[Brio Books; 2017]
Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik is an uncomfortable sort of fun, a vertiginously meta novel-in-stories that delivers a sharp critique of the Internet age in its own language. I have been most successful thus far in describing this immense novel as an Inception fan fiction. To consider Rubik from this angle — that is, through the lens of pastiche — is not to undermine the work, but rather to applaud its manner of deconstructing conventional standards of value when it comes to art. Originality, in particular, comes under scrutiny — not only as it applies to artistic production, but also as it applies to identity itself. This is a work of uncanny doublings and echoes; rife with cultural allusions, real and invented. It is massively, profoundly intertextual. It is recursively — though not redundantly — metafictional. It is metafiction that swallowed metafiction, that chuckles at metafiction. Like all great metafiction, it deploys art as metaphor, a mirror for life itself, except here the reflections proliferate and the plot is lost. Like the puzzle to which its title refers, Rubik is ever-shifting, moving from one plane of reality to a contingent one. And, like one character’s “totem,” a Rubik’s cube with more colors than faces, its (re)solution is not merely a challenge but in fact a deliberate impossibility.
For its formal brilliance and contemporaneity, Tan’s debut novel might bear comparisons to a work like Infinite Jest; however, if Wallace’s masterwork is a “baggy monster,” then Rubik is a baggie monster, neatly apportioned even in its sprawl. While the novel impugns continuity (the illusion of) on both an overt/conceptual and implicit/structural level, careening from one character to the next in the space between stories, it nonetheless presents a unified whole, greater than the sum of its parts. Like Wallace, Tan effectively problematizes not only the idea of novelistic coherence, but also of the novel itself, coherence itself — suggesting that coherence and incoherence are not opposed or mutually excluding, but rather symbiotic: co-incident facets of an infinitely complex universe. Rubik is a vortex and the view from the vortex at once; it is high-definition photos snapped at 200 mph and never going back. It is not the first to say that it is not the first to say what it is not the first to say; and yet, it nonetheless finds its way into and through the postmodern mire: it makes new.
Like most great works of metafiction, Rubik arrives at its self-reflexive mode of commentary through an abundance of representations of representations of life. At or near the center of each of the novel’s fifteen stories is an individual endeavoring to document the human experience in some fashion or another. Theatre, film, classical music, punk rock, sound design, installation art, journalism, and advertising are just some of the art forms that take center stage. Perhaps most interesting are the stories that either refer to or (rhetorically) replicate the genre of fan fiction. For instance, the Inception fan forum “Luxury Replicants” (an obvious and apt nod to Blade Runner) is one of the novel’s most prominent recurrent threads.
We also catch fiction catching its reflection in Tan’s fiction, with the novel Seeds of Time making several appearances across the stories — first as a prop, then as a plot point, then as quoted text. In other words, making its first appearance as what could be called, from a formal standpoint, a seed. Tan’s seeding of Seeds of Time is emblematic of the sort of ingenious language play that characterizes her work. Clever but not cute, this is Tan taking full advantage of the meta level which is constantly engaged and reinforced by the novel’s subject matter, structure, and motifs. The fact that these stories are not only linked but also nested (one story a fanfic ostensibly written by a character from another, read by a character from still another) means that Tan can play with such a concept at various levels.
Another notable example is the concept of retconning: that is, retroactively introducing a revision that occasions a reinterpretation of previously described events. In the story “Retcon,” a retcon is instantiated at the mimetic level (the story’s protagonist experiencing a sudden shift in meaning); but this phenomenon is also a suitable metaphor for the experience of reading the novel itself, where later stories often come to re-color our interpretation of earlier events — much like, in poetry, the idea of a “turn.” Which is, in turn, a suitable metaphor for the reader’s experience of acquiring knowledge in their own world. Understanding unfurls gradually and not towards any distinct or authoritative end. The fact that Tan embraces the retcon as a sort of narrative strategy is apparent in her decision to place “Pikkoro and the Multipurpose Octopus,” as the novel’s second story/chapter. This story adopts the form of fan fiction, but the references to the (invented) anime canon are like broken web links: we know they point somewhere, but we must turn quite a number of pages before we learn to what. In this way, Tan is making a rather large wager on her reader, in terms of their willingness to proceed on uncertain grounds. Another way to think of it is that “Pikkoro” might not be a gamble so much as it is a shibboleth, sorting out the readers willing to abide ambiguity from those who require closure, as the latter are ultimately going to be disappointed, even frustrated, with the novel as a whole.
