Activities of Daily Living

Lisa Hsiao Chen. Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-3938-8112-7

Chen wows in this tender debut novel (after the poetry collection Mouth) about an Asian American woman caring for her ailing white stepfather while working on a study of Tehching Hsieh, the Taiwanese performance artist best known for his durational performances. Alice, a 39-year-old video editor, pushes pause on the Hsieh project after her unnamed stepfather—a retired carpenter and Vietnam vet with a passion for Chinese furniture—begins to exhibit signs of dementia. She and her sister Amy prepare to put his house up for sale so he can afford a care facility near Amy’s home in San Jose, Calif., which involves selling off and hauling away his treasured belongings and enduring heartbreaking bouts of his illness-fueled rage. To cope, Alice returns to Hsieh’s transgressive work, such as the Rope Piece (1983–1984), a collaboration with Linda Montano in which the artists spent a year tied together by an eight-foot rope. She reads his interviews and the philosophical texts that inspired him until the project becomes as much about her stepfather as it is about Hsieh. While switching between Alice’s stepfather’s decline in the late 2010s and Hsieh’s works in the 1980s, Chen develops an intelligent and deeply empathic portrayal of Alice witnessing her stepfather disappearing inside himself, and in doing so offers careful and illuminating observations on issues of cultural difference, productivity, family, and freedom. Chen’s own project is masterly and memorable. (Apr.)
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