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Look Who’s Morphing (Arsenal Pulp Press), Australian author Tom Cho’s debut book, bills itself as “a fresh, hilarious, and dazzlingly contemporary collection of micro-fictions that explore the slipperiness of identity, race, and gender.” While this may be the case, it reads more like a dream journal being kept by someone with an overactive imagination—in the most somewhat-exhausting-but-mostly-interesting-and-entertaining way possible.
On the surface, the main characteristic uniting all of the stories is the incorporation of characters, figures, and tropes from the past four decades of popular culture. Of his style, Cho says: “At first, I became interested in incorporating pop culture into my fiction simply much of the fiction I’d been reading wasn’t populated with pop culture.” Cho clearly took his mission to right this perceived wrong seriously, as he’s produced a slim volume that is nonetheless loaded to the gills with familiar figures like Godzilla, the Muppets, Dr. Phil, Whitney Houston, and more.
The other thing that these stories share is that Cho is usually the protagonist, and one or more of his characters are in a state of constant transformation—both between and within individual stories. In one installment he enters into a torrid gay relationship in a twisted version of Dirty Dancing; in another, he’s a Godzilla-sized “cock rock” god who’s first bent on destroying Tokyo, then determined to entertain it—culminating in a scene where’s he’s tied down Gulliver’s Travels-style and pleasured by 20-plus Japanese women (this process is described in such as way as to make me blush while reading it on the Metro).
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti once asked, “Do dreams rescue your ego / as an ocean saves a / sinking ship?” It’s with this idea in mind that I choose to view Cho’s stories as a collection of dreams. Similar to the way your subconscious will process real-life issues and emotions by creating elaborate and outrageous scenarios, the over-the-top plot lines in each of these stories allows their author to comment bluntly on matters related to identity, family, and race while still having them couched safely within the overtly fictitious world of the stories.
Take, for example, the story based on The Sound of Music, in which Cho goes off to live with Captain Von Trapp, but eventually is confronted with the very-real scenario of not knowing whether he wants to be with the man or be him. Similarly, he’s able to discuss the often-fraught process of identity-formation amongst the children of immigrants in a creative way, by having said children quite literally morph into various Western pop culture icons before their alarmed parents’ eyes. Finding these nuggets of reality within each story is the real joy to be had in reading these campy vignettes.
The choice to make these stories take the form of micro-fiction was a good one; the over-the-top-ness of the stories’ constructs can become wearisome when they go on for too long. But when kept to just a few pages in length, Cho’s deliciously astute observations regarding the mutability of identity make for the perfect juicy center in the box of candy-colored bonbons that is Look Who’s Morphing.
Look Who’s Morphing
By Tom Cho
Arsenal Pulp Press
Paperback, 9781551525389, 122 pp.