Welcome to EW's Quarantine Book Club: A series in which EW staffers discuss how their reading habits are changing and growing in the Coronavirus era.
Memory Police
Credit: Pantheon

With more time at home in this era of social distancing and self-isolation, we've got a lot more time for reading, right? It's hardly so simple. In this new EW series, staffers discuss how they're coping with experiences of anxiety and isolation through books. In this entry, Omar Sanchez describes how a recent read took on chilling — and personal — new meaning as the pandemic’s impact worsened. 

I used to be afraid of movie theaters. In my earliest childhood memory, from when I was about 4, I cried as my dad chased me out of a dark hallway into the blinding light of the lobby. This was at a Tinseltown theater in the west suburbs of Chicago, where movies that came out forever ago would be available for a few bucks per ticket. We were there to watch Antz — yes, the talking insects one — but I hadn’t even made it through the trailers. I felt overwhelmed by the cavernous dark room, the booming sound system. Twenty-five or so years later and that fear is long gone. But a new one has crept up these past few weeks. Suddenly, I'm afraid for movie theaters.

Last month, when we were living in a very different world, I bought The Memory Police by Japanese author Yoko Ogawa, a chilling post-apocalyptic novel that took me back to that very moment in the movie theater. Originally published in 1994, it was only recently translated into English; I read chunks of it occasionally, bits of provocative escapism, but didn’t get around to finishing it until Wednesday, March 11 — the day I and many others across the U.S. were recommended to socially isolate, a moment that cemented how much our own world was changing. That night I dedicated myself to finishing it. I blazed through the final pages and was left shell-shocked, wondering if what I just read had become more fact than fiction in the blink of an eye.

Within a day, our reality started to bear an uncomfortable resemblance to that of The Memory Police. The book takes us to an unnamed island where the memories of its citizens slowly disappear like a sheet of snow under a boiling sunrise. In the matter of a day, perfume becomes “some kind of sugar water.” A bird becomes a “little brown creature.” Then the government, fearful that people will only be thinking about what they must have forgotten, forcefully destroys anything associated with that object so it can never be thought of again. The vanishing never slows down. Things that were once cherished keep vanishing. Poof.

“This bird, which should have been intertwined with memories of my father, was already unable to elicit any feeling in me at all,” Ogawa writes (via translation by Stephen Snyder). “It was nothing more than a simple creature, moving through space as a function of the vertical motion of its wings.”

In the world of The Memory Police, there’s no one on the streets unless absolutely necessary. Everyone fearfully stays at home. And what of the movie theater? The place where people used to come together to be entertained, to laugh and cry, has become police headquarters.

In our world, cinemas have been shut down, indefinitely. But what if that memory palace never comes back? The movie theater, ironically, became my favorite place to visit as I grew up. For years, until I was well into high school, I’d invite childhood friends to go see a movie with me for my birthday. We’d talk about what we saw for weeks afterward. They were the kinds of conversations about movies that we’ve all had: We each had our takes, what we liked and didn’t like. We created a secret pop culture language between us.

During a pivotal moment in Ogawa’s novel, our protagonist is at police headquarters confronting those responsible for wiping out everyone's memories. She gazes outside the nearby window, examining a streetcar in the snow, describing the scene in vivid detail, details that wouldn’t exist without her past memories to inform them. Imagine a vintage camera. It doesn’t matter what picture you take with it unless you help the photo develop.

Movies are like the darkroom where we can contextualize life experiences. After I finished reading The Memory Police — I’ll keep this space spoiler-free — I wondered what the end of our quarantined life might look like. I had just come from watching The Invisible Man at an AMC in Los Angeles. It felt uncomfortable to even be there, a feeling I hadn’t had since that time as a kid at Tinseltown. I got a little emotional. It wasn’t so much about whether theaters will be full of people again, but if the experience itself will change.

Will families prefer sitting at home, taking in the movies fed to them at the fingers of Netflix and Amazon? Will film buffs reject the new Alfonso Cuaron or Christopher Nolan movie in favor of whatever is up next in our queue? I hope not. Going to a movie theater has always been a way for me to get away from the real world and immerse myself in another. I can imagine what it’s like to wield the powers of Neo in The Matrix, or bask in Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue, and then walk outside and reflect on the experience with those who were in the trenches with me.

But maybe that type of communal experience will vanish, and we won’t be able to help it. They’ll keep vanishing. And vanishing. Poof.

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