A Review of We Rose Up Slowly by Jon Gresham
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I don’t read local literature.
It’s an admittedly weak interest, since my bookshelves have been filled by international literature — mostly in translation — probably founded on my penchant for travelling. Either that or I’m drawn to American literature, the tones, locales and philosophies familiar to me since having my original vocabulary educated for 8 formative years in the States. But upon returning to Singapore, I have barely had any contact with local literature, and I can’t confess to a good enough reason why not. Perhaps the inadvertent reflex of a third-culture Singaporean like myself is to cling to an estranged nostalgia, to the imaginary abroad, at the unfortunate expense of the familiar.
So when LocalBooks cross-examined me on my literacy of the island’s texts, I failed and stuttered. Where do I begin? I asked the editors. They pulled up a few titles — historical fiction, Singlish poems — but nothing really stood out. Then, looking at each other, what about, We Rose Up Slowly? Yes, by Jon Gresham. We Rose Up Slowly, I repeated, each of the four words lilting off my mind. That’s a good title. I’ll give it a try.
10 short stories, a whole number and a white cover, We Rose Up Slowly arrived tucked into the metal grills of my door and I flipped through the light pages. My first local book. So with this brief review I’ll describe my slow — or rather, belated — immersion into local fantasy with a selection of three of Gresham’s stories.
I was first drawn to a piece titled Walking Backwards Up Bukit Timah Hill. Titles strike and draw me in like efficient directions, and this one was particularly resonant to my own mapping. Bukit Timah, my zone, my green corridor, where I’ve lived in and out for the past 10 years. Of course, I told myself, I’ll take this trail. But, like walking backwards, I had some fuzzy expectations to gain terrain that I thought I knew well, but I was bound to stumble over roots and through black puddles, upon something completely new.
In an illustrative sense, walking blind and backwards through the innocuous familiar does aptly describe the effect of reading Gresham. This peculiar story opens with a shocking statement of gore to come, but retreats swiftly into the neighbourly safety of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Henry and his wife Margaret retrace the development of their difficult relationship through an uphill walk, Henry walking backwards upon some unexplained doctor’s advice. Their eerie Jacobean nomenclature could have hinted at the summit’s eventual bloody demise, but I was taken in by the seeming ordinariness of their parochial, quiet history, with their “walks together on Sunday afternoons at MacRitchie Reservoir, Labrador Park, Kent Ridge and up Bukit Timah hill”. I have been to these places with old lovers too, and I vicariously navigated my own memories and desires along this darkening path.
After the couple parts due to an abrupt lapse in their communication, Henry still continues walking backwards. Suddenly, he has a frightful confrontation with some unnamed demon in the depths of the forest, and the story quickly disintegrates into gothic tragedy. Henry is left frothing at the mouth, though Margaret seems unperturbed. Yet she too revisits the Bukit Brown cemetery before her own gruesome end. Putting the book down, I was stunned — Gresham had winded me.
But I wanted more. Leafing again through the pages, this time to The Finger. The story reads like another conventional domestic drama within the walls of Singapore’s condominiums, but I was now aware that the uncanny title could betray other unexpected layers. Julia is an Australian expatriate wife dealing with trust issues towards her husband Peter and their Filipina helper Maria. After the discovery of Peter’s infidelity, Maria’s pregnancy and ensuing escape, Gresham fixates on an uncomfortable scene in which Julia cuts her nails with a scissor down to her reddening cuticles. It seems that the author distances his characters from the appropriate emotional response in favour of a more visceral one — in favour of drawing actual blood.
And there is a blood trail that beckons Julia through the dingy alleys of Peninsula Shopping Centre to a magic trinket shop. Here, she purchases a miniature guillotine for her son Teddy’s tenth birthday, at his naive request to show off an illusion to his friends. She demonstrates the trick at home to Teddy and Peter, but when her guilty husband offers a try, he loses the titular appendage. I was choked again, and startled at how Gresham was brutally flipping off my expectations that local writing would wade through the mundane without ever emerging. How far from it! These rainforest walks and high-rise living rooms had become settings where the imaginary and the real would rise, coalesce and fall.
Finally, I turned to the book’s namesake story, We Rose Up Slowly. Unlike the other pieces which eased me gradually into the everyday before an absurd awakening, We Rose Up Slowly begins immediately on the premise of the preternatural. “The phenomenon began with birds flying higher and things falling slower”, the unnamed narrator repeats the phrase like a mantra throughout his tale. Gravity seems to have lost its effect in this quite literal ukiyo, after the Japanese “floating world” of hedonism and sensuality. Gresham’s characters grasp after each other, as they begin to lose touch with meaning in sex and love, hovering between playful flirtation, bathos and disappointment. Like Henry and Margaret, they remember the beginnings of their relationship, but in this story Gresham relies much more on the topsy-turvy environment to reflect the gradual dissolution of intimacy.
I am still at a loss, holding my breath by the end of it, as the couple surrender to “the phenomenon”. But is the final act faith-induced, awaiting what is on the other side? Or is it a mutual suicide, leaping in reverse into the void? Whichever the conclusion, We Rose Up Slowly allows the local landscape to utterly disappear — to eclipse — and this is what is most haunting for me.
The book is a prescient reminder, perhaps the first amongst many, that I need not look across the waters, but only up the sky-scrapers in the centre, to find fantasy. I can dream with authors like Jon Gresham so that the absurd undoes the quotidian structures on this island, releasing “silver lockets” of magic into the air.