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The Fantasy of a Truly Free Life

From the very start, is a tale of escape and entanglement. Lisa Ko’s limber, ambitious second novel opens with three teen girls, bored at a Fourth of July barbecue, sneaking into a neighbor’s cookout to swipe burgers. The adventure jolts them briefly out of their boredom; it also creates a bond that lasts into adulthood. But Memory Piece is not, at its core, a novel of friendship. Ko isn’t especially concerned with the summer-afternoon alchemy that ropes her protagonists—Giselle Chin, who becomes a conceptual artist; Jackie Ong, a gifted coder who profits in the turn-of-the-millennium tech boom; and Ellen Ng, one of downtown Manhattan’s archetypal squatters—together for life. Instead, her central preoccupation is the doomed drive toward freedom—from capitalism, from expectations, from the public eye—that the three women share.

Each of Memory Piece’s three main sections focuses on one protagonist: Giselle, then Jackie, then Ellen. Each woman has a desire for flight that’s existentially greater than that of the one before. Giselle’s dream is the narrowest: A performance artist, she wishes to disentangle herself from her audience so she can be “feral [and] alone with her work.” Jackie, who develops a blogging platform called Lene when the internet is still young enough to feel like an “underground club,” wants to sustain both Lene and herself without selling ads, data, or her intellectual property—which, in essence, means she wants a way of disentangling work from money.

Broadest is Ellen’s anarchist dream of extricating the tasks of daily living from the structures within which we all exist: She squats instead of renting, dumpster dives instead of shopping, leads neighborhood workshops instead of teaching for pay. In Jackie’s and Giselle’s sections of the novel, which are set from the mid-1980s to the year 2000, Ellen seems freewheeling and glamorous in her squalor; her life, especially to Jackie, appears to be a carousel of sex and punk shows, community and independence. But in Ellen’s own section, set in a dystopian version of the 2040s, the carousel has stopped. Corporate interests have taken over Manhattan, the city has abdicated its duty to its residents, and Ellen and her squat-mates are just barely hanging on.

Ko’s vision of the future is the least interesting part of Memory Piece. It’s neither surprising nor well fleshed out—it features a malevolent Facebook analogue, colossal wealth disparities, lots of tech surveillance, and other amplifications of the present—and yet it vaults the novel into new terrain. If the book focused only on Giselle and Jackie, it would be a smart, character-driven meditation on recognition, motivation, and the value of work. Ellen’s plotline makes it an exploration of value itself. Memory Piece asks what hopes are worth clinging to, what parts of society are worth participating in, what powers are worth putting in the energy to fight. It belongs to an American literary tradition that includes Dana Spiotta, George Saunders, and their patron saint, Don DeLillo: writers whose characters sense that their lives happen at the whim of forces too enormous to understand or evade, but set out to dodge them anyway.

At the beginning of Memory Piece, Giselle has a revelation while listening to the radio. She hears a DJ mocking a performance-art piece in which two artists tied themselves together with a rope for a year—Ko does not use names, but it is, presumably, Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano’s 1983 —and is inspired. The rope piece has no audience, “or was everyone the audience?” It teaches Giselle that a person might “make something that wasn’t a picture or a movie, create a dare for yourself and live it every day, going to work or school, sleeping and taking a shower, and that could be art.”

By her early 20s, Giselle is doing precisely that. She devotes herself, with Jackie’s logistical support, to performance pieces that in theory cannot have an audience, such as living undetected in a mall for a year. But she wants funding, both for her own sake and so she can support her mother. She moves, at first tentatively and then with determination, into Manhattan’s art world, which Ko depicts as seductive and venal—and stealthily controlled by New York’s ultra-wealthy, whose reach goes far beyond art.

Giselle couldn’t care less who’s donating the money that lets her make her art, no matter how hard Ellen tries to get her to object. What bothers Giselle is that her funders want her to change her work. They tokenize and objectify her, pushing her to interrogate “the feminine, [herself as] a racialized female body,” when she’s really interested in disappearance and death. Though she’s en route to fame and riches, Giselle compares herself with Ellen and decides it’s her own life “that felt impoverished.” What Giselle is missing is the ability to go missing—to slip away from the staring, grabbing art world and privately explore any idea she likes, rather than having to be the focus of her own work.

