The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue

In the Beginning, Sometimes I Left Messages in the Street

Some years ago I ran into Daisy at an opening for a group show on Orchard Street. The theme of the show was “Bad Optics” and I don’t remember much about the artwork except for a wall of small square canvases, each a painting of different yet eerily identical scenes of the backsides of cops as they swarmed someone unseen on the ground.

I remember thinking when I saw Daisy that she appeared to have lost a great deal of weight but I didn’t know her well enough to say anything about it, so I said nothing and asked instead what she was working on.

We were not close friends yet we’d known each other for years. We were both part of a loose confederacy of artists and writers who had churned through more than a decade’s worth of word-of-mouth apartment shares, artist residencies, restaurant work, proofreading gigs, art handling, the odd archival job. Over time, many of us moved away. A few died or went corporate, but the rest of us remained involved, at some level of success or struggle, with the making of projects. These projects were what we talked to each other about mostly, the way some people might talk about their children or the work they did for money, which was not unimportant but was not the same thing as projects. We were the ones you could reliably count on to fill the seats at your poetry reading that had three too many featured poets, or at your experimental staging of Nausea with puppets.

As we circled the gallery, Daisy explained that she’d been working most recently with paper, a medium she’d never given much thought to until she sliced her finger with the edge of a sheet of typing paper. The cut was so deep it actually drew blood.

That’s when I was reminded that paper has teeth, she said, a little rehearsed I thought, like something she might say if she were being interviewed by an art journal. She’d spent the past year building several miniature tent cities from paper. More recently, she’d been studying photographs of the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, magnifying the images so she could to examine how the temporary shelters were constructed. She was, of course, imagining making a paper facsimile of the camp—at scale, even though she knew the latter was probably impossible. But the politics of the project were troubling her. Did she have a right? She had no direct or personal tie to the crisis. She wasn’t Muslim. In fact she had no religious belief to speak of.

What about you, Kimi? she said. What are you working on?

I told her that, since the beginning of the year, I hadn’t been working on much of anything. My time, or rather, my mind, had been taken over by my father, whose intractability, I’d come to understand (it was just the two of us; I was an only child and my mother had long ago moved back to Japan) was dementia.

During the day when I wasn’t at work, and sometimes when I was at work, I spent hours researching the world of home health aides and skilled nursing facilities and how to pay for them. Evenings, after I’d eaten my takeout in front of the television, I’d gravitate to my laptop, and then, later in bed, to the smaller screen of my phone. I nested myself in the internet for hours, sometimes revisiting the same information on the same dementia websites, sometimes scouring user forums. I even read blogs written by family members of loved ones with dementia, the entries narrating backwards so the one that appeared most recently on the home page was always the end of the story, the point at which the loved one died or was so absent in his body that the blogger seemed to have lost heart in writing any further. I sometimes read all the entries in reverse, a mordant yet beguiling exercise—declining function; losing friends; incontinence milestone; grim reckoning; early, unsettling diagnosis; the vow to stay positive.

I’m not sure what I hoped to achieve by all this. I suppose I knew enough to know that knowing more would not make my father better. But this fever-searching felt familiar to me—like smoking—a habit that wasn’t good for you yet nonetheless afforded a sense of relief without offering any actual solutions.

We’d ended up by the wine and cheese table. There was nothing left on the fake silver plastic serving tray except broken water crackers and a few loose grapes. She said she knew what I going through, or at least a variation of what I was going through. Her mother-in-law—Suze’s mom, a retired schoolteacher—had developed some early form of dementia, too. Short-term memory loss, at least for now. She’d stopped reading even though she had, all her life, been an omnivorous reader. Sci-fi, classics like Middlemarch and Walden, stuff I could never get through, Daisy said. She’s read experimental Latin American authors; she’s even dabbled in Goth erotica! We had a little laugh over the sexual thoughts of old people.

A pensive look crossed Daisy’s face. What unsettled her the most was that her mother-in-law seemed to have taken this setback in stride, which frankly made Daisy wonder if she were masking deeper reservoirs of mental debilitation.

Listening to Daisy, I wondered whether her weight loss was related to her worry over her in-law. I felt a flicker of resentment, abhorrent as it was, because I’d taken the opposite approach, eating and eating like a machine that had been broken and stuck on a high setting.

