Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
Chosen one of the Best Books of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly, Vogue, and The New Yorker, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice, Activities of Daily Living is a debut novel that feels as if it’s written by a self-confident and experienced craftsman. The work is formally innovative, conceptually demanding, original, and stylistically distinctive, all without grating on your nerves and shouting “look at me!”
Chen is not the kind of writer who grabs you by the collar and takes you on an action-packed adventure. She is not in a hurry and intensity is not her thing. The writing conveys a feeling of relaxation and the abundance of time. She cherishes the passing moment. You never know when you’re going to stumble on a jewel of close description capturing something you’d experienced but never had words for. As in these sentences:
She pushed through the glass doors that opened directly onto the street. The warmth of the afternoon sun touched her skin as she paused, taking in the honk and rumble of passing cars and the bright clang of the indeterminate present.
Isn’t that what it’s like sometimes when, in the city, you first step outside on a nice day? The sunlight and the sound and sight of traffic create a sudden blur, disorienting you for a moment, creating “the bright clang of the indeterminate present.”
Alice, the narrator, who makes a living editing videos, has two main foci in her life: caring for her aging father, who lives in San Francisco (she refers to him as “the Father”), and what she calls her “project”—tracking the career of a performance artist named Tehching Hsieh who lives in Brooklyn, as does Alice. This project is made difficult, if not impossible, by the fact that Tehching Hsieh’s works are not available to be seen by the public. (It turns out that Tehching Hsieh, to whom she refers as “the Artist,” is not a fictional character but a real person. I looked him up online.)
His first piece consisted of living for an entire year inside a cage he built in his apartment. A friend brought him food and took away waste. For his second project he lived out of doors for a year, nothing between his head and the sky for 365 days.
Gradually, Alice realizes that the mundane, toilsome, efforts involved in caring for her father—making sure that he’s healthy and safe: kept toileted, clean, fed, and reasonably occupied, by arranging for part-time help at first, then moving him to a series of increasingly rigid institutions—is not so different from what Hsieh does in his pieces, which is simply to take care of himself day after day. Alice, her father, and Hsieh all do what has to be done by dealing with the conditions they find themselves in. The difference is that Hsieh has chosen his living conditions to make a point while Alice and her father have not. Life has chosen for them. The hardships and opportunities both sets of conditions afford can be embraced or resented, but, no matter what, must be endured. Hsieh foregrounds this necessity in the few pronouncements he makes about his art/life projects, declaring that “life is a life sentence” and consists simply in the passing of time.
In his last piece, the Artist renounces making art in favor of emphasizing what he considers the real ground of everything, time itself, which means the activity of staying alive from one day to the next. Put off by this apparently simplistic and barren formula, the Artist’s audience disappears—no art, no audience—and so does Alice’s project. There is nothing to focus on. At around the same time, her father dies.
By constantly juxtaposing the two activities that mean something to Alice—caring for her father and following Hsieh’s career—Chen, the novelist, forces us to realize that they are in some way the same. If, in the end, both art and life consist of staying alive from one day to the next, by this logic, her editing job, which, apparently, has served her only as a means of support, is no different. Nor is Hsieh’s casually referred to means of support—he manages a restaurant in Brooklyn on the side. What does this mean?
The final chapters of the book attempt both directly and obliquely to explore this question. In at least two instances they depict people who spend their final years as Alice’s father wished to spend his: alone, smoking, drinking, and watching TV. What you might call the down-to-earth approach to grappling with the Father’s life. By contrast, a chapter devoted to a conference at the Venice Biennale on Hsieh’s work contains brilliant analyses of it in relation to the writing of master theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Victor Shklovsky, and Erving Goffman. In opposing ways these chapters drive the philosophical stakes of the novel through the roof. High theory that examines perception, existence, and social structures is just as much on the table as real-life observation. Nothing can be excluded.
If you take the book seriously, as I did, and get caught up in the issues it raises—what is art, anyway? is it the same as life? And if so, what difference does that make, and what, in any case, is the value, or the meaning, of life?—you’ll come up with answers and questions of your own. And by the way, where on the art/life/passing-the-time spectrum does novel-reading fall? Whatever the case, Chen’s novel is definitely worth your attention.~