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.
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Jess Row is a graduate of Yale University, and received his MFA from the University of Michigan. His stories have been included in the Best American Short Stories 2001 and 2003 anthologies, as well as in Ploughshares. He is the recipient of a 2003 Whiting Writers Award and an NEA grant. He lives in New York, where he is at work on a novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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?
I tell you already, she said. She hunched her shoulders so that her head seemed to rest on them, spreading her elbows to either side. It is like a test.
In the courtyard rain crackled against the asphalt; a warm wind lifted scraps of paper from the desk, somersaulting them through the air.
The sound, she said impatiently. I told you this.
I covered my mouth to hide a smile.
Alice, I said, humans can't do that. It isn't a learned behavior. It's something you study.
She pushed up the cover of the composition book and let it fall.
I think I can help you, I said. Can you tell me why you want to write this?
Why I want? She stared at me wide-eyed.
Why do you want to do this? What is the test for?
Her eyes lifted from my face to the blackboard behind me, moved to the right, then the left, as if measuring the dimensions of the room.
Why you want come to Hong Kong?
Many reasons, I said. After college I wanted to go to another country, and there was a special fellowship available here. And maybe someday I will be a teacher.
You are teacher.
I'm just learning, I said. I am trying to be one.
Then why you have to leave America?
I didn't, I said. The two things-- I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. All at once I was exhausted; the effort seemed useless, a pointless evasion. When I looked up she was nodding slowly, as if I'd just said something profound.
I think I will find the reason for being here only after some time, I said. Do you know what I mean? There could be a purpose I don't know about.
So you don't know for good. Not sure.
You could say that.
Hai yat yeung, she said. This same. Maybe if you read you can tell me why.
This is what's so strange about her, I thought, studying her red-rimmed eyes, the tiny veins standing out like wires on a circuitboard. She doesn't look down. I am fascinated by her, I thought. Is that fair?
You're different from the others, I said. You're not afraid of me. Why is that?
Maybe I have other things be afraid of.
At first the fifth-floor bathroom was her echo chamber; she sat in one corner, on a stool taken from the physics room, and placed an object directly opposite her: a basketball, a glass, a feather. Sound waves triangulate, she told me, corners are best. Passing by, at the end of the day, I stopped, closing my eyes, and listened for the difference. She sang without stopping for five minutes, hardly taking a breath: almost a mechanical sound, as if someone had forgotten their mobile phone. Other teachers walked by in groups, talking loudly. If they noticed me, or the sound, I was never aware of it, but always, instinctively, I looked at my watch and followed them down the stairs. As if I too had to rush home to cook for hungry children, or boil medicine for my mother-in-law. I never stayed long enough to see if anything changed.
Document everything, I told her, and she did; now I have two binders of entries, forty-one in all. Hallway. Chair. Notebook. As if we were scientists writing a grant proposal, as if there were something actual to show at the end of it.
I don't keep a journal, or take photographs, and my letters home are factual and sparse. No one in Larchmont would believe me--not even my parents--if I told them the truth. It sounds like quite an experience you're having! Don't get run over by a rickshaw. And yet if I died tomorrow--why should I ever think this way?--these binders would be the record of my days. These and Alice herself, who looks out her window and with her eyes closed sees ships passing in the harbor, men walking silently in the streets.
Sound of lightbulb--low like bees hum. So hard to listen!
A week ago I dreamed of bodies breaking apart, arms and legs and torsos, fragments of bone, bits of tissue. I woke up flailing in the sheets, and remembered her immediately; there was too long a moment before I believed I was awake. It has to stop, I thought. You have to say something. Though I know I can't.
Perhaps there was a time when I might have ...
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Book Description The Dial Press, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110385337892
Book Description The Dial Press, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0385337892
Book Description The Dial Press, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0385337892
Book Description The Dial Press. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 0385337892 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW7.0124287