Review: Cher Tanon Elizabeth Tan

Uncanny Valleys

ASMR. Personal brand. Hope this email finds you well. Selfie. Drop a pin on it. Livestreaming. Co-working space. I’m baby. Haul gals. Mukbang. Shall we take it to Zoom? Foodstagram. Scrolling through the feed. Geotagging. Doctor influencer. The cloud. Let me Google that for you. Finsta. I don’t have the bandwidth to do this. 10,000 followers. Chaotic energy. Airspace. Tag yourself. Is this idea futureproof? Legacy contact. #GIRLBOSS. You’re cancelled!

Think about the internet and two things come to mind: 1) I can’t live without it, and 2) It’s fucking weird. Strange things quickly become normal and normal things slowly become strange. The hectic interconnectivity of society through work and play gives digitality an otherworldly sheen that is at once credible yet illusory. Decades of labour can disappear in an instant. Disinformation is peddled as fact. Invisible servants at your beck and call for a special price. Stores of personal data are mined; more connections are formed.

In this world, I agree to lengthy Terms & Conditions without so much as giving the documents a glance. In this world, I jostle in a circus of others in a bid to be seen. In this world, boundaries between the consumer and the producer implode. In Consuming Life (2007), Zygmunt Bauman refers to the muddying of this binary as humans becoming ‘the merchandise and the marketing agents, the goods and the travelling salespeople’. At the time, he wasn’t even thinking about the digital sphere, at least not as we know it. Now, patterns formed by humanity’s technological use are shaped by our moods, yet the technologies themselves influence and construct those moods.

Of course, it is impossible to write in this moment without acknowledging the pre-COVID-19 ‘before times’. These structures and oddities are split open as the world moves along a vector set by the virus. Existing inequalities are much more visible, cultural tensions and anxieties brought into the frame: livestreaming has brought distant places closer (like zoos in Berlin and clubs in Beijing) and yet they’ve never been further away; borders blur and tighten; there is an impulse to be hooked up to technologies that are simultaneously roiling in distress. Context collapses.

There’s a Perry Bible Fellowship comic (‘The Flight’) that illustrates this well. In one panel, a man holding a birdcage promises a bird ‘the gift that is your birthright: flight’. The next panel then reveals that the cage has been modified into a drone controlled by the man. Free, yet trapped within. Together, yet alone. Real, yet a simulation. Or, as Guy Debord writes in Society of the Spectacle, ‘Where the world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour.’

These paradoxes are the cogs that drive Elizabeth Tan’s fictions. Her protagonists (mostly) live in Perth in an indistinct future, but they could easily dwell in any other high-income metropolis. It’s not immediately apparent that the stories occur in Perth unless a character mentions it in conversation, and those set in other places like London and New York are only distinguished by their place names. Ultimately, it barely matters where they are: ads for whimsical novelties blare on screens; digital communication is rampant; people rattle off Wikipedia factoids that serve as New Age maxims; the spectre of corporate identity is omnipresent. Physical space is augmented by amorphous branding and digital space.

In her 2017 novel Rubik, this reality is apparent as soon as the book opens: Elena Rubik opts to buy a Homestyle Country Pie at a service station that ‘does not taste of any country she knows’. She gets hit by a car and dies, leaving behind a digital footprint in the form of social media and message board profiles, as well as a rented DVD that ‘has since accrued a late fee of $82.50’. On the date of her next birthday, Elena’s ‘online age ticks over from twenty-five to twenty-six’. Despite mortal death, life goes on online.

As such, Elena’s online presence becomes a ghost that lives on, continuing to haunt the narrative. Tan lets the reader work to connect the dots in this mise en abyme; cracking the puzzle becomes a huge satisfaction. What could an anime about a multipurpose octopus have to do with the disappearance of a primary school piano teacher, a Muji-meets-Urban-Outfitters lifestyle store called Ampersand or a viral ‘falling girl’ meme?