When she gets a huge, prestigious grant, she takes the opportunity to break the “entanglement of obligation” on all fronts, freeing her mother from financial worry and herself from the public eye. She gives her mother the grant money and announces that her last performance, Disappearance Piece, will be to quit art-making and vanish forever. Disappearance Piece, brilliantly, cancels itself out: If Giselle successfully hides herself, no one will ever know if she’s working. Quitting art is the move that frees Giselle to keep making art. It’s by far Memory Piece’s most successful escape.

Even before Giselle vanishes, Jackie, the protagonist of the second section, feels somewhat abandoned by her friend. After Disappearance Piece, she’s furious—and rightly so: During Mall Piece, Jackie schleps Giselle’s waste from the mall in a bucket, which she feels means she earned a goodbye. Jackie has plenty of friends online, in forums and on Lene, the new platform she’s developing in her spare time, but she is profoundly lonely. One night, she joins Ellen for dinner at her squat, helping prepare the meal alongside Ellen’s dumpster-diving housemates, and realizes she can’t “remember the last time she ate with anyone, around a real eating table.” Just the intentionally clumsy eating table—as opposed to dining table—shows how far from society Jackie has slipped. In her early tech days, she and her fellow programmers experienced coding as an art form that offered limitless possibilities; now that money and business have infiltrated her scene, she has retreated almost fully into a digital life.

Jackie, who grudgingly works a day job at a flashy tech company while running Lene illicitly out of her apartment, doesn’t want to care about money, and is attracted to Ellen’s anarchist purity. She loves Lene, though, and can’t figure out how to sustain it without bringing in investors—a choice Ellen tries to convince her is fundamentally impure. Jackie comes to agree, especially as it dawns on her that her bosses are illegally selling data. As Jackie simultaneously considers exposing them and taking on a big funder for Lene, Ko begins turning toward the question of what makes a sellout—proof of Memory Piece’s Generation X spirit.

But Ko isn’t overly concerned with the morality of selling out. Her subject is at once more basic and more challenging: She wants to know whether Jackie can possibly keep developing Lene without any kind of business-world support. When Jackie has her own apartment and the tech job, the answer to that question is clearly no, because the latter essentially bankrolls Lene and the former houses it; when she gets evicted and tries living cheaply in Ellen’s squat, which barely has internet, she can’t do the work Lene needs; when she leaves her job and cashes in on Lene, she never has to worry about money again, but it’s too late. Coding-as-art is gone to her; she’s joined the great machine of business and power. Jackie’s section is Memory Piece’s most pessimistic, or, perhaps, its most realistic. It’s a portrait of a trap many readers will recognize: Creating what you want, and doing so passionately and well, can take you irreversibly away from what you wanted in the first place.

In Ellen’s section, Ko shifts her focus to what happens if you never sell out. She makes this quite literal: The only residents of 2040s Manhattan are the very wealthy; “those who couldn’t afford to go elsewhere, who lived in the encampments and hadn’t been removed”; and Ellen and her friends Reem and Sunny, who own and still live in the squat they set up in the ’90s. Reem and Sunny are terrified by the precarity of their position. Ellen refuses to consider leaving their home. Having to do so would represent a devastating defeat for her, even though the entire point of the squat was to live in community, and the deterioration of the city means that, instead of sharing their earthly goods with their neighbors, she and her friends are holing up and learning to fire guns. One of the heartbreaks of Ellen’s section is that her commitment to her old home closes her mind to possible new ones. It’s as if, having escaped from mainstream society once, her pride in that escape traps her: Once an agent of change herself, she now sees all change as giving in.

Memory Piece is a novel in which many of the victories are Pyrrhic. Disappearance Piece makes Giselle both a legend and a nobody. Jackie’s desire to protect Lene’s purity shoves her irredeemably into the corrupt world of business. Ellen fights for decades to carve out a space for communal alternative living in the city, then effectively loses her community by clinging to her physical home. Ko doesn’t make any of this surprising. It’s plain throughout Memory Piece that Ellen isn’t going to get to live in complete freedom, Jackie’s not going to survive by working without money, and Giselle isn’t going to make art witnessed at once by everyone and no one. But their efforts have dignity, sometimes pathos, sometimes beauty. Ko takes her characters seriously, and invites her readers to do the same—to care not that they lose, but that they try.