A Review of Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen
Words By Kaitlin Lounsberry
Published April 12, 2022 by W.W. Norton & Company.
“I’m working on a project,” said Alice, the narrator of Lisa Hsiao Chen’s debut novel Activities of Daily Living. She quickly followed with, “The real answer is the project doesn’t exist. But calling it a project makes it a thing.” Throughout the novel, Alice slowly tinkers away at a vague, never-defined project highlighting NYC performance artist, Tehching Hsieh, all while caring for her steadily declining stepfather. Part family drama part art-practice exploration, the novel marries complex narrative arcs with tender musings and conceptualizations of what it means to create and exist.
If that seems like a lot to combine in a novel, you wouldn’t be wrong. This is not a book for someone after a casual read. Activities of Daily Living keeps its readers on their toes and constantly challenges their attention span. Timelines jump around, characters are introduced without context leaving readers to infer who’s who on their own, and yet, despite it all, the novel works.
Alice’s driving force is her project, yet the story really shines in the moments shared with her stepfather who is slipping more and more into dementia. The narrative plot that follows them (and occasionally her sister, Amy) is heartbreaking. It’s particularly heart-wrenching in the way it captures the realities of watching a loved one succumb to a disease they have no control over. What starts off as minor inconveniences quickly turns into Alice and her sister making significant decisions for the improvement of their stepfather’s health, regardless of the haunting awareness that he won’t get better despite it all.
It’s an experience that’s difficult to convey. Watching a loved one diminish is full of humor and frustration, but mostly moments of intense sadness. It’s witnessing someone become an entirely different person without their consent. While there isn’t a proper way to express that dynamic, Chen writes about the experience with clarity and pose. One of the more poignant moments of the novel occurs when Alice thoughtfully summarizes, “The demented person is also incorrect—they’re the same person but wrong—wrong because you know this isn’t the life they wanted: you end up being all wrong together.”
Equally as important to Alice and this novel is her exploration of Tehching Hsieh’s array of performance exhibitions. Her research into him is interesting but seems a bit removed from the time spent caring for her stepfather. It’s evident she cares deeply for this project—at one point going so far as to attend a conference Hsieh is speaking at in Venice. Alice seems to believe there’s a strong connection between herself and the artist, but despite the efforts on her part to research and live out moments of his performances, little work is done to develop the project. It poses the question of why include this journey at all.
Recognizing the purpose of Hsieh’s performance art is essential to understanding the why. Hsieh’s work largely deals with one-year performances—ranging from locking himself in a cell to refusing to come indoors—that focus on time and the many ways in which it can be interpreted. There are several moments in the novel when interviewers pester Hsieh for an explanation of his performances, to which he ponders about time much to the frustration of the interviewer and reader. There are moments in the novel where the connection between Hsieh, the project, and the declining health of Alice’s stepfather feels nonexistent or reaching. And while it seems best to reduce, remove, or even provide more “on the nose” connections between those elements, doing so might reduce the overall feeling this novel evokes. It’s strange and difficult to pinpoint the feeling that the mundane and boring moments of everyday life are the exact moments that mean the most—both to Hsieh and Alice. It requires conscious effort on the part of the reader to pick up on, but, if paying attention, it allows one to see how Hsieh’s approach to time and daily activities show up for Alice in the ways she cares for her stepfather.
As the novel continues to unravel so does Alice’s stepfather. We witness her stepfather transition from a man overbuying items at the store to a man unable to walk or tend to his own needs due to the implications of his worsening Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The novel tracks her stepfather as he bounces from hospital to recovery center to assisted living to memory care unit, each facility growing grimmer as her stepfather fades away. In these moments, we watch Alice facing the realities of who her stepfather has become, but also moments of her discovery with Hsieh. It’s an interesting attempt at a parallel to connect the different fractions of this novel. We jump from NYC to the West Coast almost as easily as one flips a page. One moment Alice leads readers through the rehab facility her stepfather lives, then Alice is walking miles out of her way to find a specific stretch of shoreline where a ship smuggling asylum seekers beached in the 90s. It’s a fluid approach to a narrative timeline that relies on philosophical, abstract storytelling instead of clear, concrete plot lines. Alice goes on a range of tangents, making references to famous artists that go on and on before she eventually circles back to whatever situation she’s facing at the time.
This novel is not an easy sell for readers. Activities of Daily Living explores the dichotomy of time and the ways in which the seemingly mundane are the moments that eventually hold the most value. While there are areas of this novel that don’t connect cleanly, the notion that one’s “daily activities” are the ones that hold the most value is beautiful. It’s a book that the more one reads the more one starts to ponder how they, themselves, might measure the power of daily living and the overall impact those moments have on their life—rather than the big, shiny moments we have come to believe define our existence.