As is standard in metafiction (and inevitable) (and delightful, if you’re into this sort of thing), the observations that Tan’s characters make about their various artistic pursuits often seem to fold back—that is, make oblique reference to the novel itself: to the manner in which it is presented, or to its global thematic concerns. For instance, one character describes Seeds of Time in a way that a reader might be inclined to describe Rubik itself: “It is not like any novel he’s read before: each chapter seems to take vast leaps forward . . . characters disappear and return in strange ways, or they do not return at all.” Furthermore, the characters are frequently compelled to remark upon their experience in a manner that calls attention to what the reader might otherwise perceive as narrative deficiencies—such as continuity errors and unlikely coincidences. “Something isn’t right about the convenience of your discoveries,” one character tells the hero in “Pikkoro and the Multipurpose Octopus,” just as Pikkoro begins to get the sense that she is caught up in a plot, in both senses of the word. The character interrogates this sense of uncanny convergence, of life taking on the quality of narrative: “Has her life always been this charged with moments of significance, relentless as an assembly line? Pivotal moments advancing from a conveyor belt, delivered with suspicious regularity”? In “Retcon,” a film extra explains why she didn’t ask for more information about the student film in which she would be featured, saying that she “kinda liked not having context” and “wanted to jumpcut all that bullshit.”
Populating her fictional universe with characters who are inclined to think about story (and story’s relationship to time, and story’s relationship to reality) also permits Tan to make frequent departures from more typical modes of delivery: there are many instances of telling out of sequence (“Jules rehearses how she’s going to tell this story to Elena later. The present moment is the future’s past”), or deliberately calling out and then subverting reader expectation. For instance, in this same story, “Retcon,” a gun (perhaps even a loaded one) appears, and we leave the scene before it can be brought into action, but not before the focal character, “out of loyalty to some sense of continuity . . . thinks she glimpses” the gun’s holder drawing the weapon.
Tan’s characters also have a tendency to ventriloquize what is ostensibly the viewpoint of the novel itself. In “Good Birds Don’t Fly Away,” a young boy comes face-to-face with the horror that is vision on a cosmic scale:
[he] becomes omniscient—the powerless sort—and the room becomes small like a diorama, one of many dioramas, and his room is just one cubicle in a shoebox out of many shoeboxes, and his life is just one version of many illustrations of the same sad facts of the world, and his tragedy is just one tragedy out of the infinite tragedies of the universe.
And in “Retcon,” two college-aged women argue about whether or not they should even care that authenticity is being commodified, given that this is such old news. Their back-and-forth here seems like the very dialectic that sustains the novel itself: its ambition in spite of prior acknowledgement and acceptance that every thought has already been thought, that everything is always already pastiche. As one character rails against the music industry’s “tepid appropriation of nothing” and its attempts to “sell outsiderness” and “prescribe the terms of . . . rebellion,” a second character interrupts with: “You sound like a first-year who’s discovering capitalism for the first time. Everyone is a package. Everyone knows that everyone is a package.” It could end here, but instead the first character follows up: “Things just — things don’t cease to be evil when they’re boring and old, you know?” The regularity with which the stories resonate in this manner, beyond their diegetic bounds, has the effect of endowing the novel with a certain almost self-reflexive capacity — an almost-sentience, which is, in itself, thematically salient.
As it turns out, Tan’s rejection of a unitary voice—her narrative eclecticism—is one of the novel’s greatest delights. Each autonomous story reflects a distinct narrative mode. “T,” for instance, is structured more like a lyric essay than a story — with the juxtaposition of digressions pertaining to Grimm’s fairy tales and sound theory functioning to draw out the uncanny undertones of an otherwise mundane occurrence. Taking advantage of the power of suggestion (while at the same time sounding off about the power of suggestion), Tan reminds us about the pernicious ends to which mistaken identity can be used: “In cinema, a little bit of sound can achieve the greater deception of continuity . . . A film is not completely unlike actual perception, anyway. A series of discontinuities assimilated into a provisional whole.” By joining together an instance of potential deception with a synopsis of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Tan subtly primes the reader to detect sinister intent in this somewhat innocuous (/perhaps not-so-innocuous) case of doubling.
