Some 120 or so pages into Yoko Ogawa’s new novel The Memory Police I had a flashback to reading 1984 in high school. But that was it; it was just the act of reading I remembered, not the specifics in the book other than the notion of Big Brother. After teasing the wheels of the recollection a bit more, the names Winston and Julia resurfaced, followed by Room 101, and thereafter the memory blockade lifted: never-ending war, Newspeak, Oceania. And even then, those were just words; there was no heat to the thoughts. It seemed odd that a book supposedly as powerful as 1984 could elicit such a feeble spark in my head, but another part of me understood why: for all the dread a dystopian novel like 1984 creates as you’re reading it, the feeling that remains after you’re done is relief. You’re so glad it is over and you’re back to the sunnier present-day malaise that you have already begun the process of forgetting the book.
There is a certain power in that, but it’s not the same power you feel after reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Leaving Las Vegas, books that disturb you as you read and which stay with you long after you lay them down. To use another illustration, it is not so different than watching a Marvel movie. The two-hour ride is great, but as you stand to leave the theater you’re already wondering if you’ve got a parking ticket waiting, where to go for dinner, and what—what—to do with your teenage daughter caught posting a profile on Tinder.
This lack of depth, lack of connection to our everyday feelings, is often crippling to dystopian novels. But the genre remains popular, and since the 2016 election if there hasn’t been an actual uptick in the numbers being produced, it seems that way. At stake, then, is not whether dystopian novels will continue to be published but what the appeal is in the first place.
Earlier this month Margaret Atwood’s Testaments, the sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, was released to much fanfare. (Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books, for example, had a midnight publication party.) The next chapter of Gilead’s history would have been much anticipated no matter what, but the success of the TV adaptation only served to increase the suspense. How would the new novel compare to the old? Would it incorporate the new canon of the TV series? What would happen to Aunt Lydia? And what of Offred’s children? Would Gilead fall, and if so, how? Would the new novel win the Booker Prize, for which it was short-listed even before it was released?
As with 1984, it has been so long since I originally read The Handmaid’s Tale (I have not watched the TV series) that the only thing I remember is that: reading the book. And as with 1984, the things I remember exist in my head as the most banal of abstractions. The red cloak, the white bonnet. A sense of outrage at the treatment of women in Gilead. But how else was I expected to feel? This was a dystopia, not a summery tale of love in Lake Como.
In a way that lack of mystery, or knowing what to expect, is appealing. We are unlikely to be jarred by the death of an innocent child, for example, because the dystopian novel is nothing if not the loss of innocents—children, adults, animals, worlds. There is suspense within the story, and of course there is a twist or two, but in general there are few surprises in the trajectory. We feel the comfort that comes with familiarity, like lying under a cherished throw blanket; our unsettling at the thought of Room 101 or unbabies arrives as anticipated and thus tempered. We are safe within this hell.
The particular hellscapes of Oceania and Gilead are both more and less terrifying because of their relation to the real world. More terrifying because they are just similar enough to our world—they contain people, cars, trees, money—and less terrifying because they are so significantly different—they contain Room 101, Thought Police, Unwomen, Jezebels. As much as we can or want to see real-life parallels to the Thought Police and Unwomen, they are fictional devices and subservient to their creator’s visions.
Wherever else they may differ—past or future or present day—what many dystopias have in common is the relationship to the eras in which they were written. Eventually published in 1949, 1984 was composed in the aftermath of World War II—Orwell also lived thru World War I—so his grim vision of a future that featured never-ending war and totalitarian governments can readily be explained.
Less explicable, however, is The Handmaid’s Tale. The decade of the 8o’s was a time of great fear and anxiety, but much of that stemmed from issues unrelated to what Atwood wrote about. The great fear was not the loss of individual freedoms or women’s control of their bodies but the near-total loss of life itself. What was terrifying was not so much a book like The Handmaid’s Tale but a TV movie like The Day After, which gave us a world after a nuclear war. It made Oceania and Gilead seem more bearable. Though the threat of Roe v. Wade being overturned, among other losses of autonomy for women, no doubt existed in 1985, it stayed in the shadows. And who could begin to make progress on gender rights when the annihilation of the species was so omnipresent? You want equity? A nuclear holocaust is your answer. Nuclear bombs don’t discriminate.
Atwood started writing the book from West Berlin, in, fittingly, 1984. She always felt drawn to dystopian novels, but there was more to it than that.
