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‘Memory Piece’ Understands the Power of an Archive

In Memory Piece by Lisa Ko, three teenage girls — Giselle Chin, Jackie Ong, and Ellen Ng — meet at a barbecue in Jersey and become forever fixtures in each other’s lives.

Not best friends, exactly, at least not in the conventional sense (though of course this is a book that critiques convention at every corner). Giselle and Jackie and Ellen dip into and out of each other’s lives in adulthood, more like equal parts co-conspirators with each other and critics of each other. Their friendships, just like their individual flaws, are not so easily summarized. Here is a novel that begins with three teens meeting in an insignificant way that nonetheless holds great significance. Then it spirals out into being a novel about the end of the world. But Ko is slick and sharp in her approach here, not crashing us into dystopia but rather brilliantly evoking what it feels like to live in today’s world: a burning that’s somehow slow and swift all at once.

The three main women find themselves with different roles to play in the novel and in its world of brewing revolution. Giselle is pulled to performance art with a predilection toward year-long projects, such as one where she lives in a hidden room in a mall for a year like the Rhode Island residents who actually did this (many events and details in Memory Piece appear meticulously researched and based on real-life counterparts, and Ko mentions Giselle’s work being inspired by the performance art of Tehching Hsieh). Jackie is pulled to coding and the dawn of the internet, taking a job at a tech company while also building out her own pet project, a LiveJournal-esque personal blogging/diary platform called Lene that also leads to a long distance romance with Diane, a woman in California. Ellen is pulled to mutual aid and revolution, conducting various community organizing projects before eventually taking squatting to the next level with a group of friends who convert an abandoned building into Sola, a communal living project that goes on to hold great significance in Memory Piece‘s final act.

The novel is told in three main sections that center each of the three characters. There are also interstitials accompanied by images along the way, foreshadowing the significance of an archive and a final fractal portion told in bursts. Giselle’s section begins Memory Piece and covers adolescence, Giselle and Jackie growing closer as they both thrash against the limits not only of their Jersey suburb but of their homes, neither growing up in an overtly bad situation but nonetheless with dreams and ambitions too big for their containers and often tasked with self-parenting. Ko renders 1980s suburban teenage ennui with as much detail and specificity as she later uses to paint the plural world of New York in the 90s and aughts and, later still, an imagined and dystopic but also eerily familiar future. Giselle continues her performance art projects into her new life in NYC, where her identity as an artist is challenged and influenced by the art world. It’s not that fame is at the center of Giselle’s ambitions, but she does need money, she does need access if she wants to keep making the art she wants to make. She wants, and should not be faulted for this, an audience. She ends up in a relationship with Holger Salles, a man 15 years her senior who has been successful in the art world, but of course he has, it’s designed to fawn over men like him — white, independently wealthy, ultimately apolitical. Here, Ko sharply examines the intersections of art and capitalism, how institutions wield arts grants like weapons. I feel like we all want to believe art exists outside of this system of empire making, but it doesn’t always. Art can just as easily be used as tools for gentrification and suppression of dissent as it can be to fight them. Memory Piece makes this clear. Giselle’s art, still ambitious and grand, loses some of its bite when she accepts a massive grant, becomes the type of performance wealthy liberals might think of as revolutionary. Again though, Ko is deft in how she portrays these characters’ flaws, never overly condemning of them but rather critical with nuance, with empathy. Giselle is naive to fall into the traps of the supposedly “necessary” evils of the art world, but it’s easy to understand why. And then still, by novel’s end, Ko has you believing those evils aren’t so necessary at all and even that it’s not too late for her characters to realize it.

Next, Jackie’s section, which shuffles back in time to overlap with some of the same years as Giselle’s, covers the dot-com boom, all three women living in NYC but in their own worlds. Jackie is skeptical of but also immersed in the dangerous liaisons between tech and capitalism, the novel’s villains hovering just at the periphery of her story. Her internal dilemmas about the work she does heighten when she and Ellen become lovers. Ellen, always pushing Giselle and Jackie to imagine different worlds and new futures, challenges Jackie. But she’s imperfect, too. Ko never designates one of these women as the hero or fault-free moral compass for the story but rather making them human, never devices.