These seemingly disparate stories eventually evolve into an extended symbiosis of intertwined lives, pointing to the (unwitting and spontaneous) interconnectivity of humanity through digital labour and play. Through common consumer interests, viral aspirations or the gig economy, a network of relationships emerge – even if one character does not know of the other’s existence.

A constant, however, is their Seed.fon, a kind of smartphone carried by each character: they use it to check the time, correspond with corporate entities, get in touch with strangers for potential artistic collaborations. Elena’s best friend Jules Valentine finds herself embroiled in the ‘falling girl’ meme after the original ‘falling girl’ and its creator mysteriously disappear. Images of Jules as the ‘falling girl’ begin to circulate. This is typical of the self-referentiality that runs throughout Rubik, a memetic drift that resonates with those who live with the internet as both foreground and backdrop. Tan’s fictional world is co-existent with my real world: an open Wikipedia tab is to my DMs with a Twitter friend is to the film we’re both obsessed with is to an alternate ending circulated as a meme on YouTube is to a merch item created from a meme of the film. After all, as Jules thinks to herself, ‘Everything is just an Alt-Tab away.’

Cultural anxieties are exacerbated at such close range online. Sometimes they are newly created as a result of these intimacies. Just like the effect of the photograph on magazine readers in the late nineteenth century, memories facilitated via digital media feel at once like fact and fiction. In this case, we can ask ourselves what came first: human memory or machine memory? as both swirl in the collective consciousness only to end up indistinguishable. When Jules meets up with university magazine editor Archna ‘Arch’ Desai to discuss how they can potentially work together to publish a new take on the ‘falling girl’ meme, Arch admits she can’t remember where she first encountered the meme:

‘It’s weird what becomes famous,’ Arch says, to fill the silence. ‘What sticks. How you can’t remember where you first saw something, some iconic image, and it’s as if you’ve always known it.’ She glances at the JPEG. ‘When something just appears in your memory, totally without origin, you believe whatever history Wikipedia invents for the thing. It’s not like you can verify it for yourself. I mean, what year was it when I saw the falling girl for the first time? I have to trust the historical narrative that it was late 2011, that I couldn’t have known about the falling girl before 2011, and yet it’s like I’ve got all these implanted memories of people using Seed gadgets, or of people Photoshopping the falling girl into whatever humorous circumstances they can imagine, way before 2011. Before it was even possible.’

This fusing of human and machine animates much of Tan’s work. As I become dependent on digital devices that paradoxically render me a more complete human (that is, in order to better engage with society and culture), and as technology becomes anthropomorphised, the line between wetware and hardware is less stark. In Rubik, a body ‘starts buzzing like an overheated computer’; someone encounters ‘a moment of lag’ as they pause to remember something; a mind becomes like a ‘camera that… pans inwards and outwards’. A laptop ‘makes audible thinking sounds’. When aspiring investigative reporter April Kuan is sent by Arch to shoot some photos for the magazine, the video game tenor in Rubik kicks into full gear: April starts their day with an ‘Outfit Two’, which includes a t-shirt ‘which is the same blue as the Blue Screen of Death’. The day has a ‘Disc One feel, gleaming like a full health bar’. The scene around April ‘blurs, lags, skips’. Eventually, April becomes involved in the ‘falling girl’ meme saga, and time starts to bend – each section in the chapter ‘Kuan x 05’ backtracks and recaps, like new starts in a saved game. The philosophical question around memory is again brought up when April asks Jules what is happening ­­– ‘Who can say, April, Audrey, what really happened?’

There is no telling, of course. Tan’s evocation of this dreamlike incongruity is playful, reminiscent of Murakami’s blasé surrealism and Coupland’s crafty wryness. When a cat from an earlier chapter crosses paths with Jules and April in their madcap chase,

The cat and Jules share a look as if they, too, have seen each other before. It’s like that scene at the end of Jumanji when Judy and Peter meet Alan and Sarah and it’s really creepy and strange because they have met before, and they know it, but all that stuff happened in another timeline so it would be super awkward to discuss it.

