Adapted from Activities of Daily Living: A Novel by Lisa Hsiao Chen. Copyright © 2022 by Lisa Hsiao Chen. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Mattress, decanter, bucket
For her project about the Artist—at least that’s what she was calling it for now, a project—Alice read all that she could find about his yearlong performance works before he renounced making art altogether. There was the year he locked himself in a cage. The year he punched a time clock every hour on the hour. The year he spent tied to another artist.
When MoMA remounted Cage Piece in 2009, the Artist was not present. The raw material of his work was time, and time couldn’t be displayed on the white walls of a gallery. But the simple wooden cage he’d built in his loft more than twenty years earlier was there, as was, according to the wall label, his twin bed, the decanter he drank from, the bucket he defecated in.
These objects were not the art itself, the Artist has said, but its trace evidence.
How often has Alice read a wall label accompanying a work of art only to be further confounded. Knowing which materials an artist used is like reading a sign pointed at a complicated person that says brain.
Cigarettes, ashtray, circulars
By the time Alice dropped in on the Father’s house to retrieve a few of his things, he’d already been transferred from Alta Bates to a skilled nursing facility in Oakland after taking a fall in his house.
When she walked through the door, she was hit with the familiar smell of stale cigarette smoke. Walking through the empty rooms was like drifting through a sunken galleon on the seafloor; the Father’s absence was its own atmosphere. Alice went through the refrigerator and threw out milk and a packet of bologna. She left intact his lighter and the unfiltered cigarettes he’d lined up in two neat rows like torpedoes in the belly of a bomber by his TV chair. The mail, mostly supermarket circulars and mail-order catalogues, was trickier. Ever since he retired a few years ago, the Father had been getting more particular. Little things frustrated him: the misplacement of a single piece of paper or forgetting a word, could send him off into a rage.
In the end, she decided to leave the mail alone though she knew, even then, that chances were slim he’d be coming home to pick up where he’d left his life. Her wishful thinking took the form of devotional items left at an altar.
Walker, napkins, shoes
For nearly a month the Father underwent occupational and physical therapy, grumbling as he circled the corridors of the rehab facility with a walker and his non-skid socks. He had to relearn how to handle utensils and put on his own shoes. Meanwhile, preparing for the worst, Alice and her sister Amy toured assisted living facilities and residential care homes, sprawling ranch-style houses where a handful of old people were tended to by women from the Philippines, Russia or Ukraine.
Then the verdict came down: the Father had “plateaued,” meaning he wouldn’t improve with more therapy and insurance would no longer pay. The transmitters between his brain and body were scrambled; his hands and feet wouldn’t do what he wanted them to do. Language, too, was breaking apart. He couldn’t live alone anymore.
Alice and Amy moved the Father into a residential care home not far from where Amy lived. It was worn but clean, run by a Filipino couple. Alice took charge of clearing out the Father’s belongings so the house could be staged for sale. While she sorted through what could be sold, gifted, or tossed, she scanned for things she thought she might want to keep for herself. Souvenir wasn’t the right word, but it was the word that kept coming to mind. She wanted something to hold on to, to carry away the memory of the Father in her pocket, even though he hadn’t yet died.
Head, arms, torso
A souvenir wasn’t always an object. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, a souvenir referred more to a memory, an abstract remembrance. But then David Tyrie changed all that. He was the last person in France to be hanged and drawn and quartered for high treason. After Tyrie was hung, decapitated, his heart removed and set on fire, he was placed in a coffin for burial. But then he was dug up by a group of sailors and sliced into hundreds of pieces so they could be smuggled away as proof of his sensational punishment and their proximity to it. Voilà: the souvenir. Only when a souvenir is removed from its place of origin does it accumulate its talismanic power. The thrill of ownership is inseparable from the scandal of its removal.
Cookbooks, cameras, records
The Father was a collector. He had amassed an extraordinary number of cameras, lenses, enlargers, timers, and other photography equipment. He also collected blues records, secondhand cookbooks, and guns.
The Father was also a melancholic. It is the tendency of the melancholic to be faithless to people, as Susan Sontag wrote of Walter Benjamin, that famous melancholic of history. This faithlessness in humanity correlates to the melancholic’s generalized, despondent surrender to catastrophe. What the melancholic is faithful to are things: that’s what makes him such an enthusiastic collector (Benjamin was a collector of books, toys, postcards, and other graphic ephemera). Melancholics, Sontag argues, make the best addicts, “for the true addictive experience is always a solitary one.”
Alice was neither a collector nor an addict, yet, as someone who chronically abandoned projects—experimental film shorts, an apocryphal ghost tour of Manhattan Chinatown, etc.—she felt she could claim affinity to those born under the sign of Saturn.
