Gunk Baby by Jamie Marina Lau review – a dystopic portrait of post-industrial alienation

Declan Fry
·5 min read

Welcome to the suburbs of Par Mars. The air is air-conditioned here; the grass a perennial Day-Glo green. Residents bring “two-litre water bottle[s] with them on a visit to the bank”. If the Chinatown of Jamie Marina Lau’s debut, Pink Mountain on Locust Island, was a landscape of Wong Kar-wai neon and utility pole-vivisected skylines, Par Mars is its daytime face: mid-century modern interiors, digital billboards of local childrens’ acting showreels, skies rubbed “Voss grey” (as in the Doc Martens sneaker shade), and precisely curated trees “plucked from the ground in some other, more untouched country”.

Lau’s second novel, Gunk Baby is a portrait of post-industrial alienation peopled by characters whose boredom is punctured only by occasional distractions: violence, primarily, with bouts of psychological manipulation.

Our protagonist, Leen, runs an ear-cleaning and massage business at the local shopping centre, Topic Heights (“the exact summation of every need and every personality of the people residing around its hems”). She lives with Doms and Doms’ African partner Vic: a pharmacy manager prone to incanting the elements of drugs like a comedown mantra. “In Par Mars,” Lau writes, “the way we live is like a stage show for people in their houses. Someone will always notice if something is not the same as it was the night before.”

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Indeed, the watchers are very real: Par Mars is patrolled by a “Neighbourhood Watch”. Half cult, half clinical corporate-watercooler outfit (“Leen, I noticed you did not see the forum or respond” – a typically huffy exclamation from their ringleader, Jean Paul), it is an idiosyncratic organisation helmed by an idiosyncratic guru, an urban sage equally bummed about his brethren’s reluctance to live out Nietzschean values as he is about failing to catch a promotion at work.

Harnessing the philosophy of his namesake Sartre and Heidegger, Jean Paul – himself well-versed in chemical ephemera – stages “Resisting Acts” for Par Mars’ residents to participate in. These begin as tricks on their neighbours, a kind of dadaist attempt to rewire their habits and personalities, before escalating to include surveillance and torture.

There’s a lot of drawn-out telegraphing of this in the book, although the restricted setting of Par Mars gives everything a kind of slumbrous coherence. Leen’s narration replicates the alienation consuming Topic Heights as it becomes dominated by K.A.G.: a Mujiesque store franchise specialising in humidifiers, oil diffusers and other normcore essentials, its ersatz minimalist vogue speaking to customers in various languages amid surrounds of “beige, baby blue, baby pink, grey, black, charcoal and four different types of white”.

In this, Gunk Baby is not so much a contemporary critique of present-day ideologies, à la Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, as a dissociative meditation on a world that has come to feel increasingly cruel and meaningless. A stoned, affectless claustrophobia prevails; characters are prone to David Byrne non sequiturs and a sense of entrapment that recalls JG Ballard’s gated community and high-rise massacre fantasies, the word virus routinely collapsing into impressionist non-detail: “I massage my own wrists and refresh the forum obsessively,” Leen reflects. “I think about engineering someone else’s pain.”

Leen’s disinterest in the sadism around her both ties and separates the novel from the subversions of Gen X progenitors like Fight Club or the rebellions of Camus and the Beat poets. Instead, the goals and interests of Par Mars’ residents are atomised, projected on to ear-cleaning, Qi, massage and mid-century furniture arrangement. In Gunk Baby, daily explosions and violence are background; ASMR, essential oils and meal prepping occupy the foreground.

Throughout the proceedings, a sense of Daoist noncommitment is invoked: Leen quotes from Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, the 90s bestseller beloved of corporate entrepreneurs and Drake and Kanye. The 48 Laws represent an ironically unironic take on the book’s disturbed events; akin to Bret Easton Ellis having a character wax lyrical about pocket squares and Huey Lewis, while pulping a coworker’s head with an axe.

As in Lau’s debut, Gunk Baby is fascinated with transcendence and breaking free from the hellscape; her prose combines the languid torpor of Michael Bible with the unease of Yoko Ogawa’s more macabre work. There is a sense here of quotidian life as essentially strange and unknowable – a world where Ty Dolla Sign might intone how “ego death is where you find happiness”. Leen’s role, it seems, is to assume a kind of non-self, doing less and less “until one does nothing at all”.

Much like the Beverley Estate house Leen eventually moves into, Gunk Baby harks back to an older era of Australian fiction. It is a “combination of futurist and neo-brutalist exteriors” in which the whole occasionally becomes greater than the sum of its parts. She reminds us of the adventurousness that once saw local writers and directors win both sales and critical acclaim: David Ireland, with his “bleak ratio of illuminations”; dark-Id mode Peter Carey (think War Crimes or The Tax Inspector), or Jane Campion’s film Sweetie – works where, as Jonathan Coe observed, “what seems at first to be mere quirkiness rapidly shades into the downright sinister”.

Their spirits are sorely missing from the landscape today. Lau is to be commended for keeping them alive.

  • Gunk Baby by Jamie Marina Lau is out 28 April through Hachette. Lau will be a guest of Sydney writers’ festival (29 April & 2 May)