on Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen

Lisa Hsiao Chen’s first novel, Activities of Daily Living, is about the importance of maintaining some sort of life practice or “project.” In the midst of the personal loss and signs of quietus that punctuate everyday life, our projects keep us moving forward and give us places to put our energies and ambitions, as well as our failures and our fears. While paging through the first quarter of Chen’s story, I continually nodded at her veneration of creative endeavors, and when I came to the name of the performance artist Linda Montano in her text, I had a powerful flashback to the time in my life when I was in so much trouble I had to cling to my own project as if it were a buoy in a cold and deadly ocean.

How had I stumbled into my predicament? Reader, my path to this place had been long and thorny. In 2005, I’ d been slapped and spit on by my publisher in the back seat of an L.A. Yellow Cab. We don’t need to get into any of the hairier details. Suffice it to say that I found this experience unsavory enough to swear off writing literature, because, I was now convinced, publishing was filled with maniacs. Besides being a novelist, I was (and remain) a law professor, and the day after my assault, I decided to rededicate myself wholly to the gentler field of jurisprudence. I’ d had my fun as an artist, but that scene was too scary, I resolved. No more being a hyphenate for me. I’ d write my articles on legal theory and stay as far away as possible from the world of would-be Paul Verlaines, Norman Mailers, and William S. Burroughses. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to give up on fiction. But even after my bruises healed, sacrificing at the altar of Apollo still felt too unmetaphorical. How great was writing, really? Was it awesome enough to get my ass beat by a man-publisher with an expectoration fetish? No, I determined. It wasn’t.

I spent the next decade professionally busying myself with Critical Race Theory, but, eventually, found little ways to cheat on my No Art resolution. On my evenings and weekends, I began to gravitate to galleries and museums, where I studied quantities of contemporary art—mostly performance art. Nam June Paik, Marina Abramović, Zoran Todorović, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper, Nick Cave, Vito Acconci. I discovered that the more they screamed, the more I liked it. When Abramović did that thing in Rhythm 5 (1974), where she placed herself in the middle of a burning pentagram until she passed out and had to be saved by an audience member, I understood. When Mendieta set her goddess siluetas on fire, I felt the catharsis. Meanwhile, I also commenced making a few pieces myself, items that I called “home art,” because I was not a real artist anymore. These were mostly pictures of myself “not writing.” I’ve since thrown all of these masterpieces away, so I can’t reproduce them here, but they were alarming self-flagellations done in bright acrylics, with a lot of screamy text that said things like you’re nothing if you’re not writing. They were also all nudes. 

This idyll ended in 2015. That’s the year I got an explosive case of cancer and spent a summer at L.A.’s Norris Cancer Hospital undergoing treatments that made every other difficult experience I’ d had before seem like the endurational equivalent of losing a trivia contest or getting a B– on a college paper. I spent the next eighteen months watching eighties movies—Mr. Mom, Footloose, Baby Boom. Oh, also Charmed. A lot of Charmed. By the time I’ d finished with that rite of passage, I wound up on my living room sofa staring at the world outside my window with eyes as haunted as #metoo-era Rose McGowan’s and realizing that I’ d hit bottom. I might as well start writing again. Waiting for my body to heal, I grew increasingly more desperate to get back to my project, the one that I’ d abandoned in the back seat of that Yellow Cab, along with my dignity and last dream of personal safety. I strengthened my muscles by tottering around my house, gripping onto furniture for ballast, and kept on remembering a scene in Rocky, when Mickey’s training Rocky to fight Apollo Creed. “When you walk into the ring with the Number One Heavyweight in the World,” Mickey says, “you’ll be ready, won’t you? You’ll be able to spit nails, kid. Like the guy says, you’re going to eat lightning, and you’re gonna crap thunder.” In ’15, I also found myself emerging from the valley of death, ready to crap some serious thunder. 

