Inspired by pop-culture and its influence on contemporary identity, Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing is a short story collection that explores the absurd and fantastical transformations of its central character, an alter-ego of Cho himself. Published in 2009 by Giramondo Publishing, the novel blends elements of postmodernism and parody to unveil the reality of the minority and queer experience in western culture.
Cho’s narrator morphs into various protagonists over eighteen enchanting stories. From adopting the Chinese Australian personae of Maria von Trapp from The Sound of Music to starring on a Dr Phil episode with his Auntie Lien, or engaging in conversation with family around the dinner table, Cho questions the nature of human identity in a world obsessed with consumerism, celebrity status, pop music, Hollywood heteronormativity, and where exactly he fits in.
Maria von Trapp is just one of the many characters Cho morphs into
The author harnesses the self-reflexivity of the postmodern novel by incorporating a conscious scepticism in the questions he proposes about life and transformation within his stories. These questions are peppered alongside academic knowledge, thereby flattening the high/low cultural difference associated within the western literary canon. As Alice Robinson (2010) has reflected in her own review of Look Who’s Morphing, ‘Cho’s use of both “languages” at the same time renders the academic equally consumable as the popular, just as it shows how the popular can be as significant as the academic in making sense of the world.’
The quick transitory nature of the plots and the unexpected, abrupt denouements replicate our dopamine-dependent reality where it seems as though resolutions are no longer necessary if readers achieve an instant high from the fast-paced narration and turn of events. Drawing on cultural theorist Fredric Jameson, the readers in this instance, are left to interpret Cho’s endings and their underlying meanings. Removing any authoritarian voice from the author and encouraging the readers to take charge––as a sort of intertextual interaction.
‘Suitmation’ is a particular story that plays on the notion of ‘postmodern identity’. The fictionalised, Cho, explores the uncanny ‘special effects technique’ of ‘suitmation’ where ordinary people can purchase and wear an outfit of any famous person or fictional being––similar to Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak except these costumes will make you re-appear as your fawned idol, like a Tony Danza or a Godzilla (if you rather take the transhuman route).
We laugh alongside Cho as he inhabits the skin of his fifteen-year-old idol, Suzi Quatro by wearing her ‘classic leather jumpsuit and snakeskin platform boots’. Cho plays on Glenn Ward’s idea that postmodern identity has become ‘a loose assemblage of cultural bits and pieces’ which act as escape routes for those alienated by ‘dominant conventions of gender, nationality, ethnicity and sexuality’. But despite being able to express himself as his gay-icon, Cho highlights how this simulation of identity commodification has abandoned authenticity and produced copies of simplified personas. This realisation is apparent when fictionalised Cho recounts his mixed feelings for suitmation:
Cho’s writing blends pathos in a caustic way, expressing his own ambivalence towards popular culture and its implications on minority identities with visceral, indeed brutal, honesty. ‘Whether this mood is dissipating or being fended off still remains to be seen,’ states Ward.
In Shalmalee Palekar’s reading, Look Who’s Morphing is about postcolonial queerness that asks us readers to ‘question which bodies belong and fit in and which do not’ demanding ‘that we reflect on the absence of particular bodies or desires in the mainstream’.
Cho’s opening story, ‘Dirty Dancing’ is a perfect example of this questioning of both sexual and racial identity. Cho reimagines the cult classic film, Dirty Dancing, where the character of Baby resorts in the Catskills with her family and falls in love with the camp’s dance instructor, Johnny Castle. However, in this version, Cho initially takes on the persona of Baby only to be mesmerised by Johnny so much that he morphs into a ‘Caucasian man with a moustache’, aka Bruce––whom Cho visualises would have more of a chance sexually with Johnny. Despite channelling the homoerotic side to Johnny and Bruce’s relationship, tearing down the heteronormative and hyper-masculine barriers that constituted Patrick Swayze as a major sex symbol of the 1980s, Cho still rejects his ‘Asianness’ by adopting the characteristics of the generic, white alter ego, Bruce. Here, Cho desires to be someone other than his Asian self because he is not used to seeing that part of him normalised on screens.
The use of parody, particularly the ever-changing pop-culture references combined with the transformative nature of the characterisation, work symbiotically to produce a piece of work that transcends our limited understanding of what fan-fiction, and literature as a whole, can entail. Whilst this may leave readers feeling confused, it is important to have an open mind when engaging with these stories as the foundation of parodic revisionism allows authors, like Cho, to convey different perspectives that may have been alienated or ignored in the past.
Cho’s hyperreal short story collection is as entertaining as watching the latest binge-worthy series on Netflix. By positioning his Chinese Australian self within iconic film scenes and outlandish scenarios, Cho exposes society’s obsession with heteronormativity and Eurocentrism, reminding us that identity is far more complex than the man-woman binary we have lived by for centuries. However, Cho’s ambivalence about whether to define or continue morphing his identity within a rapidly evolving society – both technologically and spiritually – showcases the uncertainty associated with postmodernism and the urge to understand it. Thus, by the end of each story, we are still left wondering: will it get any better?
Cho T (2009) Look Who’s Morphing, Giramondo Publishing, Artarmon, Australia.
Palekar S (2015) ‘Killer Robots and Gay Porn Queens: Queer Asian Bodies, Metamorphosis and Subversion in Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing’, in Cox JE and Grzelinska J (eds) Ways of Queering, Ways of Seeing, Inter-Disciplinary Press, Oxford, UK.
Robinson A (2010) ‘Becoming Tom Cho’, review of Look Who’s Morphing by Cho T in Text Journal, 14(1).
Ward G (2011) Discover postmodernism, Hodder Education, London, UK.