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‘Read Receipts’ On: Two Dystopian Novels Predict the Surveillance State

It’s not always easy to disentangle the empath’s intuition from its dark, data-driven analogue. Near the end of “Overthrow,” an executive at “Planchette” — Crain’s riff on the shadowy analytics firm Palantir — envisions a future where “no gesture goes unnoticed,” and “tactful” surveillance fits like a glove. “No one will feel watched,” he goes on. “But everyone will feel … appreciated.” We all know how this story ends, and it certainly isn’t with the universal refinement of feelings. But Crain’s novel reminds us that real sympathetic awareness — engendered by trust, courage and human proximity — remains our best defense against its weaponized digital double. “It’s a war of the senses,” Leif explains. “Over what we’re allowed to perceive, still.”


It’s a war that’s been lost on the bereft island of Yoko Ogawa’s latest novel, “The Memory Police,” where hats, perfume, green beans, birdsong and countless other entities have been stricken from perceptible reality. Translated by Stephen Snyder, the acclaimed Japanese writer’s fifth English release is an elegantly spare dystopian fable narrated by a novelist who hides her editor under the floorboards of her home office. He’s wanted for his immunity to the periodic “disappearances,” an incremental collective dementia that is reducing the island to “nothing but absences and holes.” Objects don’t vanish, exactly; people wake up knowing they are “gone,” and destroy them. Those who can’t forget receive a visit from the Memory Police, who enforce the disappearances by carting off families and eliminating contraband while betraying no signs of their intent.

Reading “The Memory Police” is like sinking into a snowdrift: lulling yet suspenseful, it tingles with dread and incipient numbness. The story accrues in unhurried layers of coolly reported routine, as Ogawa’s narrator (the central characters are nameless) describes a life that is ordinary yet pockmarked with absence. She lives alone in her childhood home near the river, writing novels in her father’s old office or brooding in the basement studio where her mother, a sculptor, once entrusted her with forbidden keepsakes. “Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp,” she writes. “The objects in my palm seemed to cower there, absolutely still, like little animals in hibernation, sending me no signal at all.”

That her memories disappear “right on schedule” provides no defense against the island’s authorities. The Memory Police regularly ransack her home, but only once they target her editor does she begin to resist. She conceals him in a secret room below her office, assisted by an elderly friend who lives on the rust-eaten ferry he once captained. The three form a makeshift family, conspiring in small domestic rebellions — holding a birthday party, for instance, after calendars vanish — as the island’s dissolution accelerates.

Often drawing inspiration from “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Ogawa’s fiction is celebrated for its exploration of loneliness, claustrophobia and caretaking’s proximity to cruelty. Her collection “The Diving Pool” features a novella about a teenager who seals a panicking toddler inside an urn, while her novel “The Housekeeper and the Professor” traces the relationship between a domestic servant and a mathematician with an 80-minute memory. It’s a conceit that “The Memory Police” chillingly inverts, by making two amnesiacs the protectors of a man whose mind is unimpaired.

Rarely has the relationship between author and editor felt more fraught with consequence. Writing with her first reader literally underfoot, Ogawa’s narrator struggles to complete her manuscript — a novel-within-the-novel about a captive typist — even as her inner resources deteriorate. The editor fights to revive her memories, a psychic drama that unfolds in exchanges even more rending than the novel’s scenes of totalitarian violence. Lemon candies, perfume, a harmonica — each disappeared object is a potential spark with which to reignite her consciousness.

“The Memory Police” expounds no politics. Its eponymous jackboots don’t spout propaganda, or even bear clear responsibility for the island’s epidemic. There are book burnings and a special class of scapegoats, but the novel shares less with dystopian classics like “Fahrenheit 451” or “The Handmaid’s Tale” than it does with the novels of Samuel Beckett; or, in Japanese literature, Kobo Abe, whose landmark 1962 novel, “The Woman in the Dunes,” is also a story of surreally escalating diminishment. The effect isn’t solipsistic. Rather, Ogawa’s ruminant style captures the alienation of being alive as the world’s ecosystems, ice sheets, languages, animal species and possible futures vanish more quickly than any one mind can apprehend.

Who hasn’t awakened to the free-floating fear that our world has imperceptibly shrunk? One frosty morning, already unsettled, Ogawa’s narrator steps outside to find the river carpeted in petals. Roses have disappeared, and the island’s residents — seduced by this spectacular carnage — begin uprooting their gardens. Fatalism’s deadly pleasure is to accelerate what it cannot stop; though we never learn what motivates the Memory Police, the narrator seems to ventriloquize them (and the authoritarian nihilists of our own imperiled time) when she describes the aftermath of a disappearance. “The new cavities in my heart search for things to burn,” she says. “They drive me to burn things and I can stop only when everything is in ashes.”

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