Tan’s debut novel is both a love letter to fandom and a sustained meditation on alienation, artificiality, and the sinister nature of capitalism.
In this novel of interconnected narratives that mimics the shifting planes of a Rubik's Cube, characters appear and reappear in stories that pastiche various genres, from anime and video games to sci-fi thrillers and fan fiction. The cycle begins with Elena Rubik, a young 20-something who is struck and killed by a car, leaving behind a ghostly electronic footprint. From there, we meet a succession of guarded misfits: a piano teacher haunted by a seven-note motif and her shy student; an isolated voice-over artist and the former model enamored with his voice (the model’s employer, Ampersand, offers a dark satire of the chain Urban Outfitters). Tan winks at her readers, sprinkling mentions of Leonardo DiCaprio and dream totems à la Inception here, aviator glasses–wearing assassins straight out of The Matrix there. It becomes clear that we’re caught—somewhere—in a potentially bottomless, self-referential piece of fan fiction, of the type characters in the novel would post on a forum called Luxury Replicants. One of the most inventive of these experiments is a narrative treatment for the faux anime series Pikkoro and the Multipurpose Octopus, in which a floating octopus cares for a precocious child. Together, they must defeat HarvestTime, a shadowy corporate entity. This, it turns out, is a reference to the novel’s capitalist bugaboo, Seed, a tech company with recurring viral marketing campaigns and obliquely sinister intentions—a throughline reminiscent of The Matrix via Infinite Jest. Fans of matryoshka-doll novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit from the Goon Squad may be expecting a baseline narrative around which alternate worlds and realities shift, but Tan provides her readers with no such luxury. Like many of the sci-fi films Tan references, each narrative threatens to collapse, revealing its own artificiality, in a seemingly endless hall of mirrors. And while Tan’s imagination is inventive and capacious, her characters can exhibit a kind of fairy-tale flatness, too. This, however, might be part of the game. As one character remarks, “Once the machine is in motion...it doesn’t have to obey us. It’s almost like there’s…[something] that wills the objects, that determines how things will behave when they’re triggered.” Tan is skilled enough to keep readers guessing about what that next mysterious movement might be.
An intriguing, high-concept effort cut from the same generational cloth as Tumblr and Wattpad.