Listen, she told me. Have you been to the Quad lately? Since the renovation?

I said I hadn’t been going to movies much lately.

They did a good job. You’ll like it. And there’s something playing there now that I think you should see. It’s called, it’s called…oh, Jesus, hold on. She reached for her phone, went at it with her thumbs, then raised her head, triumphant.

Marjorie Prime. It’s movie adapted from a play, she said, stuffing her phone in the back pocket of her jeans. I won’t say more. And call me when you’ve seen it.

The next time I found myself in Union Square, I took Daisy’s advice. I headed to the Quad, paid for a single ticket for a matinee screening and took my seat in a mostly empty theater.

Here’s what you need to know: Marjorie Prime takes place in the future, but a not-too-distant future. Furniture still looks like furniture. Clothes still look like clothes.

In this future, people use hologram technology to help them cope with death and grief. They program “primes”, or digital apparitions, to stand in for the people they’ve lost.

When we first encounter Marjorie, she’s chatting with Don Draper. Actually, it isn’t Don Draper but the actor who played Don Draper now playing the prime of Marjorie’s dead husband.

The setting, a seaside home, does not feel very homey. The featureless beige décor suggests the future, or a porn set, or a house staged for buyers—places where people can easily project themselves without having to imagine other people who might have existed there before them.

In a later scene, Marjorie’s daughter tells her husband that she finds it grotesque that her mother would choose a prime of her father as he appeared in his prime. He is all square-jawed and sublime while Marjorie is old and lumpy.

When the prime opens his mouth and sounds just like Don Draper, I was surprised by how much I’d missed the sound of his voice. He’s on the wrong show and his hair, missing the pomade treatment, looks strangely soft. He’s slipped into a foreign, more low-key register, like someone recently released from rehab or who has convinced their employer to let them work remotely from upstate.

Like Marjorie, we will settle for his shadow.

In the future we will order primes of our loved ones from Amazon Prime only to realize we lack the energy or nerve to program them to our satisfaction.

Like other fad appliances and technology, the prime will probably end up boxed up in its original packaging and vanquished to the basement or attic. We will feel bad about the money we’ve wasted, and associate the prime with this shame, and this shame will insure its sad fate.

One day the children of a future generation will rummage through our effects, stumble across a prime of an elder they never knew, and resurrect it. Poorly programmed, the prime won’t have much of a personality, but they won’t know that. They’ll just think the dead person must’ve been a real dullard when he was alive. What’s more likely is that many primes won’t be rebooted again. Upgrades to the hologram technology will make resuscitating the older models nearly impossible. Vintage primes will become as hopeless as floppy disks.

I thought about my father who was becoming more not himself. He was, by temperament, a gentle man, a patient man. When he was well, his favorite pastime was tending his garden. My mother and I used to joke that his life would be happier if he were a plant. But now when I saw him, he was often angry and bitter. It wasn’t only the complaining and cursing that pained me but that he seemed to have largely lost the ability to think or care about other people. I’d read on the internet that empathy lives in the frontal lobes of the brain; the doctors told me that, most likely, based on his behavior, this was the part of my father’s brain that was eroding.

A few days later I called Daisy. I could tell she was excited to hear from me and eager to talk about the movie. This was one of the things I remember seemed to matter so much about the city when I moved here years ago—the fact that you could run into a friend and talk about the latest show at the Whitney, a performance at the Kitchen, or a resurrected obscurity at Anthology in the East Village. It’s not that way anymore. Maybe it never was.

This is what Daisy wanted to tell me: the character of Marjorie was based on the playwright’s grandmother who had dementia and lived in a home. Every weekend, his parents used to visit her and replay her memories for her so she wouldn’t forget who she was. In other words, the re-memory method for programming a prime.

And the more memories you fed a prime, I said, the better the prime would be at convincing you that it isn’t a prime.

I asked Daisy: What if you suspect you’ll become a demented person, why not program your own prime? That way you’ll have an archive of your memory for all time.

She said: But if you start your own prime too late, you might forget to talk to it, or you will talk nonsense, and then the two of you will sit across from each other useless as a mirror!

