Sep 20 2011

Nobody Ever Gets Lost by Jess Row

Justin Taylor

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In prose at once evocative and restrained, the seven stories in Jess Row's debut collection, The Train to Lo Wu (2005), gave rich, full life to Hong Kong in the years just after the British handover to the Chinese. Having spent some time in Hong Kong myself, it was my belief that Row's quietly desperate characters—natives, mainland Chinese, ex-pat artists, and the global business class—were simply attuned to the loneliness of the fast-moving, atomized megalopolis. (The Mongkok district, for example, boasts the world's highest population density, but you can spend an entire day there without speaking a word, or even catching another person's eye.) Now I see that his inimitable solitude is not local, but universal. The stories in Row's new book, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, take us from Thailand to the Punjab to New York City (and elsewhere around the Northeast), but wherever they touch down we find the same thing: psychically wounded people stunned by a world at once too vast and too small. Feeling both isolated and trapped, they seize or manufacture opportunities to connect with family, friends, or even strangers. The trouble is, self-consciously questing for a Carverian small, good thing is the best guarantee against ever finding one.

In "The World in Flames," an English backpacker named Samantha meets a Canadian named Lloyd Foster in a Bangkok train station. "It was a habit of traveling, this easy, instant comradeship—assuming that any white face in Kucha or Luang Prabang or Tiger Leaping Gorge was a fellow wanderer, someone who understood, who meant you no harm." She isn't necessarily going to sleep with him, but figures it's an option on the table; mostly, she's happy to have scored a hot shower and a free room. Foster, however, is an apocalyptic evangelical whose "missionary work" involves arming a Thai ethnic minority insurgency. He knows the cause is futile but believes that all violence hastens the rapture. "In the end all wars become one war," Foster tells Samantha. "That's God's plan." Needless to say, perhaps, but this is one white face whose understanding leaves a lot to be desired.

Nobody Ever Gets Lost is the yang to Lo Wu's yin. Structurally, the books are identical: seven stories total up to just under 200 pages. Lo Wu derived its thematic unity from its sense of place. (Were you to actually take the train to Lo Wu, you'd be in the so-called "closed area" at the Chinese border after having traveled nearly the full length of Hong Kong—similar perhaps to taking the A train from Inwood to Far Rockaway.) Nobody Ever Gets Lost finds its touchstones in pervasive feelings of anguish, sorrow and frustration in the aftermath of September 11, 2001—a day so long it sometimes seems to not have ended yet. Epigraphs from Anna Akhmatova and Louise Gluck are reinforced by references to Bach, Walter Benjamin, Edgar Lee Masters, Butler's Lives of the Saints, and Rilke—each one a poet of longing and loss.

In the title story, a New Yorker named Susan becomes obsessed with a newspaper story about a tenement collapse in Paterson, New Jersey that killed a pair of young sisters. It happens to be the one-year anniversary of her boyfriend Roger's death in the World Trade Center. She goes to Paterson to find the mother of the girls who died. Gurukha, the accomplished physician and practicing Sikh who narrates "Amritsar", is forced to rethink the logic (perhaps even the possibility) of assimilation when, in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, his son's (white) future in-laws encourage him to borrow their gun for protection. Tom and Melinda know that not everyone walking around in a turban is a terrorist, they're just not sure whether anybody else in their small town knows.

In "The Call of Blood," Kevin, a veteran of Gulf War I now working as a nurse, cares for an elderly Korean woman. The woman's adult daughter, Hyunjee, can't resist pointing out that if her mother weren't blind she'd be terrified of Kevin. He decides to learn Korean to better communicate with his ward and possibly to impress Hyunjee, whose tween daughters by a Jewish ex-husband are looking forward to bat-mitzvahs. Kevin himself identifies as black but not "black"—he's Jamaican and Irish. A cynical Indian doctor completes the rainbow, but this isn't some fastidious exercise in multi-cultural casting: Row is showing us the entangled world we live in as it truly is. In a marvelously tense exchange that goes on for pages, Kevin tries to keep his cool while Hyunjee complains, "I'm just so sick of pretending that coexistence is easy or natural. It's like I'm allergic to New York, but I am New York… I mean, we're all sitting around, acting as if it's going to make sense someday, but it never, never will." She envies her mother, who enjoys "[o]ne language. One place. One set of memories." The same mother, of course, who is too enfeebled to care for herself and lies on the verge of death.

In "The Answer," two incoming Yale freshmen launch a tentative friendship. One, a Mexican named Rafael, is a recent convert to militant Islam. He tries his new convictions out on Isaac, a non-practicing Unitarian whose name gets him regularly mistaken for a Jew. As it turns out, neither boy is quite what he seems. "The Answer" is hobbled by its recourse to talking points; light meta-fictional play plus a suite of "appendices" only confuse matters further. It is the weak link in a strong collection, but is followed by the masterful and astonishing "Sheep May Safely Graze," in which a man is confronted by his semi-estranged wife about his career as a CIA bureaucrat. As it happens, he has a long-buried secret, but it's unrelated to his job. In the last story, "Lives of the Saints," a child of privilege drops out of NYU for the love of a conceptual artist whose work might be described as Ward Churchill by way of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ.

Nobody Ever Gets Lost is that rare work which can boast both focus and scope. It is a powerful book, raw and shrewd and brave. If the categorical assertion of the title is true, it must be because the world only ever moves in one direction: forward. Visions of purity—ethnic, religious, national, or other—are always reactionary and will always fail. Restoration of the past is impossible, and calling for it merely exposes the weak soul's fear of the future. This goes for well-to-do Korean ladies anxious about dating black guys no less than for Islamist fanatics trying to dismantle modernity or narcissistic art-brats who don't treat their girlfriends like they should.

Justin Taylor is the author of the novel The Gospel of Anarchy.

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