Reviews / March 2017 (Issue 35)

Inevitable Traps and Impossible Escapes: Jon Gresham's We Rose Up Slowly

by Aaron Chan


Jon Gresham, We Rose Up Slowly, Math Paper Press, 2015. 188 pgs.


Jon Gresham's We Rose Up Slowly is a collection of ten strange and somewhat unsettling stories, characterised by a mixture of surrealism, absurdity and inevitability. Focusing on different kinds of problematic relationships, including lovers, a husband and wife, brothers, parents and children, employers and employees, the stories remind readers of how we are everywhere in chains and how much we want to escape, but also how little control we have over our own life and destiny. Although the reader may not identify with every single character or scenario, the stories do not fail to evoke a sense of entrapment and suffocation.

The works in the collection are set in Singapore, Australia and Jakarta and often feature characters struggling with cultural identity and identification. Indeed, much of the sense of estrangement in the anthology originates from characters occupying environments different from their places of origin. For example, the protagonist of "A Long Bicycle Ride into the Sea" is a Western man taking up a half-year job in Singapore, where he meets a mysterious local lady with whom he falls in love. Narrating from a first-person perspective, the story refuses readers a clear grasp of who the lady is or what she actually wants, but rather forces them to share the protagonist's limited viewpoint and sense of incomprehension. "Idiot and Dog" flips the East-West dichotomy, and features a Singaporean family living in Australia. Racist assumptions made by Shane, the Australian male protagonist, emblematise the hostile attitude of locals towards immigrants, as experienced by Benjamin Ng, the Singaporean writer-father. The writer—who does not fit into the conservative Singaporean literary scene but is also ostracised as a foreigner in Australia—faces a double cultural exclusion, leaving him with nowhere he can feel a sense of belonging.

In "A Fleeting Tenderness at the End of Night," Lang Zheng and Chai Ling, who have recently moved from China to Singapore, are similarly disquieted by racial discrimination:

What are we doing here if we're not making money? We're certainly not in Singapore for a charitable cultural exchange or to share the warmth of our personalities. Do you want to know what the locals think about us? They think we're taking over, that we have no style and no manners. They think we shit in public. Don't shit on me, Ling. Not after all I've done for you.

In addition to such cultural entrapment, women in Gresham's stories are also often confined by their gender roles. Ling—as seen from the above quote spoken by Zheng, the man who has taken her out of a bulb factory in China only to lead her into another suffocating workplace, a club in bustling Singapore—hopes to gain control over her life. She first relies on Zheng, who has promised her hope for a better life in Singapore, as "her escape route" only to end up subjecting herself to his manipulations.

Despite her unsatisfying marriage to Henry, a workaholic who does not really love her, Margaret in "Walking Backwards Up Bukit Timah Hall" is unable to her husband and live life on her own. After a dramatic and surreal scene in which Henry is attacked by the Beast—that in my reading represents a shadowy desire lurking within him that he has long taken pride in denying—their power relationship is subverted. Margaret is transformed into the carer in the relationship, as she is forced to watch over Henry, who has degenerated into a primitive animalistic state. Nevertheless, Margaret remains trapped, only now in a different way, by her new role, until she is finally devoured by her beastified husband.

The mother in "A Girl and a Guy in a Kijang in Kemang," having walked away from both the tragedy of her husband's accidental death and the son she has kicked out of her house, finds her ensnared by karmic fate, when years later she becomes attracted to her grown-up son. Her final and literal entrapment inside a Toyota Kijang could not be more symbolic of her inability to escape and points to a form of predestination of which we have no knowledge or power to resist.

The son in "Death of a Clown," is likewise ambushed by fate and forced to excavate a long-buried past, when he receives an unexpected call from Gilbert Lim, Clown Number One. The clown turns out to be his absent father, whom the son finds on his deathbed. Despite the son's effort to create a romanticised version of the relationship between his mother and the clown, he is dragooned into facing not only his dying father but also the "blank space, an erasure, a vacuum where a father has been scratched out," as well as the hypocrisy behind the amusing face that has brought so much laughter and joy to others.

A sense of inevitability is explored even more strongly in the title story "We Rose Up Slowly," in which everybody in the world is forced to adapt to "the phenomenon" of disappearing gravity and the fact that the planet will eventually fall apart. In an attempt to continue life as normal, people venture outside with anchors to remain moored to the ground, school children carry bricks in their bags, scientists conduct experiments into the phenomenon and media outlets produce "light entertainment" programmes about floating objects. And yet while humans have "adapted wonderfully to it, almost learned to love it," true relief seems to be attained only by letting oneself go and rising up to the inevitable destiny.

While the stories in We Rose Up Slowly highlight the inevitable traps and impossible escapes of our existence, they offer no answers to the predicaments we face. How, then, do we come to terms with the unavoidable snares of life? Is the only consolation available, as is implied by the story "Rashid at the Sail," to be found in the infant, "[p]acked with potential, no mistakes yet, everything left open, a universe of possibility," but who will still inevitably grow up to experience the same limitations we all do? Can embracing inevitability provide a form of self-empowerment? Is an afternoon spent reading these stories a way to escape our destiny? Are the stories themselves impossible literary quests in search of possible ways out of inevitability? This book leaves readers to ponder questions like these.

 Originally from Hong Kong, Aaron Chan is currently reading for a PhD in Education at the University of Glasgow. Having taught English in a Hong Kong secondary school for three years, he has decided to turn a new page and return to academia. He is now working on a thesis about the conflicting discourses in and about institutional education as represented in children’s literature. His research interests include children's literature, education and pedagogy. Visit his blog for more information.         
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