One thing that I retained from my introductory psychology class was that memory, which I believed was somewhat permanent, is unreliable. Take cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus’s famous car experiment for example. In it, participants watched a car crash. The participants had to estimate the car’s speed. Loftus was able to manipulate the participants responses by framing her questions. By using adjectives that described a severe crash, Loftus found that participants were more likely to report the car traveling faster than it actually was. Just as I started to deconstruct everything I learned from “Law and Order,” we discussed false memories, and, in the ways that Loftus was able to retroactively influence the perception of certain events, James Coan demonstrated that people can claim to recall entire events from their childhood that were false. What happens if we can make memories disappear altogether?
Described as a “haunting Orwellian novel,” Yoko Ogawa’s “The Memory Police” imagines a dystopian island where memories of certain objects disappear. First, ribbons, bells, emeralds and stamps go. Then, perfume, photographs and even birds. After a day of commemoration, most of the island’s inhabitants are unaffected by these changes. They don’t even notice that these seemingly insignificant objects are gone. For example, when the narrator, a struggling novelist, experiences perfume after it disappeared, she cannot reconcile it to anything more than a “few drops of water.”
“Some girls held the bottles up to their noses one last time — but the ability to smell the perfume had already faded, along with all memory of what it had meant. The river reeked for two or three days afterward, and some fish died. But no one seemed to notice. You see, the very idea of ‘perfume’ had been disappeared from their heads.”
That precious memory, and everything that it entailed, is gone forever. The authoritative Memory Police ensures that no one ever recalls these objects again — even if they have to make people disappear, too.
After the young woman discovers that her editor, R, can still remember these objects even after they had disappeared, she goes to great lengths to hide him from the Memory Police. As more and more people that the narrator is close to begin to vanish, the thrill intensifies as the readers are left wondering if R will meet the same fate.
For a novel described as “Orwellian,” the “The Memory Police” was surprisingly slow. Each word was carefully plucked to convey the most meaning. It was like the “Memory Police” was embodying its own themes, worrying that it, too, may fade over time. Even paragraphs were powerful in a particular way, laden with nostalgia and sentimentality. Right before the narrator hides R, R tries to describe his memories of the objects that had already disappeared:
“Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”
Without question, the prose is lovely. I found myself pausing between chapters in order to absorb the provocative themes. And still, I never felt a compulsion to finish. Unlike George Orwell’s “1984,” I did not feel as threatened by the Memory Police as I did by Big Brother. From the beginning to the end, “The Memory Police” was quiet. It relied on a slow-burn climatic setup that did not pack a punch as masterfully as other dystopias manage to. I wanted my mind to be psychologically warped. I wanted to apply its heavy surveillance to real-world situations, condemning the NSA in my head. It’s easy to appreciate “The Memory Police” for its prose, less so for its plot.