It was time to call off my art embargo. After feverishly reading novels and art books for a few months, I started writing a story about an emotionally flailing performance artist, and I simultaneously commenced a side career as an arts writer, mostly for a local arts magazine called Artillery. Tulsa Kinney, Artillery’s editor, put me on the L.A. performance art beat, and that’s how, two years after I’ d been released from the hospital, I wound up at downtown L.A.’s Broad Museum in late August of 2017. I’ d gone there to see its summer “Happening,” which featured the mysterious Linda Mary Montano, whose offering consisted of handing out wisdom and holy blessings. I entered Broad’s foyer, and, after a brief wait, sat on a dais next to Montano, who had dressed up in a nun’s flowing habit. She hadn’t taken on the costume of just any nun; rather, Montano’s white sari and blue-and-white-striped veil were copies of Mother Teresa’s, and she looked like the saint’s perfect doppelganger. Montano had an assistant who wore a white lab coat and bright red lipstick and looked like a Clinique saleswoman. The Clinique lady had marked me down on a list and told me to wait my turn for Mother Teresa/Montano’s benediction. When I heard my name mispronounced over the P.A. system, I wandered over to Montano, who had a face as wrinkled as an old wizard’s beneath her head covering, as well as an air of impatience.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I told her. 

Mother Teresa/Montano then clamped onto my neck with her surprisingly strong grip. She commenced rattling my bones in a combined gesture of Reichian mugging and sound therapy that I gathered was supposed to be curative. Grasping my cervical vertebrae and shaking me like a maraca, she began singing Brahms’ “Lullaby and Goodnight.” She then commanded me to join in this serenade with ever more intimidating exhortations until I faintly shrieked out “Lullaby and goodnight, thy mother’s delight / Bright angels beside my darling abide.” 

Afterwards, I went home and began to plot out a review. I wrote it while relishing a vivid sensation of creating something that didn’t just manufacture “order out of chaos” (which is an old chestnut about the virtue of art) but that was bristlingly alive, a barely controllable object tingling with thoughts and potential. A long time has passed since that evening, an interlude replete with a global racial reckoning, the hopefully complete arc of the Trump presidency, and a planet-stopping plague. But I experienced total recall of those fevered moments when, in June, I read Chen’s awesome novel.

Activities of Daily Living reminded me that, during those months when I’ d felt as dismantled as a detonated Tesla, I discovered that art, writing, and performance somehow were the keys to survival—an intimation that, seven years later, and while based on the opposite coast, Chen would brilliantly build upon with her own work. In a ’22 essay in The Baffler, Chen allowed that some of the heat that forged Activities of Daily Living came from the fear and rage she felt when reading about the victims of murderous anti-Asian violence, which rose by 339 percent from 2020 to 2021. “There have been moments during these past few years when the threat of getting physically assaulted felt more likely than catching the coronavirus, even though I knew this to be statistically false,” Chen wrote. It seems that when faced with dying, either “naturally” or deeply not, some of us find that shred of inspiration necessary to spend years on badly paid, yet beautiful undertakings; this is why, when considering Chen’s work, or looking at my own life, I no longer roll my eyes (like I used to) at the idea of “suffering for your art.” 

When I opened up Chen’s book, I loved it right away because it starts with a story about how the Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh built a cage in his New York apartment and lived in it from September 30, 1978 until September 29, 1979. That’s Cage Piece, one of the major year-long pieces that Hsieh performed between 1979 and 1986. But it wasn’t until Chen began to describe Rope Piece, which ran from July 4, 1983 to July 4, 1984, that I experienced a more cosmic union with her story. In Rope Piece, Hsieh tied himself to Linda Montano with an eight-foot-long piece of rope, and they lived like that for the duration of the year. “We will stay together for one year and never be alone,” Hsieh and Montano wrote in their Rope Piece artists’ statement, which Chen reproduces in her kaleidoscopic, ravishing narrative. “We will be in the same room at the same time, when we are inside. . . . We will never touch each other during the year.” 

