Reviews: The Memory Police and Topics of Conversation

Another round of “short” reviews, featuring two of my recent reads!

I picked up my first Yoko Ogawa novel this month, The Memory Police (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). After seeing it nominated for the National Book Award last year and loving the synopsis, it seemed like a good place to start with her work- and even though I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as expected, I’ll certainly be reading further!

thememorypoliceIn the novel, an author lives on an island where things have a tendency to “disappear.” Islanders wake in the morning with a sort of hole in their memories, ponder until they realize which object used to fill that space in their hearts and minds, then destroy all physical traces of the thing that has “disappeared.” The Memory Police hunt down forgotten items, and  remove those people with perfect memories who resist the disappearances. The novelist becomes concerned when she realizes her editor is resisting, but she can’t hide everything that’s important to her; as she sadly complies with devastating disappearances, the editor tries to trick her memory into holding on to the things that are essential to her.

“Nothing comes back now when I see a photograph. No memories, no response. They’re nothing more than pieces of paper. A new hole has opened in my heart, and there’s no way to fill it up again. That’s how it is when something disappears…”

Structurally, this one reminded me of Blind Assassin, in which the novelist’s current manuscript appears occasionally between chapters of her own life. There are certain similarities between the two plots, with the novelist’s emotions and fears coming out plainly in her written story.

It’s an evocative, atmospheric tale full of secrecy and fear, an all-too-powerful government, a public that quietly acquiesces (following the path of least resistance) and a few rebels who fight back. The Memory Police is a novel that asks how much of our lives should be decided for us, and how much should be left to our own control. It’s a question that goes beyond what we are expected do, to what we are expected to feel. The magical element- the disappearances are not a choice- keeps the story from feeling like a direct parallel to any particular place or body of government, and yet it is otherworldly enough that many aspects of it feel widely applicable, linked easily to any place. It’s a story that frightens and demands further thought.

But I had a few hangups. I found the disappearances rather arbitrary and confusing through most of the book- some things, for instance, aren’t entirely gone: the ferry is “disappeared,” and yet it is still docked, its operator still lives on board, and he remembers the days when he happily ferried people across the water. The disappearances seem to be more of an emotional response, and thus are somewhat difficult to understand and to define; I prefer magic with clearer limits. I was also left with many questions about how things started disappearing at all, and why, and how the disappearances affected some people and not others, and who the memory police even are- designated islanders? Volunteers? Outsiders? Where are they taking the people who still have their memories? How do they know when someone or something is being hidden? Why do they care? Etc. These seemed to me like basic world-building and title-explaining questions, and instead of answering any of them, Ogawa asks the reader to trust and follow along blindly. In a way, this is exactly what the islanders must do- most of them don’t question anything and have no qualms about complying, and so the reading experience is a bit like the novelist’s life in that regard. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that opportunities were missed when the novel failed to delve more deeply into the particulars of its world and constraints.

“I had only to surrender to each new disappearance to find myself carried along quite naturally to the place I needed to be.”

Ultimately, though I enjoyed the writing, the plot, and many of the ideas driving this story, I was left wishing for more. More from this novel, but also more of Ogawa’s work. This book does seem to be a better fit for many other readers, so don’t let me dissuade you if you’re interested in the premise.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad to have finally read one of Ogawa’s translated works, and I’m certain it won’t be my last. I’m aiming to read more translations throughout the year in 2020, and even though this one didn’t excite me quite as much as I’d hoped, it was an encouraging start.

Additionally, I flew through my January BOTM selection- Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is a slim literary fiction volume just over 200 pages. It was also a mixed experience.

topicsofconversationIn the novel, a woman recalls various encounters and conversations she’s had over the course of about twenty years. Most of these conversations take place privately between women, though not all. In a series of vignette-like chapters, we follow the narrator from place to place as she carries the burdens of each confession throughout her life.

This is a novel that shows how quietly but relentlessly gender-specific abuse can affect women. When I say abuse, I mean that there’s a woman who is stabbed in one of these stories (though not on the page), and at least one who is raped (also not on the page), but much of it is more subtle. It’s seen in the women who admit they liked being told what to do, or who tell themselves that an affair with a professor was mutual and fair, or who feel guilty staying in a relationship with a nice guy. Women tell each other privately about the men who’ve hurt them, and the part that cuts to the heart the most is that the book is not a rage-fest but a quiet sharing of shame, acceptance of blame in many cases, and at times even a manipulation tactic. Our narrator, whether she knows it or not, is internalizing these horrid little stories and it’s obvious that they are shaping her idea of what is normal and acceptable, even desirable.

“I was pretty sure I knew where this story was going, not only because the man in the story had been identified as a sexual predator but also because it was late and it was only women and we were all a little drunk and under those conditions there is only one place a story about a boy and a girl ever goes.”