It’s a funny observation, one that acknowledges the narrative’s self-referentiality. But it also mirrors the alienating familiarity of being extremely online, that uncanny sensation of being in multiple timelines at once. Imagine being incidentally in the same room as someone whose Instagram profile you’ve looked at before, but have never met. Do you mention that? Most people don’t.

When Tan began work on some of the story threads that comprise Rubik in the early 2010s, Silicon Valley-backed social media ventures were on a sharp upward trajectory, and online relationships were transitioning from the relative anonymity of message boards, blogs and torrents to the full-frontal exposure of platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Spotify. Online identity has evolved from ‘nobody knows you’re a dog’ to ‘everyone knows what you ate for dinner last night’. In the chapter ‘Congratulations You May Have Already Won’, a bored receptionist embarks on a back-and-forth email chain with what is clearly a bot. derives both joy and frustration from the bot’s generic, automated responses. While charmed by the possibility of confessing their intimate thoughts, they insult the bot’s inability to generate warmer rejoinders. This exchange illustrates the beauty and futility of talking into ‘the void’; like writing letters to a penpal you’ve never met. A more relevant analogy could be ‘oversharing’ or ‘getting unhinged’ on Twitter – at once dissociating yet comforting.

Tan again confronts this hypernormal surreality in Smart Ovens For Lonely People, a short story collection made up of twenty separate narratives. Sardonic, gentle observations on cultural anxieties as mediated by techno-capitalism have solidified as Tan’s ‘personal brand’, but the terrain is more fantastical, more mischievous.

In Smart Ovens, can-openers are obsolete, ASMR is a competitive sport, Bic ballpoint pens are considered antique – and smart ovens are despatched as temporary companions to help people recover from suicide attempts. And if Rubik is a product of the time it was written, then so too is Smart Ovens, which makes references to Instagram, ‘Do What You Love’ capitalism and the smartphone game Neko Atsume, as it grapples with consumer culture, gentrification and the idea of machines as both confidante and snitch.

In ‘You Put The U in Utopia (Or, The Last Neko Atsume Player In The World)’, the protagonist, Mika, contends with their job at a bespoke terrarium start-up, playing Neko Atsume as a form of escape. Instead, worlds begin to collide as Mika finds out that they’re the last known player of the game in the world, and that the company they work for owns the game through a subsidiary. Nefarious business connections that prop up the current system and internal conflicts arise when Mika realises that, as the aphorism goes, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. The protagonist’s disgust and confusion is parallel to how I felt when I realised that Goodreads was owned by Amazon. Yet, as we are all mostly wont to, Mika trudges on, their ‘more authentic’ self in direct opposition to their boss Sienna who ‘can’t switch off’ her ‘entrepreneurial mind’ and signs her emails with ‘(sienna | corporate nurturer | yourtopia bespoke terraria | all things love & light)’. Despite this, Mika always makes sure to:

turn off the front-facing camera when I close the app so if anyone were to pick up my phone and use my camera after me they won’t know that I was just taking selfies.

Later, when Mika goes on a date, they think to themselves that:

sometimes on a date you just say unnecessarily mean stuff to appear confident and discerning and above it all and not like you spent the afternoon in a selfie time loop, which probably means I really like Bernice.

This tension between authenticity and self-curation dominates online life, as we slowly come to terms with its ubiquity in our lives – and particularly as many people begin to view themselves as both users and makers.

The question remains: how to be real when everyone is watching? Indeed, this is online sociality’s greatest conundrum. It’s no less real than the desk I’m typing this essay on, but because it’s mediated through a screen, a sense of discombobulation prevails. This schism provides ammunition for conservative theorists like Sherry Turkle who insist on an immutable discrepancy between a ‘real’ life versus a ‘simulated’ digital existence. In 2011, Nathan Jurgenson coined the term ‘digital dualism’ to refer to this belief, which allowed for language to acknowledge digital existence as just another facet of day-to-day living. After all, there are as many selves as the individual selves we display to family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances alike, each one as authentic and curated as the other depending on how one feels towards them, or how one feels at any given moment. The same can be said for how we express ourselves online; the collective existential crisis that surrounds authenticity and performativity may never be resolved as long as society exists.

