At the start of Jamie Marina Lau’s hyperreal and liminal second novel Gunk Baby, 24-year old Leen has just traveled to the suburbs of Par Mars to start her Chinese ear-cleaning business. While staying at her friends’ apartment, she sets up the shop in the sprawling indoor shopping complex Topic Heights, learns what sells (changing the name to “Lotus Fusion Studio” as a means to distinguish the shop) and what doesn’t (hiring a somewhat apathetic receptionist who writes her novel on the clock).
Leen gets noticed by Jean Paul, another worker of the complex, who invites her to a worker-only discussion club who plots to take ‘revenge’ on their managers as a means to reign in their control, enacting harmless pranks that, at most, take a bit of cleanup. But as Leen’s company grows, she begins to have doubts about what the members of the group discuss in person and online, threatening increasingly violent means of taking back control.
OurCulture sat down with Jamie Marina Lau to discuss consumerism, self-othering, the wellness industry and the art of the novel.
Congratulations on your second novel! How did the writing process differ from your debut, Pink Mountain on Locust Island?
Thank you! It was really, really different. Pink Mountain was written very spur-of-the-moment. Both of them were written very automatically, and I wrote both of them in a very stream-of-consciousness style. But Gunk Baby went through three different revisions — I rewrote it over the span of three years. The Gunk Baby you have in your hands right now — we cut like 5,000 or 6,000 words. It’s also completely different because with Pink Mountain, I wrote it and it was just published as it was. Both of them were kind of experimentations with the process. I really wanted to test myself in the margins I created. I wanted to challenge the way that I thought when I wrote it in a very specific way.
Gunk Baby opens with 24-year-old Leen, who is about to open a new ear-cleaning studio in an indoor shopping mall, while staying at her friends’ place. Though she has a plan, it almost seems a bit random that she chose Par Mars to settle into and start her business. How did the idea of this character come to be?
So it actually came about through a short story. I had an image of her driving on the road in my mind, and the car she was driving. She’s very obsessed with the car and she’s conflated with it at all times, including the first conception I had of her. So it was her and the Saab 900, and they were driving on the highway — she was leaving somewhere, in my mind — and she had a shaved head. I won’t spoil the story, in case I ever want to publish it, but it was this detached vision of her driving, arriving at a hotel, vomiting on the side of the road. It was maybe six months after that I started the first version of Gunk Baby, maybe in 2018.
From there, I had an idea of her voice in my head without sort of knowing what would happen in the book. Definitely, the character came first, and her detachedness and dissassociatedness, but it was just deciding why she became so dissociated, why she became such a passive, unengaged character. I see her as this character that very much lives by the way that she’s seen, and I had that part of her already, but it was just about deciding what kind of world would mold her.
That’s interesting — so her voice came before her ear-cleaning business?
Definitely — I had her a year before I knew that was the way she’d become so jaded. I think I found her and at one point through the first version, I was like, ‘Of course she’s the kind of person who would self-Orientalize, self-fetishize.’ It just seems fitting. After I came back from Hong Kong, I had that idea where I was like, ‘It’s interesting the performativity you have in different spaces, especially settler-colonial spaces.’ The ear-cleaning thing came so much later. It really stemmed from her.
I love the atmosphere in the novel, how the residents of Par Mars revolve around this all-consuming shopping center, where it seems like everything is based. There’s this expanding conglomerate called K.A.G., which seems like a hybrid of IKEA and Walmart, with its minimalist designs where you can buy everything.
Walmart’s crazy, by the way! I had only just went to Walmart and it literally has everything.
They don’t have them in Australia?
No, we have Costco. But Costco’s Costco, you know what I mean? Walmart just has everything.
What made you gravitate towards capitalism as a writing subject?
It actually was such an accident. Even though I had tried to write the book in 2018, after I had come back from Hong Kong in 2019, I had free-wrote the whole thing without realizing what I’m writing about. That tends to be a pattern with me, I tend to try to relish in that as much as I can. I feel like that idea of ‘accessing the subconscious’ — I find it really enriching. It’s kind of what makes me a better person, in general. Accessing those subconscious thoughts and ideas is what I want to try to do when I write, and I feel like part of that is just writing and seeing where it goes. So the capitalism and social commentary came out really accidentally, because I never set out to write a book that deals with structural issues. There was a lot that I learned about how passive Leen was to structural issues, and also interpersonal issues that made me realize so much about the world I lived in. It seeped into the personal narrative more so than I would have expected, when it was set in a place like a shopping complex. The way that the consumerist elements or the way that the late-stage capitalist elements seep into personal narratives, it was kind of shocking to me. So when I read back on the first draft and I saw how much it mattered and how much it was affecting each character of the book, I had to dig deeper. And it was probably the second draft where I focused on writing about capitalism and consumerism.
