By Caleb Crain
THE MEMORY POLICE
By Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder
A defining feature of 21st-century life is that everyone can see what you’re looking at. Perception is increasingly defined as a social activity, from public likes to streaming platforms that broadcast what you’re listening to and how many hours you’ve gamed. Horny swipes on dating apps have become a potential advantage in geopolitical strategy; in May, United States authorities forced Grindr’s Chinese owners to sell the gay dating app, citing reasons of national security. Even as ordinary people lose control over how they are seen, institutional gatekeepers expand their sway over public opinion. Electronic books and digital records vanish with shifts in political power or copyright regimes. Yet few novelists have probed the inner consequences of life in a world so intimately mediated by surveillance.
Set during Occupy Wall Street in 2011, Caleb Crain’s “Overthrow” explores the fallout that occurs when friendship’s intimate ambiguities become ammunition in an information war. Like “Necessary Errors,” his debut novel about expatriates in Prague, Crain’s second work of fiction features a circle of young people experimenting with mature identities. Marginally affiliated with Occupy, they refer to themselves (with varying degrees of earnestness) as the “Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings.” The group spends most of its time cultivating a form of mind reading that is, depending on whom you ask, either a supernatural aptitude or “a supersensitive variety of tact.”
Nobody “reads” better than Leif, a 24-year-old poet-barista with an “elfin beauty,” a “moonglow complexion” and a lunatic energy that his peers find impossible to resist. In the first chapter, he picks up a graduate student named Matthew and whisks him off to a meeting of the group. The coy divination of cruising gives way to collective experiments in psychic transparency: “Matthew had wanted to go to bed with the boy, and he was being led to a plane even more tenuous than utopia.”
Crain skillfully evokes a recent past when the unprecedented access fostered by the internet still felt like a promise of liberation. Nebulously aspiring to save the world through openness, the group’s half-dozen members blog, exchange intuitions, make promotional T-shirts and intermittently volunteer with the activists encamped at Zuccotti Park. “Not knowing exactly what it was was part of the charm,” Crain writes. “To do something that no one had managed to define yet and to do it without permission.”
Leif’s friends aren’t the only ones interested in radical transparency, and after police arrest several other members at Occupy, the group runs afoul of a government intelligence contractor who’s placed them under scrutiny. A misguided attempt to retaliate by “doxxing” the company results in felony charges for cybercrime. The case goes viral, attracting the exploitative attention of ambitious lawyers, opportunistic roommates and online trolls. Journalists label them the “Telepathy Four.”
What follows is, essentially, a 19th-century social novel for the 21st-century surveillance state. Frequently alluding to Henry James’s “The Princess Casamassima,” another story of young radicals, Crain subjects his characters to quandaries that test their precariously entwined identities. The novel almost dares readers to object to its inwardness — “It’s like there’s a new sumptuary law against introspection,” one of the four complains — but its tender, psychologically precise prose feels like a bulwark against the exposure it takes for a subject.
As the friends prepare separate defenses, trust frays and class divisions metastasize. One working-class member, feeling abandoned by peers with expensive legal representation, turns state’s evidence, while the wealthiest person in their group reveals that she’s planning to write a tell-all. Leif loses confidence in his psychic abilities; a once-swaggering “hacktivist” wets himself in his lawyer’s office; and everybody anxiously anticipates the actions of everybody else. What all inevitably discover is that — in law and surveillance as in love and friendship — there’s no way to know another’s mind without self-exposure. We all have on “read receipts.”
It’s not always easy to disentangle the empath’s intuition from its dark, data-driven analogue. Near the end of “Overthrow,” an executive at “Planchette” — Crain’s riff on the shadowy analytics firm Palantir — envisions a future where “no gesture goes unnoticed,” and “tactful” surveillance fits like a glove. “No one will feel watched,” he goes on. “But everyone will feel … appreciated.” We all know how this story ends, and it certainly isn’t with the universal refinement of feelings. But Crain’s novel reminds us that real sympathetic awareness — engendered by trust, courage and human proximity — remains our best defense against its weaponized digital double. “It’s a war of the senses,” Leif explains. “Over what we’re allowed to perceive, still.”