Benjamin, the patron saint of unfinished projects, described Saturn was “the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays.” For thirteen years he toiled over his masterwork, The Arcades Project, which he envisioned as a “primal history” of modernity as seen through the prism of the glass-roofed shopping emporiums of mid-century Paris. His draft manuscript, a panoramic maze of quotations from hundreds of sources ranging from philosophical texts to advertising copy, was left incomplete at the time of his death. He’d crossed the Pyrenees on foot fleeing the Nazis, only to be blocked at the Spanish border because his papers weren’t in order. He killed himself with an overdose of morphine. The Arcades Project was constructed from the more than thirty notebooks he’d left in the care of Georges Bataille, who hid them in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale where Benjamin had done much of his research.
Benjamin could have fled Paris earlier, but he couldn’t bear to. In the autumn before France surrendered, Benjamin was imprisoned for several months in a concentration camp outside Paris before his friends managed to broker his release. Rather than leave the city ahead of the German invasion, Benjamin chose to renew his library card so he could be near his books and resume working on his projects.
Umbrella stand, watering can, teapot
Alice arranged to have a family friend take the first piece of Chinese furniture the Father ever made: a long and narrow rosewood table that wobbled slightly. She held a garage sale, made trips to the thrift store, and hired a junk company to haul away the rest.
When she told her friend Nobu about all this stuff, he nodded.
A few years ago, Nobu said, he had helped with a similar purge when his mother’s sister moved from the family’s ancestral home outside Yokohama. This aunt, who never married, had taken care of Nobu’s grandparents until they died. Now that she was older, the house had become too much for her to manage alone. Even so, the aunt hadn’t wanted to leave, aggrieved over the dispossession of her things, which had to be significantly winnowed down to fit inside a small apartment in the city.
During the week of the move, Nobu would find his aunt sitting cross-legged in the middle of a room with an old watering can in her lap. “Every object has history, every object is a memory,” Nobu said. “I think the house became like a shrine and she was its only worshipper.”
Eventually he managed to persuade his aunt that photographs of all her things would suffice as keepsakes. Their materiality, he explained, was not essential.
“Yes, you are so right,” she agreed, looking down at her hands with a smile. “I am just being a sentimental old fool.” Together they worked on the archive project: the aunt arranged each item—a cracked, beloved teapot, an umbrella stand made of bamboo, the low tea table where Nobu’s grandfather used to enjoy his sweets while watching variety shows—and Nobu snapped their pictures and pasted them into an album.
“Do you know if it helped?” Alice asked. “Did she ever look at the album?”
“I’m not sure,” Nobu said. “She died about a year after the house was sold. The pictures were either a perfect idea or a very bad one.”
Coffee, muffin, eggs
Alice went to visit the Father on a late spring morning. He sat in his recliner, his legs sticking out, pale and thin, from his shorts. They talked about what he’d had for breakfast (coffee, a blueberry muffin, and eggs) and what was going on in the house (“not much”).
“Do you ever miss your old house?” she asked. The Father shrugged. “Not really. I like here better,” he said. “The sidewalks are paved a hell of a lot better.”
That made her smile. Her father always took note when things were made of quality materials and thoughtfully crafted. IKEA furniture made from particle board dismayed him. He could tell in an instant from looking a thing over how well it came together and how long it would last.
They sat for a while in companionable silence. Alice offered to scratch his back. He groaned with bearish pleasure. Then the visit ended the way they often did now, when his focus shifted from her to the world inside the television. This eroding interest in the lives of others was another facet of his dementia.
Later Alice thought he didn’t miss his house because he’d come to grow afraid of it—the staircase along the back of the house, his shower, the appliances he couldn’t work with his unsteady hands. Here was better. Here was safer. Even so, his answer made her feel strangely betrayed. She was the one who missed him in his old house, puttering around his furniture and accumulation of objects, evidence of his taste, his whims, his dreams of future projects.
Lighter, lamp, photograph
When she’d cleaned out the Father’s house, Alice found in a dresser drawer, mingled with loose change and expired insurance cards, his old cigarette lighter. It was one of those personally engraved Zippos popular among American soldiers during the war, now sold in Vietnam as knockoff souvenirs for tourists. The engraving was simple—no winged skulls, no Death is my business and business has been good or When I die bury me facedown so the world can kiss my ass. Just his name, “Phu Bai,” where he was deployed, and his years of service. The lighter had probably been broken for decades. She took it, along with a table lamp in the shape of a pagoda and a battered Modern Library edition of Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, which had been on the Father’s shelves for as long as she could remember. She was the keeper of the Father’s things. But what would become of these things when she died? The trick, she thought was to go Zen and lose all sense of attachment, accept that none of this matter mattered.
On her refrigerator at home, she kept a photograph of the Father’s rosewood table pinned under a magnet.
This was the trace evidence.
What was the crime?
Lisa Hsiao Chen is the author of Activities of Daily Living and Mouth, which won a writing award from the Association of Asian American Studies. She has received a Writers’ Award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, a Center for Fiction fellowship, and was a resident at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Program.
Click here to read a conversation between Lisa Hsiao Chan and Public Seminar intern Shweta Nandakumar.