant and appealing and to stop them hunting and eating the exotic fish that share their plate-glass prison.

Tan’s characters, whether human or not, are often depressed or frustrated or in mourning for a life that no longer seems worth living. They are stuck in a neon-lit dead end and can see no way forward. And so they yearn for the intervention of some grand cataclysm, some disaster that will break open the world, tear off the constraints and sweep away the tacky pasteboard scenery and gimcrack gadgetry of modern life.

In one story, a woman agrees to sit through her housemate’s interminable PowerPoint presentation about dinosaurs. After all, it’s his birthday. Four slides into the lecture, however, an awful realisation dawns upon her: she wants it all to end. Not just the presentation. Everything. Now and forever. Bring on the fiery meteor and mass extinction.

In another story, a coin-operated unicorn in a shopping centre dreams that the noise and bustle of the world around it, the bright lights and fake smiles and advertising jingles, might suddenly and eternally burst open. “One day,” the unicorn thinks, “there will be a sale to end all sales, a final markdown like a lightning strike that tears the sky in half.”

And more often than not in these stories, lightning does strike. Something fantastic happens and turns it all upside down. In several, this moment occurs when a conspiracy or network of spies is discovered operating behind the mundanities of everyday life. The revelation is terrifying but also exhilarating because it proves that there are other worlds beyond this one.

Even when the changes or ruptures are catastrophic, the fact that change is possible at all gives the stories an air of hopefulness. As readers of her complexly experimental debut novel, Rubik, will already know, Elizabeth Tan can twist ordinary suburban life into the weirdest shapes. This collection has plenty of weirdness, but it also suggests the potential for deeper emotional and spiritual insights. And there is an unexpected tenderness to these explosive fictions.

“Would you rather have a bicycle or roller-skates?” one young sister asks the other, in a world-altering game of would-you-rather. The second says roller-skates and instantly all the bicycles on the planet are transported into another dimension, drawn up through a hole in the sky. An international referendum to decide what to do about the sisters is hastily organised. What if tomorrow they abolish zookeepers?

Yes, it sounds more than a bit jokey and bit flighty, but it finishes with this description of the hole in the sky, a culminating moment of spiritual uplift:

What did it look like? A hole in the memory of the sky, a tongue stumbling over a forgotten word. A pencil tethered to a cardboard booth, hovering over two checkboxes—twin portals, humming with loss. Daughter, daughter, father: eyes closed, heads bowed in prayer. Hands joined, as if to come before the Lord as a single category of thing—that must, as one, either float to the sky or hold to the earth.

This manages to be both a witty parody of Flannery O’Connor’s visionary evocations and also a genuinely poignant grace note, a reflection on the sometimes arbitrary way we make decisions about what is important and what is not, about what to remember and what to forget.

Tan has a talent for bringing to life the skewed and desultory habits of her lonely characters, but she also adds a mediative and poetic gloss to her narration. She has a voice that can shift in a moment from ironic meme-style humour into resonant, lyrical passages that suggest a potentially limitless empathy.

The stories in Smart Ovens for Lonely People, short as they are, have a surprising throw-weight and will blow the rusty hinges off even the most jaded imagination. But they will also console and encourage and invigorate.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann is an editor and literary critic. He is a researcher in the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne and has taught at the Victorian College of the Arts.

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