Alienated characters, incongruous images and discordant tones pervade this surreal story collection
By Sam Ng
We Rose Up Slowly
The first story, 'We Rose Up Slowly', is also the title story. On the surface, it looks like an apocalypse story. Birds are flying higher and things are falling slower. The objects of the world fill up the sky and beaches disappear. But this is only the background story from which a single voice emerges, the voice of a male lover. He addresses his female lover; he uses the pronoun "you" as if he were writing a letter to her, or confiding in a diary. His voice is gently lyrical and rhythmic; it is intimate and reflective. It is a piece of psychodrama. As early as the second paragraph, the narrator reveals his sexual humiliations and disappointments:
His tone here is difficult to grasp. On the one hand, he seems to be settling scores with her, listing her needless sarcasms and ruthless assessments. On the other hand, the images are more comical than condemnatory; his voice at times gentle, even adoring. What comes across is the true ambivalence of the narrator, the incongruity of the images, the incompatibility of his voice. All this is, of course, intentional.
The incongruity of images is a feature in the other bizarre and macabre worlds of this story collection. One example occurs in 'Walking Backwards Up Bukit Timah Hill' when Margaret comes face to face with someone who has turned into a zombie. The scene is horrifying as we know what is going to happen to Margaret. But just before the dreaded ending, there is this description: "Margaret thought someone had emptied a plate of char kway teow into his face." The ghoulish face of the zombie transformed, in a single glance, into an image of pure ridicule and comedy. The images might not be as obvious or grotesque as this in the other stories, but the effect produced is similar: it heightens our awareness of the characters' realities. Another example is found in 'A Long Bicycle Ride Into the Sea' when a junior lawyer describes his infatuation with his colleague: "She became tangled up inside my head like a thousand strands of vermicelli."
'We Rose Up Slowly' revolves around the male lover's memories of the days he spent with his lover. He remembers their first meeting at a party, and the instant attraction they felt for each other:
At the party, he takes away her locket. He puts her locket in his mouth. He wants to see what is inside it. He commands her to open it. He says, "Open your locket for me". And then, "Show me what's inside." We know he is flirting with her, so it is in this context that we must interpret his actions. Yet something is wrong. He sounds tactless, or even creepy. His behaviour crosses the line between consent and violation. It is not because his move is more aggressive than expected. It is not merely because of his commanding tone. It is the way he pushes his luck even when he is well aware of the other person's darkening mood. He does not back off, he maintains the smooth exterior of his teasing, until she snaps and fends him off.
The story is partly about his growing frustration with her unwillingness to reveal everything to him. What is in the locket remains a secret throughout the story. But, read in another way, it is also about his inability to reach out towards her. It is as if the emotions inside them are flying apart too, losing their attractions for one another. His inability to connect with her stems partly from his lack of self-awareness. It is a common thread running through the stories: characters are not as aware of their own actions as they should be. They are trapped within their worldviews, private preoccupations, or emotional states; they are seldom willing or able to see beyond their own perspectives. Subsequently they are alienated from the people they are supposed to be close to. Individuals are helpless in preventing harm from befalling their loved ones. Married couples, girlfriends and boyfriends, parents and children – all are not spared. Their various awkwardnesses, discomforts, humiliations and insensitivities are curiously displayed. Often, prolonged time spent together produces not reconciliation, but stupefaction and disbelief. From 'Walking Backwards Up Bukit Timah Hill':
And from 'Idiot and Dog':
The first excerpt shows a husband and wife in the family room. Margaret's husband is suffering from a mysterious ailment. His condition is patently serious: he has reached the point where he cannot help but rip his clothes off to relieve the itches on his body. But what does Margaret do? She makes him toast and peppermint tea, which is most likely a daily routine for her. Then she mutes the sound of the television – almost as if she wants to amplify his scratching noises – and walks out of the room. Later she abandons him altogether after calling the ambulance. In the second excerpt, Shane tries to rationalise the reasons for his outburst at his girlfriend's family home but is ultimately unable to put himself in their shoes. He fails to properly acknowledge his racist tendencies. He does not realise the inappropriateness of his behaviour. He is also unable to see that he does not care for the dog as much as he thinks he does.
A lack of self-awareness causes alienation and disorientation. It is evident in 'We Rose Up Slowly' when the narrator expresses the contradiction of his relationship with his lover: "We weren't happy together but we lived in a state of easy, mild contentment." Another example is in 'Other People's Cats'. A man, on his way to his Great Aunt's funeral, finds a sympathetic female stranger to accompany him. They talk about his Great Aunt and his relationship with her. He says his Great Aunt loved him a great deal. But he has not visited her for many years. And all the time, while talking about his Great Aunt, supposedly grieving, he is trying to worm his way into the female stranger's pants. His guilt about not visiting her feels shallow and useless, if not ultimately false. We can only come to the conclusion that he sees his Great Aunt's love only from a distance; it is a thing only to be looked at, admired, even pitied. He does not seem to have or want the ability to reciprocate this love.
If the apocalyptic world of 'We Rose Up Slowly' is a representation of our inner world of disorientation, we can be consoled that this is not a world entirely devoid of hope and love. Lovers pursue each other, and follow their instincts, even to their death. The sky becomes a place for entrepreneurial teenagers to scavenge junk for sale at the entrance to shopping malls. Gresham's prose, light and buoyant here, suspends us in its gentle rhythms. Our hopes for the world are safely tethered by our faith in beauty and adaptability.
I am slightly irked by Gresham's tendency to lapse into academic or philosophical language. An example in 'Walking Backwards Up Bukit Timah Hill': "...he found it immensely satisfying to play a role in developing narratives of reassurance and comfort." Or in 'Rashid at the Sail': "All the authorities in his life, with their sacred texts, grand constructs, codes and systems, gave their prescriptions for a meaningful, prosperous life." And, "He fell hard for this vision of himself, built on the shifting sands of selective nostalgia". The word "selective" tells us this is intellectual discourse; the writer is trying to be as accurate as possible. These shifts in the voice are too starkly different from their original voices that they stand out for no good reason. Therefore one may conclude that this is the writer weighing in, giving us a sense of his own cultural and intellectual background or leanings. I'm not convinced this is the most effective method of narration, unless used consistently as a postmodern device. There is also a tendency at times for vague, generalising sentences, such as this one in 'A Long Bicycle Ride Into the Sea': "She seemed a constant fixture, loving the stability of hating a boring, mundane job while embracing the anarchy and restlessness of her life."
Another concern is with overwriting, and writing that seems too on-point. Narrative details that are already hinted at or given to us are repeated without good reason. An example in 'Death of a Clown' occurs when an old man tells his son: "Well. I'm going to die. What do I care? I've got no regrets... Some kind of release from the blank past, boredom, this sense of loss that I can't express." We already know from much of the story that it is concerned with loss and the blank past, so this revelation, especially inserted so late in the narrative, feels unnecessary. Similarly, in 'Walking Backwards Up Bukit Timah Hill', a sentence like this crops up as a false note: "But she knew it was not love and wondered whether what they shared was sufficient." We are told quite early in the story that Margaret desperately wants a child to tie her husband down in their relationship. Therefore her "wondering" at this moment feels inauthentic.
Gresham's surrealistic stories, at their best, shake us from within, and deepen the notion that we are islands of consciousness; in this way, they compel us to confront our own intellectual detachments and emotional blindspots in order for us to engage better with the world. They are also fundamentally stories about our modern world, its cross-cultural realities, and the fractured lives we lead in them. We Rose Up Slowly is an absorbing and disturbing read definitely worth spending an afternoon with.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 3 Jul 2016