I admitted to her that I hadn’t been entirely honest when we last met. I had been working on a project but hadn’t gotten very far. I knew only that the project would be, in some way or another, about my father. I had thought the project would be about my father in his prime. Instead, all I seemed capable of doing was manifesting his sub-prime, the last dregs of his life.

This was not necessarily the period of his life I want to remember, I said, but the project seems to have a mind of its own.

Speaking of projects.

Daisy told me that she’d read Wittgenstein’s Mistress for the first time, a novel that’s basically made up entirely of the rambling meditations of a woman who just may be the last person left on earth. What she wanted to do, Daisy said, was reimagine Markson’s novel as a pirate radio program operated by a solitary woman who is the station manager, producer and on-air personality rolled into one, broadcasting day in and day out an infinite, unbroken stream of weather reports, advice for the lovelorn and financially anxious, poetry hour, drunken rants, what have you. And of course, music, lots of music—Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s The Inflated Tear, Japanese noise bands, the soundtrack to A Fistful of Dollars; whatever suited her mood.

Is she mad, or truly alone? Does she have an audience? Does it matter?

I know most people don’t listen to radio anymore especially at night, Daisy said. I haven’t much since college. But sometimes I think I was never happier than listening to KPOO at two in the morning when I was painting in my campus art studio. The speed helped too.

That got us on the topic of form, and how Marjorie Prime might have been conceived originally as a play but seemed to have found its truest form in film, that stuttering mirage of light and shadow. Daisy mused that much of the making projects is about the search for form, where to put the ghosts and in what kind of machine.

Then there was a lull in the conversation. I felt shy suddenly, being on the phone. I spoke so infrequently by phone these days that I found it difficult to end conversations. The wind-up and release was no longer intuitive to me; I sometimes mistakenly cut the other person off in the middle of their cheerful goodbye.

We let the silence sit between us until finally I said: Hello, hello, are you still there?

I’m still here, said Daisy. Did you say something?

I didn’t see or talk to Daisy again for nearly a year. As I said, we were not the kind of friends who made any real effort to see each other.

Some people moved out of the city, unable or unwilling to pay the cost of rent anymore. A couple reconsidered their decision not to have children and reproduced using the latest technology. Some became arts administrators, acupuncturists; certified therapists; others adjuncted or worked with at-risk youth. A friend who could be counted on to bring all of us altogether at least once a year in her rambling backyard in Ditmas Park died of breast cancer. By then my father’s mind was in tatters and I’d placed him in a nursing home. The last time I took the train to visit him, he was bent forward in his wheelchair, muttering, muttering. As I got closer I was able to make out what he was saying: his own name—first, middle, last—over and over again. I mourned the living him.

When I finally ran into Daisy again, it was at Prospect Park. This had never happened before. But this was no ordinary day, and this, as we were all coming to realize, was no ordinary time.

Up north, a containment zone had been set up around the first outbreak after a lawyer got sick and spread it to others at his synagogue. New cases were starting to pop up across in the city, along with reports of cleaned-out grocery shelves. Every few hours there seemed to be new rules governing an increasingly shrinking number of permissible gatherings. Even so, along Vanderbilt that Sunday in early spring—one of the warmest days we’d had in weeks—there were groups of people lounging in the outdoor seating areas of restaurants; I sped by them on my bike on my way to the park. Through open doorways, I caught glimpses of men hunched over barstools. I passed a young couple in their twenties standing in the street, beaming at each other as they exchanged ice cream cones.

At the mouth of the park I parked my bike and started walking along the outer loop. It was obvious by the size of crowd that many other people had had the same idea; absent our usual entertainments and diversions and the threat of confinement, nature and fresh air emerged as a revelation. All around me, the clamor of schoolyard recess. After some minutes, I spotted Daisy walking briskly ahead on the path. She was alone, pumping her arms up and down. I was slightly out of breath by the time I managed to catch up to her and coughed a few times. A few heads turn in our direction. We made the obligatory chiding remarks about keeping six feet apart and then fell into step, probably at a distance of about three feet. We talked about how the community college where she taught had closed, how the family services office where I worked was figuring out how to shift online, and the impossibility of focusing much on anything.