At first, I didn’t recognize the name “Linda Montano,” which is what I guess Linda Mary Montano called herself back in the 1980s before she joined the lofty ranks of trinomialists. It wasn’t until Chen’s protagonist, Alice, muses on Montano’s storied penchant for dressing in nuns’ habits that I had my flashback. Alice is a New York–based video editor by day and an artist all the time, and her artwork takes the form of “projects”—projects that define and create her whole life, even though Chen doesn’t describe these endeavors in any great detail except for the mission that currently absorbs her hero. The Project is a retrospective that Alice wants to mount of the work of Hsieh, otherwise known in the novel as “the Artist.” But organizing a Hsieh exhibit proves a nearly impossible task, as Hsieh’s “pieces” left very little residua. Alice scours New York and the internet for any trace evidence of Hsieh’s cage dwelling and Montano-tethering. She also haplessly seeks out remnants of Time Clock, wherein the Artist punched a time clock every hour on the hour from seven pm on April 11, 1980 until six pm on April 11, 1981, and his No Art piece, where he foreswore doing, seeing, reading, or talking about art from July 1, 1985 until July 1, 1986. Hsieh’s invisible carbon footprint leaves Alice with little other choice than to trail the still-living artist through the boroughs and all the way to the 2016 Venice Biennale. When not stalking her subject, Alice contemplates his legacy, and she ponders his decision to live at the end of an eight-foot-long rope with the maybe-untalented Montano: 

And it was true she also found Montano’s work—the performance where she lived locked in a room with her five different personalities; the one in which she impersonated Mother Teresa in the streets; her fourteen-year project wearing a different color each year to match the qualities of a specific chakra; the energy healing, the New Age voodoo, the appropriation of Eastern spiritual practice—kind of goofy. 

It’s upon reading this passage that I cathected irreversibly to Chen’s saga, as I knew that it was unlikely that there were two artists dashing about the world in the guise of the problematic Mother Teresa, now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Chen’s book brought me back to the time when I unknowingly conducted my own No Art piece, beating Hsieh by nine years until I submitted to Montano’s wacko ministrations at the Broad. I thought that Chen was right, because I knew from firsthand experience that Montano is kind of goofy. But Montano shares something in common with Chen and me, as well as the world’s extensive supply of overheated creatives, which extends beyond our insistent naming habits. Montano also acquiesces to the holy practice of Having a Project. Art probably doesn’t literally save your life, and might even shorten it, as Hsieh himself illustrated when he spent 1980 to 1981 shrinking his telomeres with the sleep deprivation necessary to achieve Time Clock. But having art projects is still good, because, in a world filled with warnings of our imminent extinction, they help us feel alive.

Alice spends the larger bulk of Activities of Daily Living figuring out what to do with “the Father,” which is what she calls her white stepdad, who’s an alcoholic and suffering from escalating dementia. As Chen reveals through Alice’s parallel use of definite articles instead of possessives, the Father and the Artist are her life’s pendants, as they are both projects. The Artist project is much cheerier than the Father one, and probably is helping her escape her own domestic cage more than anything else, because Alice spends soul-crushing amounts of time flying from New York to Northern California, where she and her sister, Amy, toil to find a rest home capable of handling their dad’s increasingly erratic behavior. Hsieh, Alice notes, did his projects in an effort to “just go into life” (as per his 1985 artist’s statement for his No Art piece), but the Father is going out of it:

On her last visit the Father had said while she was sitting by his side, “I don’t want my little girl to see me because I’m a big fat idiot.”

Later that same day he said, “I’m tired of being a fat boy”—even though by then his skin was hanging from his bones.

She wondered if he was traveling back in time to his boyhood. Had he been teased as a kid for being overweight? He’ d never mentioned it before, and now she couldn’t ask and expect an answer.

As the Father descends deeper into senility, Alice can only haphazardly translate the scraps and tatters of his words, which is ironic, as they became a family on account of the act of translation. The Father had been a translator during the Vietnam War, when he intercepted military channels through radio transmissions. He’ d mostly listened in on conversations between Viet Cong soldiers and their families, and he also taught conversational English to Taiwanese students. That’s how the Father met Alice’s mother, who’ d been living in Taiwan with her two daughters and moved to Berkeley with him when Alice and Amy were very young. The Father is the only father that Alice (and Amy, who remains a pale sketch throughout the book) has ever known, and her parents are now divorced. Alice’s mother is thus not around to help Alice and her sister sift the father’s phrases, and they mostly fail at this decryption, as he’s often enough talking within some unreachable dimension.

