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The powerlessness of one: ‘Gunk Baby’

By Elizabeth Flux
Jamie Marina Lau’s dreamlike second novel explores what, if anything, the individual can do to tackle structural issues

There’s a moment part way through Jamie Marina Lau’s second novel, Gunk Baby, where I wonder – just for a second – if this book is actually set in purgatory. As a theory, it falls over almost immediately. No – this expertly rendered story, depressingly, is very much set in our world.

Leen has opened up an ear-cleaning studio and massage parlour in the Topic Heights shopping complex – a second-rate shopping centre in an ugly suburban town called Par Mars. Her business feels doomed from the beginning: she’s indecisive about the furniture, about the name, about how to advertise. Barely anyone comes to the opening. The CEO of the complex seems to swing between indifference and hostility in her general attitude. None of this seems to faze Leen, however. No, that’s not quite right either. Things bother Leen – she just never really does anything about it.

Lau navigates a difficult line in Gunk Baby. It takes skill to set a book in a world painted beige with monotonous routine and yet not allow the setting to drag down the pace of the story. You feel the drudgery of Par Mars seeping into Leen’s life and her mind – but not into the novel.

The more you think about Leen, the harder she is to get a handle on. The book begins with her living as a third wheel in her friend Doms’ house. Despite there being a second bedroom being used as a storage room, Leen sleeps on a fold-out bed, a subtle sign that her presence there is only temporarily welcome. “[The second bedroom] needs to be cleared but maybe the quicker they do it, the more comfortable I might get, perhaps this is why it hasn’t been done,” she reflects. But still Leen doesn’t move.

Her choice of work, though unusual, is something she is clearly passionate about. Leen regularly talks to her mother back in Hong Kong about both the philosophy and the reality of ear cleaning. She practices to make sure she is good at her trade, she patiently explains the purpose of a clean to clients, and, with a deadpan unflappability, she deals with kids who come in to laugh at her and film what she is doing.

The tone of Gunk Baby is dreamlike and foggy, almost as though a light haze of marijuana smoke has settled across the pages. When, in an early chapter, Leen’s other housemate, Vic, comes home covered in blood, it’s not as big a deal as it should be, either to the characters or to the reader. The horror is quickly folded into the story, paving the way for the book’s gradually escalating violence to be breezed past just as easily. It isn’t a condoning of violence; it’s a way, in this surreal mirror to our world, of putting microaggressions and physical aggressions on the same plane, to show the way the former become normalised – something that you grow numb to and learn to live around.

When Leen meets Jean Paul, a lazy pharmacy worker with an inflated sense of his own importance, she is clearly put off by both his appearance and his mannerisms. “His teeth look as though they’re squirming between his lips when he smiles,” she observes. Instead of putting up a wall, however, she allows him to become a big part of her life. Or, rather, she doesn’t stop him from stepping in and steering hers.  

“I get an odd feeling that Jean Paul is going to steal my car one of these days,” Leen thinks at one point. Soon afterwards, she finds herself acting as his driver, at first to and from meetings of a cultlike neighbourhood watch–type organisation that haphazardly rails against capitalism in general and the Topic Heights mall in particular, and, later, to and from scenes of violence. Despite the worsening situation, despite her lack of commitment to the cause, and despite the fact that she has nothing to gain but much to lose from her involvement, Leen offers no resistance and no real judgement.

Lau shows us, repeatedly, that Leen sees a lot; she is acutely insightful when it comes to others. But this awareness never impacts her decision-making, probably because, in a big-picture sense, there’s nothing she can do to change things.

We watch as workers disappear from the mall and are immediately replaced. We watch as Leen names her store “Lotus Fusion Studio” because these are the kinds of words people expect when they think about Asian massage parlours. We watch as she brushes past stereotyping comments and misplaced expectations that she will be performing sex work as well.

Leen is shaped by circumstance and the people around her, and is resigned to this moulding, though somehow not defeated by it. It’s hard to know what, if anything, would shake her from her quiet acceptance of being a passenger in her own life.

It’s a fascinating way to explore what, if any, impact the individual can have when it comes to structural issues. Throughout the book we see the growing presence of a chain store called K.A.G. Initially it sells clothes and a smattering of other items, but slowly it begins to sell furniture and stationery, consuming and replacing the stores around it, and homogenising Topic Heights. In some ways, Jean Paul’s group is half-heartedly fighting against this, but not really – and their efforts aren’t making much of an impact.

Leen herself is under threat of being consumed in multiple ways. K.A.G will probably take out her store as well, while Jean Paul’s escalating instability and demands speckle yet another kind of dread over the entire story. And in her personal life, Leen’s partner is gradually beginning to control what their home looks like and what she wears.

She has little power, and essentially goes where she is steered. And yet, as a character, there is still a steeliness to her. She is surviving in a world that judges her based on her appearance or on her choice of business, one that, without a second thought, labels items of furniture “oriental”. There are only so many battles you can fight in such an ongoing onslaught – and even fewer that you can win. Leen watches as Jean Paul’s group closes in on one of her loved ones. She watches as the mall is slowly taken over by K.A.G. And she does nothing. Because what can she really do?

A book like this – that doesn’t take the expected route, that gambles on a quiet and potentially difficult-to-access protagonist – is a gift. When a typical hero fights against a black-and-white injustice, you close that book and you feel good, and you don’t need to think on those issues any longer. But Gunk Baby isn’t that neat and tidy. In showing someone living through an escalated version of our world, the novel invites deeper interrogation and, potentially, change.

In the hands of a writer more tethered to convention, you might expect Leen to sleep with her housemate Vic, to fight back against Jean Paul or to have a showdown with Doms about their lopsided friendship. But Lau’s strength as an author shines in this space she has carved out for herself. She doesn’t fall into the trap of writing fiction that tries to fix things. But nor is this a book that feels so everyday that there is no point to reading it. Gunk Baby, despite its surreal aura, exposes power structures and daily violence in a way that will make you think about the real world a little deeper.

Elizabeth Flux

Elizabeth Flux is an award-winning writer and editor whose fiction and nonfiction work has been widely published.

@ElizabethFlux

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