Daisy told me her mother-in-law had taken a turn for the worse since we last spoke. On bad nights she was convinced her husband was a burglar who had broken into their home. Luckily she called Suze or her brother instead of the police, whispering her fear into the phone. Stashes of cash, candy and moldering fruit had been discovered in odd corners around the house. But so far, they were managing. Certainly no one wanted to put the mother in a facility, especially now.

Daisy shot me a horrified look. I didn’t mean—

It’s okay, I said. And my dad’s okay too. I didn’t actually know that for sure, but it’s what the nurses told me when I managed to catch one of them on the phone. I actually hadn’t seen my father in what felt like a long time; the nursing home had stopped allowing outside visitors a week ago, and the truth was I hadn’t been to see him for at least two weeks before the lockdown. My father and I were becoming strangers. Or we were moving toward something elemental, Neanderthal in our relation to one another? Now I carried a new weight in my chest—some relief and mostly shame—that there were outside forces, global forces, relieving me from future visits for the time being, even as I was desperate to see him.

A trio of men whipped past us on expensive racing bicycles, a shiny blur of Lycra. In the distance we could hear the incantatory beat of the drummers’ circle.

We turned then, to the subject of our projects. But the news there was not good either. With a sigh, Daisy told me she’d had to shelve her pirate radio idea. She just wasn’t any good with technical things, and none of the grants she’d applied for to hire a tech person came through. It used to be that you could trade this labor for that labor but most people don’t know how to do anything anymore, she lamented, or the people who do know how to do specialized things are using those skills to make actual money and have no need for your skill set.

I described, as best I could, the project I’d been wrestling with, a piece choreographed for five dancers that starts with a coil-and-release motif, then stops abruptly before starting again, then another sudden stop, a restart before doubling back on itself; soaring, crashing, and tentatively breaking open again before being pulled under. It was overwrought, embarrassingly so; the truth was the piece had been mucked up for some time. The actual, persistent vision I had in my mind was of the dancers marching dirge-like from the stage, filing out into the street, and falling one by one into an open manhole.

Without meaning to, our pace had slowed considerably as we talked. Two boys sped by us on kick scooters, their heads swaddled in enormous helmets.

You know Marjorie Prime didn’t start out as Marjorie Prime, Daisy said. The playwright’s original concept was to write play with an artificial intelligence program.

A ponytailed woman, the mother of the boys I assumed, jogged by us with her phone strapped to her upper arm. Jasper! She called out, maternal, exasperated. Jasper, slow down!

The playwright had in mind to stage the play as a dialogue between two people—two human beings—and leave it to the audience to decide which lines were written by him and which by machine, Unfortunately, as a writer, the chatbot was completely hopeless. He killed the project and out of it came Marjorie Prime.

So what I’m saying is, Daisy said, leaning in so we were no more than a foot apart, you never know.

I nodded. We reciprocated genuine, if bland, encouragement. It was ritual and not without meaning. Then we shared information about the people we knew in common, many of whom, we realized, we seldom saw anymore, and all of them more vivid to us than we were to each other.

She repeated how sorry she was to hear about my father.

I felt my attention drift and looked out onto the interior of the park. Geese had gathered at the edge of the lake, their necks elegant as long satin gloves. New parents bounced their infants in wraps and slings; workout fanatics stretched out their limbs. It was late in the afternoon. There were no pedal boats or kayaks out on the water. A wind kicked in at that instant and loosened the blossoms on a nearby cherry tree. The petals took to the air like snow, a light snow, the only kind of snow that seemed to fall on the city anymore. Hadn’t it been snowing in the last scene of Marjorie Prime? The filmmakers signaled the passing of time through such perceptible changes in weather. An image flashed in my mind of snowflakes falling outside the big picture windows at Marjorie’s beach house. Or had I misremembered it?

In the last scene, the digital hologram of Marjorie, the digital hologram of Marjorie’s daughter and Don Draper are gathered in the house by the sea.

There are no humans around anymore.

Once, I had a dream of  fame.

The primes talk, exchanging the information they’ve been taught to know.

Generally, even then, I was lonely.

How their back-and-forth conversation calls to mind the screen of an arcade game, waiting for tokens. The images shows you how the game works but without a mind.


Lisa Chen

Lisa Chen was born in Taipei, wrote Mouth (Kaya Press), received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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