Three things that had long been of interest to me came together during the writing of the book. The first was my interest in dystopian literature, an interest that began with the adolescent reading of Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and continued through my period of graduate work at Harvard in the early 1960s. Once you’ve been intrigued by a literary form, you always have a secret yen to write an example of it yourself. The second was my study of 17th- and 18th-century America, again at Harvard, which was of particular interest to me since many of my own ancestors had lived in those times and in that place. The third was my fascination with dictatorships and how they function, not unusual in a person who’d been born in 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II.
That third point is compelling. In his first novel V, Thomas Pynchon writes that “we suffer from great temporal homesickness for the decade we were born in.” Atwood seems to suffer from the same malady, suggesting that time, not place, matters more in the creative process. Curiously, Atwood is talking about a time she lived thru but was too young to remember it, a time she has since learned about. A fascination with the period you were born in seems natural enough, but I disagree with Atwood’s assessment that it is “not unusual.” Artists might focus on modern times, or set their work in far-off eras, past or present, but not often in the times in which they were born, no matter the extremity of their temporal homesickness.
In addition to wars and dictators, today’s dystopias involve climate change, pandemics, human rights abuses, mass immigration, natural disasters, rogue asteroids—the whole twisted mess. (Cormac McCarthy dispenses with specifics altogether; the events in The Road occur after an unknown “extinction event.”) Then there is The Memory Police. Contrary to Orwell and Atwood’s visions, in Ogawa’s dystopia it seems neither time nor place matter. Rather than locating her new book in a known city, Ogawa sets the story on an unnamed island in an unknown country, where the inhabitants for the last 15 years have had to endure objects that “were disappeared.” Birds, roses, boats, hats. And, later, more personal things.
We don’t know the rationale for their behavior or how they took power, but the Memory Police rule the island, deciding, we assume, what to disappear and when. As with Orwell’s Thought Police, the Memory Police do not have a massive presence on the streets, at least initially. When we first see them we find they wear standard dystopian fare: dark green uniforms, black boots, heavy belts, black leather gloves. Though there is no pattern to the disappearances, the reactions of the people are largely the same.
The disappearance of the birds, as with so many things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance…I got up, put on a sweater, and went out into the garden. The neighbors were all outside, too, peering around anxiously. The dog in the next yard was growling.
How do wild things like birds just disappear? They don’t. The memory of them does. People who owned pet birds—canaries, for instance—took them outside, said their (some quite touching) goodbyes, and opened up their cages and away they went.
When they were gone, a calm fell as though the air itself were breathing with infinite care. The owners turned for home, empty cages in hand. And that was how the birds disappeared.
We are never told precisely how the people forget, how they know what to disappear. Nor is it clear why the people remember the word for the disappeared object but nothing else. When it was time for roses to disappear, they did so in a three-day journey from a river to the ocean. Who precisely removed all the roses from the island and tossed them in the river is never explained to us, and it was at that point I fully realised we were in the netherworld of a dystopian sci-fi parable, where things don’t have to make sense.
A rose garden without roses was a meaningless, desolate place, and it was terrible sad to see the trellises and other signs of all the car that had been lavished on the flowers…In years past, I had carefully studies the stems, leaves, and branches and had read the tags that identified different varieties, but I realized now that I was already unable to remember what this thing called a rose had looked like.
When our narrator, a female novelist, asks an old man, one of the three main characters and a long-time friend of her family, about what will happen to the rose garden, he answers calmly.
Maybe some other flower will bloom there, or they’ll plant fruit trees, or turn it into a graveyard. No one knows and no one needs to know. Time is a great healer. It just flows all of its own accord.
Later the old man describes how it felt when boats disappeared, including the ferry he commanded, which took its riders “across to the other side to go shopping or see a movie.” But across to where? To see what kind of movie? Do what kind of shopping? The ferry captain wasn’t too concerned.
“Now don’t you worry,” he said. “I’ve lived here three times longer than you have, which means I’ve lost three times as many things. But I’ve never really been particularly frightened or particularly missed any of them when they were gone…I’ve got nothing to complain about.”
And this is more or less how all the disappearances are described. There is an initial feeling of melancholy (sadness seems too strong), followed by an almost relieved acceptance which for the old man borders on contentment. Nobody gnashes their teeth or shouts at the wind; they just go about their everyday lives. It is no wonder the people forget items so easily, given their thin attraction to them. It is possible, of course, this is the entire point of the exercise: the people on the island have been so numbed by all the disappearances they have no emotion left—for things or people. Even the narrator’s grief at having her mother taken is muted.