Though I loved the intent I saw behind these conversations, the persistant toxicity of a male-dominant power imbalance, the execution simply did not work for me. The writing style is a bit experimental, sometimes using quotation marks and sometimes not, flowing freely from dialogue to thought to exposition and back again in a single sentence. It’s not impossible to follow, but I couldn’t pinpoint any reason for using this sort of erratic style, and ultimately it did nothing for me. It’s also not entirely clear whether these conversations are all being told in retrospect- there are comments about future events woven into the narration, though the stories seem to offer very little of the reflection or that should come with twenty years of contemplation. Furthermore, it’s not entirely clear whether the narrator is reliable or not. There are moments when she’s all but bragging about her bad experiences, or inventing bits of her stories as she goes, or telling them for the sole purpose of making her listener react in a certain way. Of course these are all realistic ways in which women react to their experiences, but if our narrator here can admit to being untruthful and using her conversations to invoke a certain impression in her audience, how can we trust anything that she’s saying? And what is the point of the book if we can’t? With the possibility that the narrator is lying about ALL of her experiences, is there anything to learn from them?

“I am often thinking of the better story because the actual story is so often boring.”

I marked so many thought-provoking lines and passages from this book, and each chapter did eventually manage to  capture my interest. But ultimately, the pieces just didn’t add up as a whole. Each “conversation” is more or less a monologue from one character or another (mixed with the narrator’s commentary), and feels complete in itself, making the transitions rough and the stories disjointed. The common denominator, the narrator, remains too elusive to provide a sense of purpose. Though I really liked the themes I drew from this book, I did not particularly enjoy/appreciate the read, and am left wondering whether this one was worth my time at all.

“And yes I know no one keeps blogs anymore.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I hope BOTM will keep offering experimental lit fic selections this year, even though this one did not quite live up to expectations.

Please let me know if you’ve read either of these books, I’d love to hear some different opinions!

 

The Literary Elephant

23 thoughts on “Reviews: The Memory Police and Topics of Conversation”

  1. Great reviews! I haven’t read The Memory Police yet but I’ve really enjoyed some of Ogawa’s other work, so I’m excited to give it a go! It’s a shame you didn’t love it, but I’m glad you liked it enough to try more of her stuff.

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    1. Thank you! 🙂 I’d love to see your thoughts on The Memory Police; even though it didn’t completely work for me I did think it was a worthwhile read that I’d recommend. What have you liked best from Ogawa’s work so far? I have a couple of her other books on my TBR and am not sure where I want to go next.

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      1. Thanks! Revenge is one of the titles on my TBR so I think I’ll try that next! I’ll keep a lookout for The Diving Pool as well. 🙂

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    1. These are both books that I wouldn’t have any qualms recommending to other readers even though they didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I hope you’ll enjoy them both when you get to them!

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  2. I’ve grown so weary that I’m pretty much completely impatient with experimental fiction these days. I read SO MUCH of it when I was in my master’s and then MFA programs. I think my issue is I often can’t find such books in the library, so I buy them. 8 times out of 10 they’re practically jibberish, but those 2 out of 10 times made me go back! Eventually, I moved on. However, two experimental works that I love and can’t get enough of are Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls by Lucy Corin and Bogeyowman by Jaimy Gordon. One work that is less challenging but just as experimental that I love is Girl Imagined by Chance by Lance Olson.

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    1. I wonder if my taste for experimental fiction would be the same if I had gone on for my master’s right after undergrad. I think I’m seeing in my reading choices these last few years a sort of attempt to go through that education on my own, which may be part of what’s driving me toward experimental lit fic. I don’t want to read jibberish just for the sake of picking up experimental fiction, but I do think I’m learning a lot about what can and can’t be accomplished with writing by checking out these books. They are harder to find at my library and are generally more expensive to buy, so I agree that they’re harder to get ahold of and don’t always seem worth it in the end. When they work though, they really work! I’ll make a note of the titles you’ve mentioned and see if I can find them!

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      1. I don’t think I mentioned this: my undergrad and master’s thesis advisor were the same guy (I stayed at the same school), and he was huge into experimental work, especially the stuff published by FC2. A book we read by an author published through FC2 caught my attention, so I applied to that guy’s program for my MFA. So, I had a solid seven years of experimental lit in school. I burned through that stuff so fast! Whew.

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      2. Wow, that does sound like a lot of experimental fiction! I think if I was reading it exclusively (which seems more likely when reading it for school) it would wear me down faster. I definitely appreciate the freedom of choice!

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  3. Hmm, I haven’t read Topics of Conversation but I wonder if the semi-unreliable narrator aspect was to address imposter syndrome survivors experience. It’s a shame it wasn’t done in a way that makes it more obvious, but just from what you’ve said it seems like that could be the case. I think a lot of people who have gone through abuse feel like they need to amp up their stories in order to convince people they’ve gone through something “bad enough” since culturally people have a tendency to disbelieve or downplay anything below a certain level of violence or “badness.”