It’s a war that’s been lost on the bereft island of Yoko Ogawa’s latest novel, “The Memory Police,” where hats, perfume, green beans, birdsong and countless other entities have been stricken from perceptible reality. Translated by Stephen Snyder, the acclaimed Japanese writer’s fifth English release is an elegantly spare dystopian fable narrated by a novelist who hides her editor under the floorboards of her home office. He’s wanted for his immunity to the periodic “disappearances,” an incremental collective dementia that is reducing the island to “nothing but absences and holes.” Objects don’t vanish, exactly; people wake up knowing they are “gone,” and destroy them. Those who can’t forget receive a visit from the Memory Police, who enforce the disappearances by carting off families and eliminating contraband while betraying no signs of their intent.
Reading “The Memory Police” is like sinking into a snowdrift: lulling yet suspenseful, it tingles with dread and incipient numbness. The story accrues in unhurried layers of coolly reported routine, as Ogawa’s narrator (the central characters are nameless) describes a life that is ordinary yet pockmarked with absence. She lives alone in her childhood home near the river, writing novels in her father’s old office or brooding in the basement studio where her mother, a sculptor, once entrusted her with forbidden keepsakes. “Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp,” she writes. “The objects in my palm seemed to cower there, absolutely still, like little animals in hibernation, sending me no signal at all.”
That her memories disappear “right on schedule” provides no defense against the island’s authorities. The Memory Police regularly ransack her home, but only once they target her editor does she begin to resist. She conceals him in a secret room below her office, assisted by an elderly friend who lives on the rust-eaten ferry he once captained. The three form a makeshift family, conspiring in small domestic rebellions — holding a birthday party, for instance, after calendars vanish — as the island’s dissolution accelerates.
Often drawing inspiration from “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Ogawa’s fiction is celebrated for its exploration of loneliness, claustrophobia and caretaking’s proximity to cruelty. Her collection “The Diving Pool” features a novella about a teenager who seals a panicking toddler inside an urn, while her novel “The Housekeeper and the Professor” traces the relationship between a domestic servant and a mathematician with an 80-minute memory. It’s a conceit that “The Memory Police” chillingly inverts, by making two amnesiacs the protectors of a man whose mind is unimpaired.
Rarely has the relationship between author and editor felt more fraught with consequence. Writing with her first reader literally underfoot, Ogawa’s narrator struggles to complete her manuscript — a novel-within-the-novel about a captive typist — even as her inner resources deteriorate. The editor fights to revive her memories, a psychic drama that unfolds in exchanges even more rending than the novel’s scenes of totalitarian violence. Lemon candies, perfume, a harmonica — each disappeared object is a potential spark with which to reignite her consciousness.
“The Memory Police” expounds no politics. Its eponymous jackboots don’t spout propaganda, or even bear clear responsibility for the island’s epidemic. There are book burnings and a special class of scapegoats, but the novel shares less with dystopian classics like “Fahrenheit 451” or “The Handmaid’s Tale” than it does with the novels of Samuel Beckett; or, in Japanese literature, Kobo Abe, whose landmark 1962 novel, “The Woman in the Dunes,” is also a story of surreally escalating diminishment. The effect isn’t solipsistic. Rather, Ogawa’s ruminant style captures the alienation of being alive as the world’s ecosystems, ice sheets, languages, animal species and possible futures vanish more quickly than any one mind can apprehend.
Who hasn’t awakened to the free-floating fear that our world has imperceptibly shrunk? One frosty morning, already unsettled, Ogawa’s narrator steps outside to find the river carpeted in petals. Roses have disappeared, and the island’s residents — seduced by this spectacular carnage — begin uprooting their gardens. Fatalism’s deadly pleasure is to accelerate what it cannot stop; though we never learn what motivates the Memory Police, the narrator seems to ventriloquize them (and the authoritarian nihilists of our own imperiled time) when she describes the aftermath of a disappearance. “The new cavities in my heart search for things to burn,” she says. “They drive me to burn things and I can stop only when everything is in ashes.”
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