‘Built Around the Bones: A Review of Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik’, by Chloe Papas


Rubik is about death, and the internet, and big corporations taking over the world, and fan-fiction, and loneliness; but despite all that I can’t stop thinking about the fact that it is set in Perth. It sticks out to me in a way that it only could to others who grew up there: a jolt to the guts, a reminder that it’s still there, breathing and living – someone else cares about it too.

This book isn’t really about Perth, but it is built around the city in a way like no other novel I’ve read. The author treats it like any other city: a home, a place with intricacies and streets and people and billboards and coffee shops – an honour often reserved for more important destinations. The author mocks the slogan of my old university (“It’s the brightest minds that will make tomorrow better”), aptly describes the shitty shopping centre and KFC nearby, drives along major roads that I can map in my mind, from one side of the river to the other.

Perth isn’t a city that novelists write about. It is small and uninteresting to the eye of newcomers and disenchanted locals. Precariously built around the mining boom and fallen football heroes, an insular suburban sprawl and an identity that can’t quite be pinned down. It’s a city that pushes you away, but once you leave it keeps pulling you back in. It has bones, just like anywhere else, and this astonishing novel—the first from imprint Brio Books, and the first for its writer, Elizabeth Tan—is built around those bones.

I never usually think about the title of a book until after I’ve finished it, but Rubik made me think about it all the time. Titles have never been too important to me as a reader: a few words pulled from a line in the novel, a self-explanatory phrase. But the title Rubik fits so perfectly (primary colours, stacked in rows) with its contents that it becomes a standalone element; a word that pops up like a flashcard as you begin to discover the novel’s unbelievable architecture.

I’m quite shit at Rubik’s Cubes, and I’m also not great at reading slowly. These two things are related because Rubik is a book that you need to take your time on – to focus on each word, to make little mental notes as you wander through – so that as you reach the latter half of the novel, you are gasping in recognition rather than staring blankly, frustrated. It is a book that deserves your full attention, that offers up its pages as a puzzle for you to solve – but that will ultimately be solved for you, if you let it.

Elizabeth Tan lays out the stories in Rubik in a way that appears completely unrelated, or perhaps only tentatively linked: a familiar name here, a familiar location there. Switching between tabs in a browser, losing a trail in Wikipedia. It’s difficult to ascertain what is reality and what isn’t – and whether there is a reality at all. It’s meta and messy in an intricately structured way, a minefield of fragments that you can get lost in if you aren’t paying attention. There is method to the madness, you just have to look for it.

I didn’t begin to realise that the stories in Rubik were linked until, perhaps, a little too far into the book. There are tiny clues; names or settings or concepts that drop into your lap and sit there, tauntingly. You can’t skim, or lose track of names, or charge full steam ahead – the experience has to be slow and almost methodical. And then, as you read the final few stories – or maybe ‘chapters’ would be the more accurate label – the threads are all tied together: not in a neat little bow, but big long spools of twine that zig-zag and meet together at the top.

I want to tell you about each of the stories in Rubik, to marvel at the construct of each scene, to revel in the interconnectedness of select characters, but I won’t. I will tell you that it is nothing short of an adventure: a choose-your-own where you don’t get to choose, but you do get to ride along with an octopus, a man with a very soothing voice, a woman and a pie, a boy and his piano teacher, a meme, a spambot. I will tell you that there is social commentary on the pages, stories built subtly and not-so-subtly around the creeping takeover of corporations and brands.

I will tell you that this book is a little bit Margaret Atwood, however cliché that comparison is for a novel that is set in a world so starkly real yet bordering on dystopia, or at the very least, melancholy (after all, there is a chapter called ‘Our Future is Apathy’.) The world of Rubik isn’t going to end, but things and people come to a complete stop, others are in the middle of their dramatic arc, some are stuck and waiting to be yanked out. Tan has gleefully straddled the line between real and surreal.

I want to tell you that Tan has drawn that melancholy, the surreal nature of some of the storylines and the stark reality of others, from her idea of Perth. But perhaps, that is just selfishness – because probably, likely, it is simply my idea of it. A city built on consumerism and privatisation and a maybe-almost-over mining boom with a clear divide between rich and poor, where artists and Facebook meme page–owners scramble through any crack of light at the surface that they can find.

The characters of Rubik are a marvel; not just because of the storylines that they inhabit, but because they are each wildly different, a new person or two to meet each chapter. Tan’s ability to construct people that aren’t of a similar age or life experience is a true accomplishment. She pays minute attention to the details of each person’s life; never simply thrusting them into action before they are fully formed humans for the reader to become acquainted with. Kish clips her fingernails and thinks about buying pencils. Peter’s cordial has leaked through his schoolbag. April is very, very excitable.

You will become entrenched in some of the characters’ stories and flit through others, and you will realise that the book probably isn’t what you thought it would be at all. Sometimes, you will think: this is batshit crazy, in the best way. Other times, reading Rubik will feel like a big night in on the internet, if the internet was infinitely better than it already is. It will remind you that stories don’t need to follow a clear narrative, and it will feel a bit like someone has gently blown the dust off your brain as you work through the puzzle: you are not being handed a simple package.

Rubik is exhilarating; cutting through a novel landscape that is dotted with clear narratives and messages to present a work that forces you to think carefully about each and every word. It is a mish-mash of coloured cubes, held together by tiny mechanisms, daring you to put the pieces back together. It is built around Perth, but it could exist anywhere.

Chloe Papas is a writer and journalist based in Victoria, via Perth. Her work has appeared in many different national and international publications.