Alice copes by reflecting on the authors she loves, many of whom she’s read in translation—Walter Benjamin, Annie Ernaux, and that old code-switcher Samuel Beckett. She also cites Viktor Shklovsky, who, along with Bertolt Brecht, invented what some call the estrangement thesis, the notion of creating a work of art that is so alienated from “regular life” that it calls upon the audience to view the world in a new and radical light. But Chen teaches us that the hard facts of living require a constant translation, and that this deciphering makes our estrangement from the supposed essence of things an ordinary feature of consciousness. Sometimes the estrangement leads to the enlightenment that makes radiant works such as Activities of Daily Living conceivable, and sometimes it threatens to divorce us from everything that is necessary, everything that is the Project. This is, in fact, what happened to the Artist. Hsieh’s last artwork was Disappearance Piece (1986–99), where he stopped making art for public consumption, and the project led him down a darkened alley where he stopped artmaking altogether. In a letter that Alice writes the Artist toward the end of the book, she asks him, “With each day, each month, each year, did you start to feel that you were no longer within the project? If so, did you feel sorrow or relief, or had you entered into a different zone entirely?” These questions are, of course, pertinent to Alice herself as she feels the retrospective dwindle from the realm of the possible, and which she tries to translate into a series of notes and doodles that clutter her journal.

Nevertheless, translation is a precious aim of art, as Chen reveals in her novel. Art translates the chaos all around us into something more recognizable, something less horrifyingly Shklovskyesque. It also decodes the violent lullaby of life and death that Montano evoked as she clobbered me at the Broad. For Alice, it creates the bridge that helps her embrace her dad even through his decline and demise. She realizes, after he passes away, that she is “struck by the immense absence of my father’s effect on the world; there would be no more new utterances or thoughts, only memories of what he’ d said and done.” In this bit of notetaking, we find that the Father has become my father.

When there are no more new utterances or thoughts—that is, when things are over—what will we remember? The question fizzes from Chen’s prose. Will it be coherent? Will it make sense?

One of the answers to this query comes on page 116 of Activities of Daily Living, where a polar bear appears:

For weeks she’ d been unable to bring herself to watch a video of a starving polar bear that had been pinging around the internet. She’ d seen a still of it, enough to know the polar bear was painfully, mortally thin. What more was there to know? Maybe there was nothing, but still she felt pulled to watch it. When she got home later that evening, she powered up her laptop, typed starving polar bear, and clicked on video.

After watching the footage, Alice doesn’t know what to think. “She wouldn’t be one of those people who looked away. But what exactly had she accomplished? She folded the laptop shut.”

The polar bear comes back twice more in the novel. On page 301, it returns alive, as Alice reads the story “about a polar bear who had just turned thirty-seven, which made her the oldest living polar bear in America. This bear’s name was Coldilocks and she lived in the Philadelphia zoo.” The bear then reappears at the end of the book, on page 330, in the form of a note Alice takes regarding “a news brief about a polar bear, starving and caked with mud, who strayed hundreds of miles from the tundra into Norilsk, a city of nickel smelting plants in northern Siberia where most people die by age sixty.”