Jackie becomes entangled with Ellen while still entangled with Diane, who may be far away, but not to Jackie, who has long lived in computers, Ko’s development of Jackie’s queerness and early queer desires is all tied up in the character’s genuine love for computers: “These, Jackie knew were secrets. That she loved a computer. That she named the computer Arlene after her third-grade teacher, who had floppy curls and a kind smile and wore corduroy pants that swished like soft breath when she walked by.” Memory Piece contains one of my favorite depictions of online long distance romance, a queer experience very near and dear to my heart. The way Ko writes the cybersex and cyberflirtations Jackie and Diane share are every bit as erotic and fully limned as the “real life” sex Jackie later has with Ellen. And when it comes to the latter, Memory Piece also contains one of my favorite descriptions of what it’s like to have sex with a longtime friend, another distinctly queer experience: “There are things you don’t realize about someone you’ve known for years until you have sex with them, things that surprise you. Like the fact that licking Ellen’s neck makes her shiver, how her sounds are soft and whimpering and small. How much of a turn-on it is to suck on Ellen’s hard little clit, to slap her thigh, to watch her gaze and expand and hold as you move above her, to make bossy, motormouth Ellen go quiet.” I’ll stop there, though the paragraph continues splendidly.

In the final section, we move into an imagined future so tethered to reality I hesitate to call it science-fiction, even if it’s set in the 2040s. I’ve already alluded to its strange familiarity. In summary, we learn everything leading up to the time and place we suddenly find Ellen in: a New York City whose borough borders are violently enforced by cops and checkpoints, the entire country run by a corporate empire that could be analogous to Amazon or Meta or some combination of the corporate conglomerations that already hold too much power in real life. That summary of the buildup isn’t just realistic; a lot of it is stuff that has already happened. And even the more extreme ends of Ko’s dystopia are rooted in reality. In real life, New York City might not currently look like the version she imagines, but this rendering is strikingly similar to occupied Palestine under apartheid. In the novel, people have to pass through checkpoints as a regular part of life. They’re subject to forced and violent evictions from their homes (already happening in NYC, by the way), and people wear rubber costume masks to hide from pervasive digital surveillance. People can be arrested and detained without reason. The government-backed algorithm feeds its population a steady stream of disinformation. The hellscape of Memory Piece terrifies not because it’s plausible but because so much of it is already happening.

Memory Piece is queer not only in content but in form, its playful approach to craft not quite experimental but nonetheless subtly imaginative and nonconforming. Each of the three main sections are crafted in distinct ways. Giselle’s part is told in third person, past tense, follows a more or less traditional form and structure if considered in a vacuum, though none of Memory Piece should be considered in a vacuum. Jackie’s section then moves into third person, present tense. The dialogue in her section doesn’t bear quotation marks, and chapters within it are divided by seasons. Ellen’s chapter, largely taking place in that imagined future and when the characters are in their seventies, is told in first person, past tense. None of these choices feel arbitrary or overwrought in their execution. Jackie’s section is indeed where everything begins to accelerate, becoming more urgent, more inescapable, and the use of present tense highlights that. Each character and their story is compelling and developed well enough on their own for the novel to sometimes feel like three books stitched together, but that stitching is like intricate embroidery work, Ko’s craft and ability to connect dots and lay breadcrumbs making it all ultimately come together as a cohesive tapestry.

I’m jumping around a lot in this review, and it’s by design, an attempt to mimic something the novel does so well in its constantly touching but also distinct sections. The book — while not told exactly nonlinearly but rather with a forward progression that sometimes rewinds just a bit before moving forward again — indeed shapeshifts in certain craft choices. But the throughlines that provide its masterful stitching keep it from feeling like your typical alternating perspectives novel, even if that’s technically what it is. Memory Piece understands the power of the collective, as well as the power of an archive, which becomes one of its central tenets. On the micro level, Giselle attempts to create a self-archive with the titular Memory Piece. Lene is also built on the concept of archiving one’s life. But remembering and preserving truth and historical record becomes even more urgent and more macro later in the novel, when the powers at be keep trying to destroy the past to preserve the status quo. Memory Piece underscores that all memories, all of it that came before, matters. Not just the events reported on in the news but the interpersonal moments, too. Ancestors, past lovers, past homes, all of it matters. An archive becomes Jackie and Giselle’s greatest work, and through Sola, Ellen has also built something that’ll survive her, that’ll survive even if the building itself technically falls.

Memory Piece by Lisa Ko is out now.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 847 articles for us.

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