The Memory Police
by Yoko Ogawa
image of The Memory Police Book book by Yoko Ogawa
Rare: a dystopian novel with a vague metaphor about existentialism rather than another thinly-veiled take on climate change. Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is a story about the loss of self. An unnamed narrator lives on an island where things keep disappearing. These disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police, who throw the objects into the island’s river to disappear forever and track down the people who refuse to forget them.

The narrator is a writer and this novel is folded into her current manuscript. As things on the island continue to disappear, the main character in her novel loses her voice and is locked up in an attic with piles of discarded things. The stories are crocheted together: one loses her voice but withers away with unwanted things, one loses her things but continues to develop her voice through writing.

Above all these layers of disappearance is the question, who has the power to force me to surrender myself? As the world is compromised outside of my control, who do I give permission to compromise who I am?

As the narrator works with her editor, R, to shape her novel, she discovers that he’s at risk: he cannot forget the things that have disappeared. She thus decides it is her duty to hide him under a trap door in her house, away from the possibility of being snatched away by the Memory Police. She gives him little choice in the matter, preparing the room and system in which he would live in secret before even asking him if it’s okay with him. Once the offeris presented, he immediately leaves behind his wife and newborn child to live in the basement of his coworker’s house.

This host/refugee relationship would have had more impact if it wasn’t predicated on a dry professional relationship. Zooming out, the entire book lacked any kind of wit or ability for the characters to think past the surface level of circumstance. There was no intimacy in the dialogue, no relational development, only nameless characters following a dull path of accepting the colorless fate they’d been handed. R exercised no critical thinking about accepting the narrator’s offer to hide him. There was no conversation he had with his wife, no acknowledged sense of personal loss. He simply said a flat yes and we continued on. The decision was unbelievable on an emotional level, which made the story that followed difficult to read at a higher level than simply trying to get through it.

In the end, the narrator disappears entirely, each body part vanishing from her memory as her existence succumbs to the powers that be instead of rising above them — the end of self, inevitable. All conflict that led her there was diffused in such an insignificant way that it might as well have never been conflict at all. As her and R’s entire world grows pale around them, even including brief mentions of the two falling in love with no evidence to support anything of the sort, the story loses its spirit.

What The Memory Police gets right, though, is asking who has the right to make me surrender myself and the things that make my life worthwhile. It's an important question to ask. But there’s no attempt to answer it — only a lot of running in open circles and refusing to think anything but small. What I thought would yield a vicarious hunger for a better world, I was only left with apathy, constructed over chapters by nameless characters, a lack of humanness, and a disappearing world.