In ‘Ron Swanson’s Stencilled Stache’, a person named Yrma ends up commodifying a mental affliction. Akin to William Gibson’s ‘HE TOOK A DUCK IN THE FACE AT 250 KNOTS’, Tan’s character cannot seem to rid themselves of a revolving door of internal mantras ( ‘THE NET WORTH OF KIM KARDASHIAN WEST’, ‘GEORGE GERSHWIN’S BROTHER IRA’, and the titular ‘RON SWANSON’S STENCILLED STACHE’) that get locked into their consciousness. They begin to engage in competitive ASMR tournaments first as a hobby, but eventually get waylaid and co-opted by the forces of ‘Big ASMR’. The mantras are often related to pop culture, and endure once the flickers of celebrity have exhausted an audience’s attention.

This story is where Tan’s capacity to skewer the many cultural afflictions borne from the shared desire for online celebrity, individuality and relevance reaches its apex. As a representative from Big ASMR explains to a confused Yrma, ‘Everyone’s just chasing a thrill, you get it?’ And when asked by an interviewer, Yrma ‘disquietingly’ can’t remember when they began their hobby in the first place, and acknowledges:

The terrible thing was that I did not want to stop. My life had reached an apex of cool perfection; I was more loved than ever. […] I wasn’t sure, either, how I could bring it all to a stop. My inbox was stacked with offers and opportunities. The notion of extricating myself from the elaborate pyramid of endorsements, Q&As, editorials, audiobooks, exclusive web content, children’s hospital visits, pop culture conventions, academic conferences, voice cameos, and reality TV guest judge appearances seemed not only impossible to action, but deeply embarrassing.

Anyone with an active internet presence understands that validation is a hungry animal. Research has shown – with tech execs having so much as admitted it to be the case – that the easy ping of a notification gives a dopamine hit comparable to pulling the lever of a slot machine. It’s not obscure knowledge that Silicon Valley builds software that manipulates human psychology.

As such, Tan’s worlds in Rubik and Smart Ovens act as alternate realities to our accelerationist, mishmash world: one in which there are seemingly no limits, yet unspoken social mores reign in the background. In an interview about Rubik, Tan noted that Gibson’s Pattern Recognition inspired its conception. Gibson’s cyberspatial world suffuses Smart Ovens as well. These are worlds where reality and perception are so bent out of shape that conspiracies abound, self-interest is pitted against human connection, and the cognitive dissonance between individualism and camaraderie ends up revealing even more societal fractures. What’s different is that Tan is less nihilistic; her stories are interested in exposing these tensions in a way that foregrounds care.

Whereas Gibson’s Cayce Pollard experiences information overload, Tan’s characters often suffer from affect overload – they may experience a corporeal disconnect through hyperconnectivity, yet they are always striving for compassion. In Rubik, characters don’t conceal their sadnesses, their aspirations, their anguish; they’re pained by others’ trust and feel emotions like a ‘happy-sad ache, that troubling bothness’. In Smart Ovens, characters interact gently with children, an established writer muses tenderly over her reservations surrounding the publishing industry and her relationship with her son, and the yaoi-inspired sex scene between two sleeper agents in ‘Mounting Sexual Tension Between Two Long-Time Friends: Tom Knows That Ant is a Spy But Ant Doesn’t’ is filled with sensitivity.

It’s not too far-fetched to extend the internal voice of Cayce Pollard, which Tan’s stories drive home: ‘The future is there… looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become.’ Like many authors who have published tech-adjacent books in the last decade, Tan is a product of this environment. There is a certain dissociative tenor that permeates books of this genre. Characters are outside-looking-in, reckoning with the peculiarity of each moment, yet going along with it as they search to alleviate their respective lonelinesses. Or, as Mika muses in ‘You Put The U in Utopia (Or, The Last Neko Atsume Player In The World)’, ‘…humans cannot help but be hollaback girls because we understand ourselves in relation to others.’ The world is a cave, and we will keep hollering into the void until an echo bounces back.