This pattern reoccurs throughout. Samuel Beckett shows up on page 143, when Alice recounts watching the actor John Hurt play the lead in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. “Krapp . . . reminded Alice a little of the Father. They were two old men who had abandoned nearly all human relationships in exchange for a few small pleasures.” Beckett then reemerges on page 306, where he’s meeting with Buster Keaton. The actor starred in Beckett’s 1965 Film, which tells the story of a man who evades all human contact, except that he finds he can’t escape himself. Keaton, for his part, surfaces once more on page 190 (I’ve now read the book so many times that I’m reading it out of order), where he has a small walk-on part in Sunset Boulevard. “Keaton isn’t given much to do except to say, ‘Pass,’ with a doleful expression. He’s there to confirm Norma’s irrelevance by the feeble light of his own eclipsed star.” I’ll just give one more example: the term “souvenir” crops up on page 54, and it’s explained to us that the term derives from a grisly origin story involving the decapitation and evisceration of the English traitor David Tyrie, whose internal organs were stolen by sailors as keepsakes. On page 239, Alice goes to the 9/11 Tribute Museum’s gift shop, where she looks at “the Survivor Tree tote bags, the Never Forget bracelets.” She attempts to envision the person who’ d purchase a necktie designed with a pattern of the Twin Tower’s tridents. “People need their souvenirs,” she thinks. 

What are the connectors between these dots? When pondering this enigma, I was made to think of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the part where Sabina tells Tomas that “In the kingdom of kitsch you would be a monster.” Kundera has an evolved conception of kitsch, which he defines in the novel as “the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” So, too, does Chen abhor the denial of shit, whose stench-making reality parades through Activities of Daily Living’s pages. Not only is the Father’s bodily waste faced head on early in the novel, when Alice has to wipe her father’s dripping, diarrhea-soaked bottom, but the Artist’s feces are attended to as well, particularly in relation to Outdoor Piece, a 1981 experiment where Hsieh spent “an entire year outdoors in the city without shelter or cover of any kind.” Chen’s personal concerns about the socially ignored shit of anti-Asian violence and the base terms of survival crop up here, as Alice becomes fixated on the question of how Hsieh was able to handle his bodily needs, and tracks the places in New York that were his favorite to defecate. As is also flagged by Chen’s reference to Krapp’s Last Tape, the author shares with Kundera a vigilance when it comes to beholding shit and death and abhors those spaces, like the 9/11 gift shop, which translate the “essentially unacceptable” into Never Forget bracelets and Twin Tower neckties. This witnessing makes Activities of Daily Living a hard book that climbs the mountain of High Art. Like in life, the polar bears, souvenirs, Samuel Becketts, and Buster Keatons multiply, but they don’t add up. They only have a slim, shining thread connecting them, which is made of our inescapable severance from ourselves: consider the fact that excrement comes from the Latin excrementum, which derives from excernere, which means “to separate.”

When I first found mention of Linda Montano in Chen’s book, I slid into a wormhole of memories that led me back to my publisher’s assault, my time at Norris, and my reawakening at the Broad Museum. During the worst year of my illness, I hadn’t been able to face what was happening to me, and retreated into the kitschy worlds of Charmed and Baby Boom. Upon my immersion into performance art, though, I was able to cast off these defenses and wonder about the features of our mortality that give our lives meaning. In other words, I became inspired, and so energized by art’s power that I felt like the promising underdog Stallone plays in Rocky. In the midst of my renewed hopes, I’ d once or twice thought about the speech that Mickey gives Rocky as he’s training to fight Apollo Creed. But it turns out that I’ d misremembered it. When I fact-checked the quote on YouTube for this review, I saw that Mickey tells Rocky that he was going to “eat lightning and crap thunder.” But I’ d remembered it as “pissing lightning and shitting thunder.” I think now that Stallone, when he wrote the screenplay, must have originally written it that way; it’s incomprehensible to me that he would have Mickey say “crap thunder,” and could only have done so in a nod to the capitalist rule of the studio system. Because art and life aren’t PG-13, which is one of the points of Activities of Daily Living. Anyway, that’s how I’ d felt when I started making art again and got back into the ring with my own Apollo. I’ d arisen from the rape bed, the sickbed, and now was pissing lightning and shitting triumphant thunder.

Yxta Maya Murray is a novelist, art critic, playwright, social practice artist, and law professor. The author of nine books, her most recent are the story collection The World Doesn’t Work That Way, but It Could (University of Nevada Press, 2020) and the novel Art Is Everything (TriQuarterly Press, 2021). Her next novel, God Went Like That, is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press/Curbstone Books. Her nonfiction work Artivism and the Law will be published by Cornell University Press.