The Train to Lo Wu
By Jess Row
By John Glassie, The Believer, February 2005
In the first story here, a young American teaching in Hong Kong describes his letters home as "factual and sparse." And it's a good description of the writing in Jess Row's The Train to Lo Wu, a collection inspired by his own experience teaching in Hong Kong. But if the prose is pragmatic, the stories themselves operate as intuitive, emotional and, in some cases, romantic responses to one of the more unusual places on earth.
In Hong Kong, as Row accurately characterizes it, where skyscrapers grow up from mountainsides, the Chinese are separated from themselves, and the political and economic philosophies of the world converge (or whatever it is they're doing), it feels like a dozen boundaries can be crossed in a given day.
Row is at his best in stories like "The Secret of Bats" -- a work chosen for The Best American Short Stories 2001 anthology and for a Pushcart Prize -- in which the strange feeling of the place is conjured up and allowed to linger. What happens is that a rather lost American teacher finds himself supervising the extra-curricular studies of his young Chinese student. She's learning to sense the world around her like a bat -- without "sight," wearing a blindfold -- in order, it turns out, to connect with the ghost of her suicidal mother. This quiet story somehow becomes dangerous. And when it's over it's wonderfully hard to say exactly what exhilarating thing has just transpired.
To his credit, Row tries to stay out of the picture; he never verges on stylistic or formal excess. You imagine him going over the page, extracting traces of himself. But in his less successful moments he is nevertheless quite noticeably there, championing an immersion in new cultures, ideas, and perspectives -- and the transformation that such experiences can bring.
In "For You," for example, an anxiety-ridden man is on the verge of divorce from his over-worked, stock-analyst wife; he goes on retreat to a Zen monastery, where he learns that if you can "put down your fear you can cut a path through the darkness." In "The Ferry," an African-American lawyer finds that in Hong Kong, of all places, for once in his life, his skin color doesn't matter. And in "Revolutions," a New York painter hasn't picked up his sketchpad since a motorcycle accident left him convalescing in Hong Kong months ago; his connection with his physical therapist, a Buddhist nun, helps him start working again.
What comes to mind here is that a feeling of transformation, of internal challenge and change, of sensing yourself differently -- the stuff that we read stories for -- occurs just a little easier abroad than at home. And it's possible that somewhat exotic subject matter like this, writing about other people and places, makes us a little more forgiving, more available, as readers. (Conversely, it's harder to forgive Row's final story, the only story set outside Hong Kong and its environs, in which New York is represented as stereotype: a place where you get mugged by a double-crossing numbers-runner who refers to the City as "the Apple.")
These stories tend to run on the earnest side, they can rely a little too much on place, and some of them even seem to promulgate Buddhist teachings. (That's not to say the world doesn't need as much Buddhist teaching as it can get.) But when all is said and done, The Train to Lo Wu still does something good: it opens our eyes to things, inside and out.