When doing research for the book, I was actually surprised you’re Australian: to me, consumerism is this uniquely American thing, or at least to the point where we’re an unfortunate example. Did you ever look elsewhere for inspiration, or is this phenomenon similar in Australia?
Because my first book was also set in a ‘no-space’ place, it is very much for me that I set it in these limbo spaces. It allows me to try to find the points of contact in Western or settler-colonial spaces. It allows me to figure out what it is that does create this meeting point that is the internet. Because how can everything be so relatable? It is consumerism, and it is this settler-colonial nature that we have in Western society. I think finding those points of contact is not even a job that I would do on my own, even readers are like, ‘Surely, this is Los Angeles…’ I had been to L.A. once, but only for a week. And when I got there, I was like, ‘Wait a second. Everything is the same, everyone talks in the same way…’ I knew that about it, because I grew up watching American television, but the majority of Americans live a very similar life — with different historical baggage — the question I always want to ask is, ‘How did we get here? How did we arrive at a similar point? Is it because of globalization, is it because we imitate American culture because we see something from it that we want as a young colony here in Australia?’
I think I set out to write about the colonial experience, but obviously there are differences, there are the in-between bits that still exist, discrepancies between America, Australia, and the UK, but this was my main focus, that Venn diagram thing. But that’s also for the reader to think about. This book was signed with a UK publisher the same time it was with an Australian publisher, and my agent is American. It was sort of knowing where my audience would be, and I wanted to play with how you read it from the point you grew up in, and where you would relate, and where you’d feel, ‘That’s a bit alien to me.’ Or ‘I don’t understand what that point in the book means.’ I wanted to present this hyperreal or alien version of one’s own reality, while still using the subtleties of our different cultures.
For the clients of Leen’s studio, it seems like self-care and othering are linked: the fact that it’s a Chinese ear-cleaning service is what’s at the forefront of their mind. Doms recommends, “It has to be like theater… You need to make it look quite oriental… They’re having a novelty moment,” and Leen changes the name to ‘Lotus Fusion Studio.’ Do you think Leen goes along with it simply because she needs the clientele?
Self-care and othering are kind of linked… Yes, that’s a good point. I think the idea that someone who needs to monetize upon the self-care industry needs to create this facade of intense purpose — I think that says something. The fact that she needs to create something that’s like theater, that is a bit contrived, says something about how we’ve capitalized upon minimalism or the self-care industry, and how people are like, ‘You need to buy the experience of taking care of one’s self.’ That says something about how far we’ve strayed from thinking about ourselves in the way that we and our communities need caring. The fact that we exploit that says something about how cold or disassociated we’ve become from a sense of community or sense of self.
Exactly — these ‘mental reset days’ where you’re like, ‘I’m gonna go get a facial, get a massage, I have to buy these products on Amazon’ or whatever.
It’s very performative. Even the fact that we have to announce it. Like, ‘I need a day off.’ The fact that people make videos on YouTube, like, ‘Self-Care Day.’ There’s something so unnatural about it.
There’s this interesting part in the book that talks about how it’s so easy to go with a product that advertises self-care over actual rituals because there’s nothing to show. If you buy one of those jade face rollers, you can be like, ‘Oh, this is a palpable thing that will help me.’ After you get an ear cleaning, it doesn’t really show up on your body in a visible way.
Exactly! That’s so true. It’s kind of like Leen and her car, actually, like, the object becomes you and it represents you. The same can be said about social media, as well. You need something that is extrapolated from outside of yourself in order to see yourself. I wonder whether that’s good for us — it’s probably not.
Eventually, Leen joins a secret coalition of the workers of the mall aided by her new friend Jean Paul, and this group acts to ‘spook’ managers in subtle acts of resistance, like placing rice bags under their cars so they make a mess. Eventually, the plans become more dangerous, but the idea to have some kind of control over these authority figures is really interesting — I’m wondering if the idea for this came about because of how visible the pandemic made the difference between workers and bosses, and the ongoing power dynamics between these two sectors.
