The Acid Tongue
Look Who's Critiquing
Selected By Cyril Wong
This review of Tom Cho's first collection of stories, Look Who's Morphing, by Adam Rivett in the June edition of the Australian Book Review differs greatly from my positively glowing review in the fifth issue of the Mascara Literary Review. Unlike me, Rivett points out that Cho's surrealistic writing, in which characters like Godzilla and Captain Von Trapp from that classic movie-musical phase in and out of Cho's bizarrely re-imagined existence, is insincere and over-reliant on popular culture references:
In place of the old boundaries and certainties, Cho's world is vertiginous and slick, and sincerity is the first thing to go. With a supporting cast of relatives along for the ride, Cho tries on pop forms with a Twitter-like impatience: Dirty Dancing, Godzilla, The Bodyguard and The Sound of Music. From story to story, these modern myths are rejigged and recast as porno comedies, rockstar fantasies, daytime confessions.
Cho is a master of authorial excess, and although this can be fun for certain readers (like me), Rivett clearly thinks otherwise:
For a while, the book is fast-paced and breezily amusing. Somewhere mid-point, weariness descends. No one ever asked much of the material Cho is utilising for parody and pastiche, but between covers, in that old-fashioned object called a book, something more is required. Rather than using junk, the junk begins to use Cho. What possible reaction can one have when presented with sentences such as, 'On Oscars night, Whitney Houston is understandably nervous about her safety', or 'I was part of a menagerie of Muppets that was accompanying guest star Roger Moore in his closing number'... This is writing as karaoke: bliss for the person with the microphone and his inebriated friends; mounting impatience for everyone else.
Oddly enough, Rivett feels the need to declare his own pop credentials to prove that he is not prejudicial to the use of such references:
At this point, I feel the need to lay my pop credentials on the table, or at least assert my love for a healthy amount of cultural detritus. To speak of the pop culture morphed and mangled in the book with such a slighting tone may perhaps be the sign of a dedication to embarrassingly dated standards, but the book, with its often playful but finally exhausting triviality, goads the reader. By the book's end I wanted to slap the Bodyguard DVD out of Cho's hand and replace it with a Fassbinder compilation, the whole time insisting in an entirely foolish manner that there was such a thing as objective quality.
But the reviewer, at least, recognises that it is important to stress how Cho's book is centrally concerned with the author's queer-cum-diasporic status within Australia, before ending with the conclusion that the stories are, ultimately, too lightweight and self-absorbed (as if this must necessarily be a bad thing!):
QLRS Vol. 8 No. 3 Jul 2009
That the relentless polymorphic shape-shifting in the book carries with it the cultural weight of migrant experience and gender swapping is, finally, beside the point. The extended conceit isn't strong enough... to sustain a thematically linked story collection…Cho, to be fair, is operating in a complicated field, and handling apparently simple yet fundamentally unstable material. The transience of pop is, hysterical tone acknowledged, a dangerous thing indeed to allow into the realm of literary fiction, filled as it is with old-fashioned notions of timelessness. Too much product placement and junk kills literary prose... Beyond Look Who's Morphing's surface excitement and drollery, little is truly interrogated. The playfulness contains no higher aims than its own delight, which is, inevitably, an ever-contracting circle of narcissism. It is a glimmering and occasionally dazzling début, but weightless and, finally, affectless.