Review: Memory Piece, Lisa Ko

Published in The Observer on March 24, 2024

The first section of Lisa Ko’s novel follows a Chinese-American artist, Giselle Chin, who in 1996 begins a durational work called Memory Piece: she writes down her memories for seven hours a day, for a year – and at the end she burns the lot. But in Memory Piece, the book, the documenting of life becomes something precious and worth preserving.

The novel is itself a kind of archival resource, odd photographs and records interspersed between accounts of the lives of Giselle and her childhood pals Jackie Ong and Ellen Ng. Their friendship develops as the story unfolds, sometimes blooming, sometimes growing thorns, and there is real pleasure in seeing each character through the eyes of the others in turn.

The first section sees Giselle finding success as a young performance artist in New York in the 1980s, while Jackie’s section follows her negotiation of a booming tech industry in the late 1990s; she develops a blogging platform where people can publish “a personal, public, digital archive of one’s own life”.

Ko then takes a conceptual leap forward, to the 2040s and a full dystopia, where the now 71-year-old Ellen is forced to abandon her beloved activist housing co-op in Manhattan, when it’s slated for redevelopment, and must flee to a hand-to-mouth existence in a rundown area of the Bronx.

Gentrification on steroids has divided the US into wealthy enclaves ringed by security, and deprived encampments beyond; fascists are in power, surveillance is absolute and movement, communications and resources are restricted (unless you’re rich). What’s recorded – and what can be shared – is tightly controlled; even trying to remember a different world becomes a radical, dangerous act.

This is Ko’s second novel, following 2018’s The Leavers, and she writes with a cool, collected intelligence and is unafraid to wrangle big ideas. Her characters continually weigh personal integrity against success, wealth, comfort, even safety. Giselle and Jackie cling to idealism within lives that disappoint: Giselle sees through the wealth, gatekeeping and phoniness of the art world; Jackie loses faith in the democratic promise of the internet as the potential to track and monetise users becomes apparent. The novel’s three-part structure cleverly reveals how the nastier sides of both scenes feed a future of stark economic divisions and hyper-surveillance.

That said, I did struggle with the gear shift into the extremely bleak 2040s. It’s a stylistic jolt: up to that point, Ko deploys an elegant, almost stately pace of third-person narration, offering crystal-sharp depictions of two specific industries and a New York of the past. In the third part we’re in a much more jittery first-person account from Ellen. The anxiety hums off the page, but the world-building is harder to deliver in first person, and there are occasionally awkward exposition dumps.

The doomcasting does, however, much expand the palette and scope of this ambitious book. Towards the end, there are tantalising hints that the friends develop an archive, documenting how people used to live: a resource to help “continue the story and imagine another” – and a breath of hope to close on.

Memory Piece by Lisa Ko is published by Dialogue Books (£18.99)

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