I think it was the idea that we couldn’t sort of fight for issues that were not immediate to us. I wanted to play on the idea that playing pranks or ‘torturing’ a manager is one’s personal revenge you’re taking on them. The adrenaline you’re able to muster to do that is born from the place that you feel wronged. Jean Paul maybe couldn’t do that for someone else, even if he had been wronged, or he couldn’t fight for something not directly related to him. I wanted to think about that idea, because I know there’s a truth to that, we’re exposed to so many issues on the news that kind of aren’t directly affecting us, but they do, because everything is so interlinked and we’re contributing to something that might be someone else’s oppression or struggle, and we can’t see that. So a character like Jean Paul — I don’t even know how to describe him. The fact that someone like him, who has had a certain amount of privilege in his life, but now wants to be seen by his stoic and altruistic actions, the fact that he is someone who has a lot of anger and adrenaline but is born from a place of self-involvement, he needs to have experienced the wrongness that he has had inflicted upon him in order to project that onto someone else. I wanted to think about the personal narrative and how if individualism were to play out as sort of a ‘revolutionary’ or ‘radical’ context, where would that take you?
Leen comes to occupy two different worlds in Par Mars: on one, she’s dating a manager of K.A.G., and her new house is filled with their fancy products, but she’s also still in this group that plots against the mall’s authority. Do you think she’s anxious about playing both sides, that one might find out about the other?
Yeah, I definitely think that she’s so dissociated from the weight of everything that those facts of her life holds, that she almost doesn’t understand the contradictory elements of everything she partakes in. So she’s not thinking about the depths of what it means for her boyfriend that he’s a manager, he’s in the rat race and climbing the ladder. She doesn’t understand what that means for his personality or his character, and she doesn’t understand what it means to believe in something like the cult that Jean Paul starts. I think that says something about virtue signaling — for me, it’s a really good allegory for the kind of virtue signaling we do on social media. We don’t understand the contradictory elements of saying one thing and then partaking in another, or excusing the behavior of another, and what that means for ourselves and our own moral compass. More than anything, I wanted to show that her lack of caring from the beginning results in a web of contradictory elements in her life, and ultimately, doesn’t really do anything for anyone. If you have a bunch of people that are the same, which is the shopping complex cult, nothing really gets done. Or, you have an interesting result, which I guess is the end of the book!
The novel is so multi-faceted: like I brought up before, it touches on consumerism, othering, self-care and the wellness industry, capitalism, resistance against bosses and the general future of the world. What was your strategy in piecing everything together?
For the most part, I feel like that’s why it feels a bit directionless. And that’s why I’ve taken on the first-person perspective twice now. I think that’s something I definitely value, just seeing where it goes. I find the process really enriching and I just hope it will connect with somebody, and that you can follow along with the voice, but I think that for me, all the plot points and structural elements of the book are the ones that were kind of borne directly from my mind while writing it. I wanted to try to plot things out in order, but I’m just not that kind of person… I was in Iowa, and someone had this term: ‘Pantser.’ A panster is someone who I guess just writes off-the-cuff.
Oh! Pantser, like flying by the seat of your pants.
Yes! So I very much do that. And I feel like it’s always worked for me, because the process excites me and brings me back to the story constantly. It makes it more interesting for me in the rewrite, because I’m, like, ‘Why did I think that would be the next narrative point? That must mean something about how cynical I am.’ But I’m playing around with thinking about story and thinking about narrative, because I think there’s always more to learn with your process. But Gunk Baby is me revising that process that I had with Pink Mountain, but with much different stakes, and a much different context. It was an interesting thought experiment for me, because it showed me what I tend to think about when it comes to issues like consumerism and capitalism, and even having one’s own business and how you market it.
Finally, what’s next? Are you currently working on a novel or doing any other writing projects?
I just got back from the U.S. a week or two ago, but in my time there, I just finished the first draft of my third book, which I’m really excited about. It feels like a completely different experiment. I always try to set myself margins to write within, and this one had a completely different one, but it also kind of combines the previous two books. I feel like I’m returning to my style after the second — people always say the second book will be really different from anything you’re gonna write, because it’s like you reacting to your own work. So I’m really excited about the third one. I feel like I’m starting to appreciate the novel form a lot more. While I was in Iowa, specifically, I was just like, ‘The novel is the one.’
Gunk Baby is available now.