Consumption and corporeality in late capitalism
$29 pb, 390 pp
After the deliquescent dream of Pink Mountain on Locust Island, Jamie Marina Lau’s Gunk Baby is a wake-up call from a silent number in the small hours of the morning. Leen lives in the fictional outer suburb of Par Mars, a typical sprawl of shopping centres, housing estates, and units fronted by flat open lawns. Yet just beneath all the grass and concrete runs an undertow of surveillance and violence that feels both strange and strangely familiar.
The most remarkable (and terrifying) feature of Lau’s hyperreality is the Topic Heights shopping complex which Leen selects as the site for her new business: a healing studio where she plans to offer the traditional Chinese ear-cleaning services she has learned from her mother. Topic Heights is ‘a perfect centrum, the exact summation of every need and every personality of the people residing around its hems. Where we get our clothes, where we find things to eat, what the inside of our houses look like.’ (7) Conversant with the comforting ‘sameness’ of the shopping complex are Leen’s reflections on the mind-body relationship and her role as a healer:
I tell her I’m passionate about relieving stress and tension in physical bodies and that we often abandon the concept that our nervous system, muscles, joints and organs carry the weight of us around. So much of our soul lives in our eyes and our fingers. The rest of our body gets heavy from being a vehicle for it. It needs relief. We have to start from the nervous system, the mind. (52)
The hypnotic slide between the philosophy of Chinese medicine and anatomisation of the capitalist machinery grinding away in the bowels of Topic Heights speaks directly to the reader as body and as consumer. My initial excitement at finding myself in a setting so familiar yet so under-scrutinised in contemporary literature was gradually subsumed by a profound discomfort stemming from a growing awareness of the myriad ways in which a life might be manipulated, even choreographed, by the insidious forces of late capitalism. Like so much of the novel, however, this discomfort, as well as a certain heightened consciousness of the sensations experienced by my ‘physical body’ (grasping my phone, peering at my computer screen), felt necessary, felt like waking up after drowsing for an indeterminate period of time in a malaise of uninterrogated habits.
Leen’s liminal status as a new business owner affords her a simultaneous view of both the exterior façade and the internal workings of the Topic Heights economy. Even as she curates furniture and music for her healing studio, carefully arranging her face and her words in accordance with the tenets of Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power to obtain and maintain custom, she spends her breaks luxuriating in the infinite showrooms and product ranges of K.A.G., a fictional but uncannily familiar international chain store that sells minimal basics, stationary and homewares. Leen’s own awakening is instigated by Jean-Paul, her housemate’s disgruntled co-worker at the Topic Heights’s pharmacy. Talking incessantly, Jean-Paul half-asks/half-demands that Leen drive him to a ‘discussion group’ where members of the Par Mars community use Heidegger and Hegel to dissect the managerial practices of the franchises that populate Topic Heights.
The number of men and white women who talk without listening throughout the novel underscores Leen’s relative passivity, or more accurately the practised resignation from which she observes the power plays that propel the world around her. Leen shares her narratorial detachment (or, as Lau describes it, ‘existential boredom’) with Monk, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Pink Mountain on Locust Island. But while Monk’s status as an observer is largely a function of her disempowerment as an adolescent girl, Leen’s torpor is a product of the absurdities and violence of racism. As a young woman of colour Leen is less an actor than a body to be acted on, a view frequently embodied by her male clients:
I tried to pass him a sheet. But he didn’t take it, just smiled, his breath under his pressed lips. His body lurched, tilting a bit forward, as if ready to impel himself on me. A foully carnal exhale coming from his nostrils.
‘Take,’ I said. Basic English, no emotive words.
I tried not to look where his dick was. He performed a sort of sneer and went over to the massage table, leaned up against it. He looked down. His body looked like a pouch compared to it.
‘You take,’ he said, this time using a slight accent, or perhaps I had become too paranoid at that point. He had a ten-dollar bill scrunched between his fists. ‘You take.’ (138)
Although Jean-Paul never seems to pose a similarly physical threat, occupying space with his words rather than his body, the entitlement and rage of his rants flow forth from the same arterial vein that carries the violence coursing everywhere beneath the suburban monotony of Par Mars. In an effort to bring about ‘palpable change’, Jean-Paul begins to plan and carry out a series of ‘Resisting Acts’ – strange but harmless pranks designed to unsettle any Topic Heights managerial staff who he believes are too accustomed to and comfortable in the seat of power. In this way, the violent energy that surges beneath the surface of the novel has both reactionary and revolutionary origins. Yet if the ‘late’ in late capitalism hints at the imminence of revolution, with its odd cast of misfits, Gunk Baby wonders who will be driving the revolution and where we will end up.