Because the Memory Police take people, too. But not just randomly. It turns out there are those who do not forget, like our narrator’s mother, who can remember every detail of every disappeared thing, and some of these people even possess the disappeared items. Those lucky enough to remember often go into hiding, aided by others who remember and those who don’t. The narrator’s editor, who we know only as R, is one such person. R, it transpires, is married, and his wife is pregnant. His wife eventually gives birth to a boy while R is in hiding, and because photographs have disappeared, he has only a drawing of his new son. As with the disappearances in general, R’s story is told with a remarkable sparseness of emotion. By the time the old man is finally taken I have reached the tipping point. The story, interesting on its face, had grown weary. All that remained was for the narrator to disappear, and maybe R, too. I didn’t particularly care who remained and who didn’t.
And therein lies the major problem I had with The Memory Police, and with dystopian literature in general: the difficulty in connecting with the characters. For The Memory Police, it’s possible some of that emotion is lost in the translation. Or perhaps it’s something endemic to some Japanese writers. I have experienced similar feelings reading Haruki Murakami’s novels, for example. They are magnificent stories, but there is an element of distance always present.
In Ogawa’s case, much of that difficulty is from the flaw at the novel’s core, or at the characters’ cores. Simply put, they don’t seem to care one way or another what happens to them. If, as the old man says, “Time is a great healer,” then why bother to worry? It will get better in the end. And if they can’t be bothered to care about their fates, it’s hard for readers to bother themselves.
As with many dystopias, resistance is either futile, non-existent, or both. R and the others who are able to remember disappeared things are not actively resisting; they were simply born the way they are. It does not seem possible to be able to force yourself to remember. There are some attempts made to escape, but we never hear of the outcomes, or if where they are escaping to is the same as the island. None of that information is necessary, but its absence, rather than feeling natural, distracts from the story. In fact the novel feels forced, a limitation of a parable. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, and there is nothing wrong with using a parable in a novel, but what Ogawa has done in The Memory Police is to create more distance.
Atwood’s approach in The Handmaid’s Tale is different.
I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behavior.
Again, there is no rule that says a writer must employ realism in a non-realistic setting. But if the dystopian novels in the current epidemic are not necessarily predicting the future—Orwell wasn’t, and neither was Atwood—it seems clear they are trying to tell us something about that future. As Atwood says, “Stories about the future always have a what if premise.” That “what if” doesn’t have to be believable—hence the notion of a parable, like a man inside a whale—but it can help.
Only how much can it help, and why? Ogawa’s parable of things and people “disappearing” and a police forced tasked to enforce such things is only slightly less believable than Karen Walker Thompson’s The Age of Miracles, when humanity is doomed by the earth’s rotation gradually taking longer and longer to complete. It is much less believable than Emily St. John Mantel’s post-pandemic Station 11 or McCarthy’s The Road.
“Believable” or not, the dominant feeling for me after reading those latter three books was, again, relief. What, to return to the beginning, is the appeal of such books, books that can only be described as downers while you’re reading them, no matter how well they are written? Do we read dystopian literature to escape our dismal reality into an even more dismal non-reality, thus making our own world seem better? If we are reading to escape, why head toward Gilead? Why not toward poetry or a Harlequin Romance or a Danielle Steele novel or The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter? If we read to enrich our souls, to enlarge our world, why dive into the worst possible outcome? Or do we use the idea of a dystopia as a didactic tool? See what this author wrote? We have to be careful or it could happen to us, warn these books. They are “cautionary tales.”
It’s that last point that is worrisome. There is an inherent danger in putting too much stock in a world like Atwood’s Gilead. For one thing, it promotes fear in a world that needs less fear, not more. When Atwood says, “Instead of going away from Gilead as we thought had been happening, possibly in the ‘90s, we started going back towards Gilead in a number of places in the world, including the United States,” she is stoking that fear. If a novel isn’t always the best mechanism for calling attention to pressing issues, a dystopian one is even less effective. The feelings they tend to elicit do not call us to action; they call us to find yet another avenue of escape.
As in any era, our world faces real problems and dangers. We do not need to dwell on Atwood’s Gilead to remind us. It is not clear what “places in the world” she is referencing, but many countries other than most western democracies were similar to Gilead long before the fictional one. If the arc of history is not just a saying to comfort us, if its trajectory really is toward justice, then the close-but-not-really-close-to-real Gileads that do exist will vanish, the slim possibility that western democracies become Gileads will go unrealised, and the fictional Gilead will look as outdated as Orwell’s Oceania. The long road is difficult to see, and it is not much help to point out the many positive changes and vast differences between the world today as opposed to the one only 50 years ago, and that those changes, while they may feel threatened in the short term, will continue.
The word “utopia” translates to “no place,” and though its opposite is “dystopia,” a double-negative is at work. Neither place can exist. We continue as ever on a road between these two no places, and there is no exit ramp for either.