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    1. That’s a great point! If so, I wish it had been more clear in the book, but it’s entirely possible I just didn’t notice it. The only thing would be that the narrator must be trying to convince herself (or the reader?) that what she’s gone through is “bad enough”- I think only one of the stories in the book is actually told by the narrator (and there’s such a strange undercurrent of eroticism in that narrative, where she’s sort of flirting with the woman she’s talking to, not because she’s attracted to the woman but because she finds confessional conversation intimate in a sort of sexual way?). Otherwise most of the narrator’s story only comes out in her thoughts, as she listens to stories from others. For someone who’s mainly listening and relaying, the untrustworthiness really confused me. But it would make sense that she might be trying to sort out imposter feelings privately, and that would explain her characterization better as well. Food for thought! Thanks for suggesting it, this could certainly change how I’m looking at the book.

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  4. Great review, and I really enjoyed reading all your points. I agree with many of your opinions, but unlike you, I did not find myself wanting anything more from The Memory Police when I finished it. Perhaps, I read one “type” of Japanese literature so far, but when I think about it such words come to my mind as “uncertainty”, “unknowability”, “things left unsaid” and “eeriness unexplained” – even arbitrariness thrown into the narrative is there to unsettle and make one question what is going on, but without providing all the answers. I think Ogawa embodied just that in her early work, such as The Memory Police. For example, if you explain The Memory Police and what it is and what it is doing, part of one kind of apprehension about it will be forever gone, and that is not good because the reader should stay in that state of uncertainty and frightening bewilderment, shall I put it this way. I loved The Memory Police precisely because it provided so few answers.

    You know, that is a good point you provided about islanders not questioning anything. I thought it was much the reflection of the Japanese culture/society. It is said that people there are traditionally “conditioned” to preserve harmony on the islands and should conform as much as possible without complaining or questioning. I don’t want to pigeonhole Japanese culture, but I thought the book could even be viewed as an allegory on the Japanese society, showing some of its aspects taken to extreme – such as people blindly complying with weird things (disappearances, for example, as in the book) and regulations so as not to disrupt the general flow of life/society. I thought it was very Japanese, and I do not want to sound like I stereotype a nation, or people, or anything like that. It was just one of the feelings I got when reading.

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    1. Thank you! I did feel that it might be an unpopular opinion to want more from The Memory Police than it offers, so I’m glad to hear it worked better for you. I definitely think it’s a fair point that answering more of the questions I had about the disappearances might detract from other elements of the story. I did like the book’s themes, and the outcome for the novelist was unsettling in a very effective way that will certainly stay with me! I suppose I’m not sure that a trade-off would’ve worked any better for me than as it stands… But perhaps I was just not the right audience for the book, to wish it were something other than what it is. Admittedly, I haven’t read a lot of Japanese writing, and my knowledge of Japan itself is likely lacking. I may not have been informed enough about Japanese culture to pick up on those reflections or allegories, though I really like the idea of those details matching up for more knowledgeable readers. I should really pick up more books from this country, in order to be better informed! Perhaps after I’ve read and learned more, I might pick up The Memory Police again and have a different experience with it. I very much enjoyed Ogawa’s writing, so I’m certain I’ll be picking up more of her work. Once I have a better grasp of her work this one might very well be worth revisiting. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much!

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      1. I guess I did not mean my comment to maybe sound so “arrogant” 🙂 A book should try to appeal to all and different people, and no one should be first forced to read tons on some topic before enjoying a book. I did not mean to sound like I know much about Japan, because I don’t. It is just, you know how Japan often deal with natural disasters and they have to rebuild their lives quickly after that and not dwell on it (or ask questions why is it happening because it simply happened)? I thought that is what people did in the novel too when faced with disappearances and it felt like an absurd situation stretched to the limits.

        Another thing which is striking is that the English translation for the novel is The Memory Police. I think this is very misleading. When we have this title and as we read the novel, “The Memory Police” is constantly on the back of our minds as some central character and we are then disappointed not to have the police explained to us, but I actually think it plays only some part of the story and if the book had been titled something different (something intangible), it would have made a better impression. I guess they thought the words “The Memory Police” would appeal to English-speakers and make the book more effective because of their association of it to the rules of dystopian regimes in 1984 and similar books.

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      2. I didn’t think you sounded arrogant! I really appreciated seeing another perspective on this book, since my response to it doesn’t seem to be the norm. Accessibility to the layperson is indeed important, but I think stories that require more outside knowledge can sometimes hone in on themes that wouldn’t work as well if they were spelled out too plainly, and The Memory Police may be a case of the latter. I can see your point about Japan’s need to rebuild quickly and move on, which I think does fit very well with the novel; now that you mention it, I do think the islanders’ reaction to the disappearances is even much the same as the way they reacted to the hurricane in the book, which is interesting to consider.

        And I think having The Memory Police as the novel’s title definitely played a role in my expectation of learning more about them! It did draw me to the book in the first place so you may be right about it being a good marketing tactic for English readers, though in the end I would have preferred it to be called something more suited to what the book actually delivers than the element that is left the most unknowable.

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