What I Loved with the intention of reading the author’s most recent novel, I was surprised to realize I had already read a book by the author once before but a while ago. And not a novel but a memoir. Siri Hustvedt had written The Shaking Woman about her experience when she begins to tremble and shake uncontrollably. Her memoir could have easily been typical of too many memoirs and focused on her own experience and perceptions of how others responded to what was happening. Instead, she took her knowledge, which is considerable, and puts her experience within a context of how the brain and body function within a neurological disorder. She approaches her circumstances from an intellectual direction that can be off-putting for some, I suppose. But since this is how my mother and I tackle life’s challenges, I loved her memoir. In fact, my one main criticism was that, for a novelist, the memoir lacked the sort of creative nonfiction style with which so many memoirs are being written.
Truth is, I identified with her story on a deeply subjective level because, like her, I had sought answers and explanations for myself that were never forthcoming.
That’s neither here nor there. After reading Siri Hustvedt’s earlier novel, I was curious, albeit not especially eager to read The Blazing World. The premise intrigued me. Harriet Burden is an under-appreciated artist who creates a confrontational performance piece, of sorts. She finds three men who will attach their names to her art, presenting it as their own, so that she herself can prove to the world, and the art world in particular, that women are not only under-represented in the art world but are dismissed off-hand as less worthy of serious consideration simply because of gender.
The story is effectively told in the writings of Burden and others—fragments of journals, transcripts of interviews, written statements, published reviews, etc. Throughout, Hustvedt does a remarkable job of presenting each character with a distinct voice. One person speaks in stream-of-consciousness abstractions while another speaks in precise prose and yet another in long sentences. So unique is each that the reader could, once introduced to a single voice, recognize its reappearance in the novel without seeing the chapter title which says what each contains. This is no easy feat and the author pulls it off brilliantly.
The New York Times Book Review quote for this book alludes to the previous novel I had read and one of the characters in this book does seem to be almost an off-spring of one of the characters from that novel. However, here we have a more fully realized and rounded person, a narcissist cum artist who makes sense if only because the reader can understand his raison d’être even if not (hopefully not, anyway) his sociopathic tendencies. The Blazing World, in that sense, is evidently a more sophisticated work, one that exhibits a confidence and maturity in prose the earlier work could not provide.
About halfway through, however, I was worried that this novel was riding the wave of such novels as Gone Girl. I fully expected a big “gotcha” twist to occur at the very end of the novel. There were a few twists and turns but none that are too surprising. A careful reader can anticipate what is hinted at early on and realized as the novel progresses. In fact, the ending surprised me in a fully gratifying, and not the least bit derivative, way.
Throughout the novel there are footnotes that make it easy to forget that this is not a work of non-fiction. In creating a character who is driven to the point of compulsion, Hustvedt infuses the story with references to everything from philosophy to literature to, naturally enough, art. The footnotes provide the reader with enough contextual knowledge and reveal more about Harriet Burden than almost anything else for it is in the character’s search for meaning and her persistent desire to understand how perception defines who we are or, even more implicitly, what we can be. The novel demands of the reader that even when we may not particularly like a character, and I can’t say that I genuinely liked any of the characters, we will and do care for some of them, maybe even most of them. But especially we care about Burden and what she carries—the belief that her gender, her being a woman and perceived through a misogynistic filter—because her hopes and aspirations, crushed before they are even defined, are bound to push her to do something risky. The fulfillment of the risk itself is what makes this novel a compelling one to read, whether you agree or disagree with the artist’s choices.