24-year-old Leen is determined to run a successful business.
She’s not alone in her desire in Par Mars, the unnerving setting of Jamie Marina Lau’s Gunk Baby. The novel mainly takes place at the town’s Topic Heights Shopping Center, a mall where you can get a palpable sense of stillness and decline. Yet, when the opportunity presents itself, Leen pursues the chance to open up her own store, an ear cleaning and massage center, where she sells a cultural practice commodified for the shopping center’s indifferent and insensitive clientele.
The rest of the novel reads like a day-to-day account of Leen’s life as an average worker in their twenties: Going to work, in and out without end. Dealing with the small indignities of everyone around her, especially from clients. Navigating how to coexist with her roommates, Doms and Vic, both of whom are also endlessly looking towards advancing their own future through their business venture.
Eventually, Leen meets Jean Paul, through whom she eventually gets connected to a network of other workers disgruntled with the modern day work condition. When a few of them begin a series of pranks against the managerial staff at their workplaces, Leen joins in — and reconsiders the extent of her participation in these acts of rebellion when the pranks start to turn serious and violent.
Gunk Baby is a slow burn. In between the buildup, to the acts of rebellion and Leen’s shifting perception of Jean Paul and the other workers’ actions, the story mostly focuses on the small, everyday moments of life that contribute to the meandering waltz of life under capitalism.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a clear grasp of… well, anything in the novel, from its vague characters to its lack of a solid plot. Across its pages, little movement occurs throughout. Leen’s desire to operate her business is the novel’s one constant, and her single-minded perception of her life and how it operates in relation to her work takes up the bulk of it. While well-written, the prose eventually turns frustratingly cyclical in its insights.
The novel is clear in its messaging. Life in a consumer capitalist culture is strained, heartless, and relentlessly tiring. With how much Gunk Baby commits to delving into Leen’s disaffected psyche, it makes the reader feel the same — actually reading the story makes for a pretty joyless experience.
When it comes to writing screeds against capitalism, it’s important to remember that we resist against these structural forces in our lives primarily because of our love for people and community, our desire to see everyone flourish and thrive, a wish to imagine a world where humanity in all of its dimensions are honored and respected in the absence of an all-encompassing for-profit engine.
With Gunk Baby, we get the world as-is, depressing and full of despair. But with the story’s cast of characters being underdeveloped and near-lifeless at times, it feels like there is no point in rooting for them.
There are still some aspects of the novel that make it an interesting contribution to the growing canon of disenchanted reflections on modern life. The occasional jumps in point of view from its central character to the targets of the workers’ pranks make for a refreshing change of perspective and an often enlightening experience in understanding the world of Par Mars and its other inhabitants.
Complimenting these chapters is an interesting meditation on the capacity of physical violence to effect societal change, as well as who is deserving of that violence. The owners of production? The middle men, hoping to one day be at the top of the chain themselves? Leen and the readers alike are left with interesting dilemmas to ponder on as this theme ramps up to the forefront in the latter parts of the novel.
Gunk Baby delves into multiple ideas that deserve exploration, but its execution is half-baked. If the novel had a sharper sense of itself, its characters, and its plot, it could have truly blossomed into something biting and memorable. As it is presently, it’s on the cusp.