The novel’s last story, “Kuan X05” replicates, in form, the experience of video game play, with its protagonist repeatedly dying, resetting, and starting her quest anew; while “Congratulations You May Have Already Won,” the novel’s funniest story, is delivered in epistolary form, as an email correspondence between a bored receptionist and an automated email server. “I must say that I am intrigued by your vague and enticing offers” the human correspondent writes, in response to the initial spam-ad gibberish. “I am trembling with desire to purchase a Seed product. Any of the breathless array of Seed goods you have mentioned would satiate me; I just really want one now.” The story grows less ironic, more pathetic as it goes on, with the receptionist pursuing this correspondence well past the point of a simple gag: “You are by far the most dedicated correspondent I have had in recent memory” he tells the bot. The more personal his own missives become, the more he is inclined to project conscious intent onto the poorly auto-generated responses and even ends up reading the utterly impersonal, often ungrammatical adverts as aphorisms. When it calls itself “the trusted brand that takes good ideas to life,” he praises the bot for its perspicacity: “At what point does an idea come to life? . . . You ask all the important questions.” While absurd to be sure, this story is also relatable, because its absurdity is germane to life in our high-tech age. If you have ever wished your cellphone assistant “Goodnight” or worried about offending your GPS, you are already familiar with the particular version of the uncanny that applies to technology. This is one of the major ideas that Tan explores in the novel: the extent to which we engage with non-human entities and objects as though they were conscious, feeling beings — often projecting consciousness onto our devices and the systems the surround us. This blurring, Tan illustrates, is evident even in our habits of language, such as placing an entity like IKEA in the subject position of a phrase: What does it want me to do? On the one hand, this might be mere shorthand, linguistic convenience. On the other hand: what is subjecthood? What is consciousness?
In addition to inviting us to consider what counts as conscious, Rubik also asks us to ponder, more broadly, what counts as real. First and foremost, Tan achieves this through intertextuality, the dense and complex network of references she makes throughout the novel — both to works that exist in the world of the readers and works that exist only in the world of her characters. For instance, the rock group Miko and the Exploding Heads and the novel The Seeds of Time are stable entities within Rubik, making several appearances across various stories; while the work of Australian composer Tristam Cary and contemporary films like The Matrix and Inception, as well as corporate entities like IKEA and Windows, appear alongside fictional analogues like the mysterious tech company Seed Corp, or the anime Pikkoro and the Multipurpose Octopus.
One of the axes around which the puzzle that is Rubik rotates is that between reality and the imaginary. There is much here to call to mind the Japanese novelist and practitioner of magical realism, Haruki Murakami. The linked stories “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit” and “Good Birds Don’t Fly Away,” which center on a piano teacher’s mysterious disappearance and her young bookworm pupil’s quest to find her, both seem like potential nods to Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Beyond their incidental similarities, Tan’s work and Murakami’s are similar in their varying relationship to mimesis. This referential fluidity serves to destabilize the reader’s notion of reality both within and (potentially) without the text. The many layers of story we encounter in Rubik — the stories themselves; the stories as they stand in relation to one another; the stories embedded within the stories; the stories the characters receive from the surrounding culture, through media and pervasive advertising; the stories the characters are preparing to tell — have the effect of rendering yet another distinction—that between the real and un-real — both indistinct and irrelevant. The imaginary is not merely a means for Tan to convey a particular character’s unconscious; rather, fantasies and fictions have a tangible effect on the material world. There is, in other words, no uncontested and privileged status granted to the real as distinct from the unreal. Thus, the reader is inevitably left with the (clearly absurd) question: but which of these fifteen fictions is more real?
The fact that such a question has implications beyond literature is not lost on Tan, and it is the story “U (or that Extra Little Something)” that explores this most explicitly. Here the protagonist, Ursula, is haunted by the absence of her once-conjoined twin, a so-called “parasitic twin,” whose short-lived existence was determined to be effectively less real than hers. “At some crucial, secret stage of our becoming, I could have been the parasite, and [she] the autosite,” Ursula muses. This anxiety about the so-called authenticity and independence of her own identity is foregrounded all the more by Ursula’s work as a model for a lifestyle/fashion brand whose very aesthetic hinges on passing off the engineered realities of their photo shoots as genuine life.
Tan goes to great lengths throughout the novel to not only demonstrate the power of dreams, but also to remind us just how much of what we consider real, the world we interact with from day-to-day, actually reflects a sort of carefully-orchestrated rhetoric — that is, how much of a self-referential morass we already inhabit. Ursula attends a party and declares herself “impressed at [its] party-likeness . . . like the work of a really conscientious set dresser”; while the protagonist in “Retcon” observes that the film director “doesn’t snap [the clapperboard] like [she] has seen in movies of movie sets.” Ursula’s lifestyle brand markets kitsch like the “Crumple Cup,” an homage to an imitation of an actual party cup. There is even an entire chapter dedicated to the life-cycle of the phony delicacy that is the “Homestyle Country Pie.”
Within the exhausted funhouse that is our contemporary cultural landscape, Tan’s novel makes no exception for itself. It assumes the heritage of postmodern literature, and popular culture, and mass marketing. It embeds within it. It does so bravely and without apologies, because that is all it can do. These are the terms of our reality, and this is the language we speak; our only real grace is the turn, the metaphor.
Emily Alex is the prose editor at Puerto del Sol and a prose editor with Noemi Press. She teaches creative writing and composition at New Mexico State University, where she is an MFA candidate in fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Offing, and is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly and The Collagist.