Brow Beat

The Dystopian Novel for the Social Distancing Era

What to read as things keep disappearing.

A branch with cherry blossoms blooming.
Cherry blossoms in Tokyo on Thursday. Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty Images

Something new had disappeared.

I had that feeling on Tuesday while reading a description of the new “shelter in place” rules that have already gone into effect in San Francisco and are being considered for other cities around the country. My first thought was, Oh, that’s not so bad. You still are allowed to leave your house for exercise and to buy essentials. But wait. The ability to walk down the street without having to justify my presence or state my business to an officer of the law is a significant thing to give up. (The San Francisco police assure the public they will take a “compassionate, commonsense approach” to enforcement.)

If you had told me just 10 days earlier—when despite growing concern about the virus I had thought nothing of taking Amtrak to attend a friend’s wedding—that this many things and people would disappear from my daily life in less than two weeks, it would have been hard to believe. The feeling of disappearance feels somewhat familiar, thanks to a book I read shortly before this crisis that I now can’t stop thinking about: the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police.

First published in Japan in 1994 but only released in English translation (by Stephen Snyder) last year, the book takes place on an unnamed and seemingly completely isolated island where, one by one, things disappear from daily life. Ribbons, bells, emeralds, stamps, and perfume are some of the earliest. Some things are easy to do without. Some—birds, flowers—are more painful. Others—calendars for instance—make life a lot more difficult. A boat mechanic has to find a new career when boats disappear. The narrator, a novelist, has to do the same when novels disappear. The story takes its darkest turn when body parts start to disappear. It’s not clear why these objects disappear or how people know when they do. But they are willing participants in the process:

The island is stirred up after a disappearance. People gather in little groups out in the street to talk about their memories of the thing that’s been lost. There are regrets and a certain sadness, and we try to comfort one another. If it’s a physical object that has been disappeared, we gather the remnants up to burn, or bury, or toss into the river. But no one makes much of a fuss, and it’s over in a few days. Soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can been recall what it was that disappeared.

Days after, say, music boxes disappear, no one can recall what they are, and are disturbed and confused if they come across one that the authorities have overlooked. These authorities, the memory police of the title, are tasked with enforcing disappearances and with hunting down and eliminating the rare individuals who don’t forget things when they are supposed to. These unfortunates are forced to live in hiding in the attics and basements of the sympathetic forgetful.

As all dystopian novels must be, The Memory Police is described as “Orwellian” in its marketing materials, but Ogawa’s spare elliptical style has more in common with Kafka, or with her fellow Japanese master of minimalist disquiet, Kobo Abe. The novel’s plot also has some similarities to Lois Lowry’s YA classic The Giver. It’s a quiet dystopia of loss and confusion rather than repression, perhaps better suited for a world of misinformation and environmental degradation than the Big Brother nightmares of last century.

Perhaps on the front lines in Wuhan, or Milan, or even Seattle, the coronavirus outbreak feels as nightmarish as Contagion, or Station Eleven. Perhaps it will feel that way where I live, in D.C., soon. For now, the outbreak feels more like The Memory Police—things disappearing from our lives before we can even process them.

The losses start small and insignificant. At the local coffee shop, the first thing that disappeared was the table holding the lids and the self-serve milk. Then half the tables vanished. Then all the tables. Then the whole shop closed. Then you hear that the employees were laid off. One by one, vacations, dinner plans, birthday parties, and professional opportunities that had been lined up for the next few weeks disappeared. First you lost handshakes with acquaintances, then hugs with friends, then any personal contact at all. Workplaces, schools, public spaces, sports, conferences, political rallies, international travel, domestic travel—all disappeared one by one. Perhaps you, like me, thought last Saturday that it would be OK to have a couple of friends over to the house as long as you were reasonably cautious. Reputable experts quoted in reputable magazines were saying it was probably fine. By Sunday, that was off limits. Today, the idea is unthinkable. Yes, some benighted fools are resisting and resenting the new state of things, but most people I know are welcoming it, demanding that the authorities restrict and clamp down more, chastising those who don’t comply fast enough or with sufficient seriousness.

I support social distancing. I want to #flattenthecurve. I’ve read the terrifying accounts from Italy and Wuhan and I don’t value my afternoon coffee break or my dinner plans over anyone’s life. But I still worry about which of the things that disappeared this week are, like the objects in Ogawa’s novel, never going to reappear.

The Memory Police is a political novel as well, and I can’t stop thinking about that either. In the face of a terrifying threat, I see people who have spent the better part of the past three years fretting about the disappearance of democratic norms and civil liberties angrily demanding new restrictions on their lives. I understand why they’re doing it, but I hope they don’t undervalue, or even forget, the things that were so important just a few weeks ago.

On the day that roses disappear from the island, Ogawa’s narrator is walking past a “rose garden without roses.” “In years past,” the narrator tells us, “I had carefully studied the stems, leaves, and branches and had read the tags that identified the different varieties, but I realized now that I was already unable to remember what this thing called a rose had looked like.”

The cherry blossoms are in bloom here in D.C. right now. If you can do so at a safe and responsible social distance, take some time to appreciate them this weekend. On our island, they haven’t disappeared yet.

The Memory Police

By Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder. Pantheon.