The characters in Jess Row's remarkable fiction inhabit "a city that can be like a mirage, hovering above the ground: skyscrapers built on mountainsides, islands swallowed in fog for days." This is Hong Kong, where a Chinese girl and her American teacher explore the "blindness" of bats in an effort to locate the ghost of her suicidal mother; an American graduate student provokes a masseur into reliving the traumatic experience of the Cultural Revolution; a businessman falls in love with a prim bar hostess across the border, in Shenzhen, and finds himself helpless to dissolve the boundaries between them; a stock analyst obsessed with work drives her husband to attend a Zen retreat, where he must come to terms with his failing marriage.
Scrupulously imagined and psychologically penetrating, these seven stories shed light on the many nuances of race, sex, religion, and culture in this most mysterious of cities, even as they illuminate the most universal of human experiences.
No one quite understands anyone else in Row's Hong Kong, a city suffused by a pervasive sense of alienation. In the seven stories of this debut collection, Row's protagonists--American expats and locals alike--flail about, either helplessly or harmfully, as blind as Alice in the first story, "The Secrets of Bats," who wanders around in a blindfold, trying to gain a bat's sense of orientation. The narrator of the title story, a wealthy man from Hong Kong, falls in love with a Chinese woman named Lin. Political strictures make their situation difficult, but cultural differences ultimately divide them. The narrator (whose family has lived in Hong Kong for five generations) is optimistic and resourceful; Lin (crushed all her life by the Chinese system) cannot abandon her pessimism. In "For You," the marriage of an American couple disintegrates after they move to Hong Kong, and the husband, Lewis, temporarily joins a Buddhist monastery--just one example of the way personal breakdowns tend to follow political displacement in Row's stories. At the monastery, Lewis is told: "Mistakes are your mirror.... They reflect your mind. Don't try to slip away from them." In sharp, lucid prose, Row molds a landscape of human error and uncertainty, territory well-aligned with the eerie topography of his space-age city.
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The Dial Press
January 30, 2006
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Excerpt from The Train to Lo Wu by Jess Row
The Secrets of Bats
Alice Leung has discovered the secrets of bats: how they see without seeing, how they own darkness, as we own light. She walks the halls with a black headband across her eyes, keening a high C--cheat cheat cheat cheat cheat cheat--never once veering off course, as if drawn by an invisible thread. Echolocation, she tells me; it's not as difficult as you might think. Now she sees a light around objects when she looks at them, like halos on her retinas from staring at the sun. In her journal she writes, I had a dream that was all in blackness. Tell me how to describe.
It is January: my fifth month in Hong Kong.
In the margin I write, I wish I knew.
After six, when the custodians leave, the school becomes a perfect acoustic chamber; she wanders from the basement laboratories to the basketball courts like a trapped bird looking for a window. She finds my door completely blind, she says, not counting flights or paces. Twisting her head from side to side like Stevie Wonder, she announces her progress: another room mapped, a door, a desk, a globe, detected and identified by its aura.
You'll hurt yourself, I tell her. I've had nightmares: her foot missing the edge of a step, the dry crack of a leg breaking. Try it without the blindfold, I say. That way you can check yourself.
Her mouth wrinkles. This not important, she says. This only practice.
Practice for what, I want to ask. All the more reason you have to be careful.
You keep saying, she says, grabbing a piece of chalk. E-x-p-e-r-i-m-e-n-t, she writes on the blackboard, digging it in until it squeals.
That's right. Sometimes experiments fail.
Sometimes, she repeats. She eyes me suspiciously, as if I invented the word.
Go home, I tell her. She turns her pager off and leaves it in her locker; sometimes police appear at the school gate, shouting her name. Somebody, it seems, wants her back.
In the doorway she whirls, flipping her hair out of her eyes. Ten days more, she says. You listen. Maybe then you see why.
The name of the school is Po Sing Uk: a five-story concrete block, cracked and eroded by dirty rain, shoulder-to-shoulder with the tenements and garment factories of Cheung Sha Wan. No air-conditioning and no heat; in September I shouted to be heard over a giant fan, and now, in January, I teach in a winter jacket. When it rains, mildew spiderwebs across the ceiling of my classroom. Schoolgirls in white jumpers crowd into the room forty at a time, falling asleep over their textbooks, making furtive calls on mobile phones, scribbling notes to each other on pink Hello Kitty paper. If I call on one who hasn't raised her hand, she folds her arms across her chest and stares at the floor, and the room falls silent, as if by a secret signal. There is nothing more terrifying, I've found, than the echo of your own voice: who are you? It answers: what are you doing here?
I've come to see my life as a radiating circle of improbabilities that grow from each other, like ripples in water around a dropped stone. That I became a high school English teacher, that I work in another country, that I live in Hong Kong. That a city can be a mirage, hovering above the ground: skyscrapers built on mountainsides, islands swallowed in fog for days. That a language can have no tenses or articles, with seven different ways of saying the same syllable. That my best student stares at the blackboard only when I erase it.
She stayed behind on the first day of class: a tall girl with a narrow face, pinched around the mouth, her cheeks pitted with acne scars. Like most of my sixteen-year-olds she looked twelve, in a baggy uniform that hung to her knees like a sack. The others streamed past her without looking up, as if she were a boulder in the current; she stared down at my desk with a fierce vacancy, as if looking itself was an act of will.
How do you think about bats?
She joined her hands at the wrist and fluttered them at me.
People are afraid of them, I said. I think they're very interesting.
Why? she said. Why very interesting?
Because they live in the dark, I said. We think of them as being blind, but they aren't blind. They have a way of seeing, with sound waves--just like we see with light.
Yes, she said. I know this. Her body swayed slightly, in an imaginary breeze.
Are you interested in bats?
I am interest, she said. I want to know how-- She made a face I'd already come to recognize: I know how to say it in Chinese--when one bat sees the other. The feeling.
You mean how one bat recognizes another?
That's a good idea, I said. You can keep a journal about what you find. Write something in it every day.
She nodded vehemently, as if she'd already thought of that.
There are books on bat behavior that will tell you--
Not in books. She covered her eyes with one hand and walked forward until her hip brushed the side of my desk, then turned away, at a right angle. Like this, she said. There is a sound. I want to find the sound.
First hit tuning fork. Sing one octave higher: A B C. This is best way.
Drink water or lips get dry.
I must have eyes totally closed. No light!!! So some kind of black--like cloth--is good.
Start singing. First to the closest wall--sing and listen. Practice ten times, 20 times. IMPORTANT: can not move until I HEAR the wall. Take step back, one time, two time. Listen again. I have to hear DIFFERENCE first, then move.
Then take turn, ninety degrees left.
Then turn, one hundred eighty degrees left. Feel position with feet. Feet very important--they are wings!!!
I don't know what this is, I told her the next day, opening the journal and pushing it across the desk. Can you help me?