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Activities of Daily Living
Cover of Activities of Daily Living
Activities of Daily Living
A Novel
Borrow Borrow

Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
A Vogue Best Book of the Year
One of The Millions' Most Anticipated Books of 2022

A searching, sharply observed debut novel on the interconnection between work and life, loneliness and kinship, and the projects that occupy our time.

How do we take stock of a life—by what means, and by what measure? This is the question that preoccupies Alice, a Taiwanese immigrant in her late thirties. In the off-hours from her day job, Alice struggles to create a project about the enigmatic downtown performance artist Tehching Hsieh and his monumental, yearlong 1980s performance pieces. Meanwhile, she becomes the caretaker for her aging stepfather, a Vietnam vet whose dream of making traditional Chinese furniture dissolved in alcoholism and dementia.

As Alice roots deeper into Hsieh's radical use of time—in one piece, the artist confined himself to a cell for a year; in the next, he punched a time clock every hour, on the hour, for a year—and his mysterious disappearance from the art world, her project starts metabolizing events from her own life. She wanders from subway rides to street protests, loses touch with a friend, and tenderly observes her father's slow decline.

Moving between present-day and 1980s New York City, with detours to Silicon Valley and the Venice Biennale, this vivid debut announces Lisa Hsiao Chen as an audacious new talent. Activities of Daily Living is a lucid, intimate examination of the creative life and the passage of time.

Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
A Vogue Best Book of the Year
One of The Millions' Most Anticipated Books of 2022

A searching, sharply observed debut novel on the interconnection between work and life, loneliness and kinship, and the projects that occupy our time.

How do we take stock of a life—by what means, and by what measure? This is the question that preoccupies Alice, a Taiwanese immigrant in her late thirties. In the off-hours from her day job, Alice struggles to create a project about the enigmatic downtown performance artist Tehching Hsieh and his monumental, yearlong 1980s performance pieces. Meanwhile, she becomes the caretaker for her aging stepfather, a Vietnam vet whose dream of making traditional Chinese furniture dissolved in alcoholism and dementia.

As Alice roots deeper into Hsieh's radical use of time—in one piece, the artist confined himself to a cell for a year; in the next, he punched a time clock every hour, on the hour, for a year—and his mysterious disappearance from the art world, her project starts metabolizing events from her own life. She wanders from subway rides to street protests, loses touch with a friend, and tenderly observes her father's slow decline.

Moving between present-day and 1980s New York City, with detours to Silicon Valley and the Venice Biennale, this vivid debut announces Lisa Hsiao Chen as an audacious new talent. Activities of Daily Living is a lucid, intimate examination of the creative life and the passage of time.

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About the Author-
  • Lisa Hsiao Chen received a 2018 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and fellowships from the Center for Fiction and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Workspace program. Born in Taipei, she now lives in New York.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    November 1, 2021

    In her after hours, contemporary Taiwanese immigrant Alice seeks to document downtown performance artist Tehching Hsieh, whose yearlong pieces captivated audiences in the 1980s. These pieces start shaping her own life, as she attends street protests, loses contact with a friend, and tries to help her Vietnamese war veteran father, who is battling alcoholism and dementia. From Rona Jaffe award winner Chen,

    Copyright 2021 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 28, 2022
    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.

  • Kirkus

    March 1, 2022
    Does time pass, or do we pass the time? Alice, a 30-something Taiwanese woman raised on the West Coast and now living in New York, works as a video editor but devotes much of her time to her "project." That endeavor is an inchoate attempt to chronicle the life and work (projects!) of performance artist Tehching Hsieh, a reclusive and enigmatic figure Alice refers to as the Artist. Another, parallel life-project occupies Alice's time and preoccupies her attention: the slow deterioration of her hard-drinking stepfather--referred to as the Father--into a state of dementia and disability a continent away from her. Chen's gracious examination of how a lifetime is spent follows Alice's efforts to discover what happened to both men, who, it would seem, had little in common. In the case of the Artist, an early career of buzzed-about performance art pieces evolves into an attenuated disappearing act. The Father's slow descent into unawareness portends a disappearance of another kind. Alice's chronicle is laced through with references to artists and intellectuals and their pronouncements on the timeless issues faced by the men (and us all). Sartre and Sontag are among the thinkers with cameo roles, emphasizing the universality of life's inevitable assaults on us and those we love. Alice's relationships with others wax and wane over the course of the narrative--and her lifetime--in another illustration of the impermanence of the features of our lives. The human urge to fill time with projects of all sorts (movies, furniture building, writing, tying oneself to another person for a year!) is examined from all angles in Chen's thoughtful and thought-filled meditation on time. Elegiac and revealing, Chen's debut illuminates the clock in our hearts.

    COPYRIGHT(2022) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    March 15, 2022
    More and more, New York-based video editor Alice needs to return to California to manage her chain-smoking, hard-drinking stepfather, who is always referred to as the Father. His "handle on ADLs [activities of daily living] had already been slipping," and he requires increased levels of care with his growing dementia. Alice is often mistaken by staff as the nurse on duty because Alice is ethnically Taiwanese, and the Father is white. In between crisscrossing the country, Alice insists she's working on a project about Tehching Hsieh, a (real-life) Taiwanese American performance artist whose first prominent work was a year spent in a self-built cage during which he did "NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television." Witnessing the Father's progressive disappearance is not so unlike attempting to comprehend the motivations of the vanished artist. For Alice, time--passing, spending, wasting, intersecting--becomes the nebulous concept it was before the contrivance of its measurement: "When the clock was invented, time was too." Ambitiously inquisitive and ingeniously compelling, Chen's debut novel confronts the liminal spaces between identities, languages, expectations, realities.

    COPYRIGHT(2022) Booklist, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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    W. W. Norton & Company
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