Review: ‘Disorientation,’ by Elaine Hsieh Chou, and ‘Activities of Daily Living,’ by Lisa Hsiao Chen

The Artist is the retired (and real-life) Tehching Hsieh, best known for his high-endurance “One Year Performances” in the 1970s. After arriving undocumented in New York from Taiwan in 1974, when he was 24, and spending years working menial jobs, Hsieh entered the art scene by locking himself in a wooden cage inside his Hudson Street apartment for a full year. In subsequent performances, he spent a year punching a clock every hour on the hour, another living outdoors without entering a single building, another tied to the (also real) performance artist Linda Montano by an eight-foot rope. His final piece was announced as a 13-year epic. At its conclusion, he called a press conference and released a four-word statement: “I kept myself alive.”

Alice dives into Hsieh’s world, studying his life and work and even finding his apartment, visiting the restaurant he now owns in Brooklyn, turning around when she finds him inside, unprepared for an actual encounter. She collects scraps and ruminations from other writers and artists, curating a sort of album of esoterica on time, on art, on the nature of projects. Susan Sontag and Édouard Levé make appearances, as do Albert Camus and Buster Keaton, Pico Iyer and Graham Greene, Kazuo Ishiguro and the accidental folk artists of the Golden Venture, a cargo ship that ran aground in Rockaway Beach, smuggling migrants from China who created over 10,000 paper sculptures to kill time, and eventually cover legal costs, while detained in prison. “She was swimming in material — text, images, video, interviews, notes, so many notes — but the form of the thing, how the project would come together, how it would take, eluded her.”

What gives form to her project — and, by extension, this novel — is the physical and mental decline of Alice’s stepfather, whom she refers to as “the Father.” Alice spends most of the book either roaming through New York to understand the artist or flying to the Bay Area to visit the Father as he loses his independence, slips into dementia, and trudges toward death across a series of assisted living facilities. She shares her daughterly duties with her older sister, Amy, a single mother with a full-time job who “didn’t have what Alice had, what Alice always had when confronted with an ordeal: the possibility that the experience would prove useful for a project.”

Chen writes with cool, elegant precision, and the book is compelling despite its diffused structure, and its withholding of the usual pleasures of fiction, like plot and character development. As the Father’s condition worsens, Alice grapples with the direction of her project, how to give it bones and define its contours. This is also the central challenge for Chen, who set out to write an unconventional, rambling novel of ideas and make it hang together with minimal narrative tension. Like Hsieh’s performance art, “Activities of Daily Living” revels in the mundane and repetitive, the simple, inexorable passage of time. It is by no means a page-turner, but it’s an utterly persuasive transmutation of the ordinary stuff of life.

Steph Cha is the author of “Your House Will Pay” and the Juniper Song mysteries. She is the series editor of Best American Mystery & Suspense.

By Elaine Hsieh Chou
403 pp. Penguin Press. $28.

By Lisa Hsiao Chen
340 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

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