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Taming Reality

By (May 1, 2008) No Comment

The Sorrows of an American
By Siri Hustvedt
Henry Holt, 2008

When she famously wrote “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion laid bare (with stunning verbal economy) the symbiotic relationship between narration and action, artifice and life. Narrative, Didion asserts, enables us to make sense of life—it is a verbal domestication of an otherwise anarchic world.
Siri Hustvedt, whose latest novel The Sorrows of an American plays on these themes of storytelling and survival, has long evinced an interest in the utility of fiction. In “Gatsby’s Glasses,” an essay included in her 2005 collection A Plea for Eros, Hustvedt considers the role of personal mythologies in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

His book meditates on the necessity of fiction, not only as lies but as truths… The book goes to the heart of the problem of fiction itself by insisting that fiction is necessary to life—not only as books but as dreams, dreams that frame the world and give it meaning.

Fiction enables us to plunge forward into the future and impose, retroactively, order on the past. Storytelling is, in a sense, a reflexive act of justification and preservation.

The stories that we tell, Siri Hustvedt suggests in The Sorrows of an American, are necessarily lacunary. “Trauma isn’t part of the story; it is outside the story,” Erik Davidsen, the novel’s psychoanalyst-narrator, muses after a session with one of his patients. “It is what we refuse to make part of the story.” We rend these holes in order to save ourselves, our characters and our audience from irreconcilable deviations, the fragments we can’t fit into a coherent narrative.

The opening passage of The Sorrows of an American establishes the novel as a meditation on these gaps. Gazing back from some undefined vantage point in the future, Erik, reflects:

My sister called it “the year of secrets,” but when I look back on it now, I’ve come to understand that it was a time not of what was there, but of what wasn’t. A patient of mine once said, “There are ghosts walking around inside of me, but they don’t always talk. Sometimes they have nothing to say.” …I think we all have ghosts inside of us, and it’s better when they speak than when they don’t. After my father died, I couldn’t talk to him in person anymore, but I didn’t stop having conversations with him in my dreams or stop hearing his words. And yet it was what my father hadn’t said that took over my life for awhile—what he hadn’t told us.

Drawn home to Minnesota after the death of their father, Lars Davidson, Erik and his sister Inga (a writer and academic) discover a cryptic, potentially incriminating letter in Lars’s study. The missive, which hints at a death, pleads for Lars’s silence. Back in New York, the siblings continue to pursue the secrets alluded to in the letter in hopes of learning more about their soft-spoken father’s inner life.

Meanwhile, both confront complications in their own lives. An alluring woman, Miranda, and her five-year-old daughter, Eglantine (Eggy), move into the ground floor of Erik’s brownstone in Park Slope. A slew of defaced, stalkerly photographs appear in the wake of the new tenants and hapless, lonely Erik soon becomes embroiled in the intrigue. The photographer, Erik discovers, is Eggy’s estranged father, an ambitious, half-mad artist whose obsession with photographic documentation unnerves his subjects and feeds his portfolio.

Across the East River in Manhattan, Inga, the widow of literary celebrity Max Blaustein, and her teenage daughter Sonia are hounded by a journalist hellbent on tarnishing the late novelist’s reputation by exposing his extramarital indiscretions. To further complicate matters, Inga becomes romantically involved with her husband’s biographer, Henry Morris, a man suspected of “trafficking in private stories” about Max to the detriment of Inga.

The problem laid forth in the novel is that our stories are not the definitive version. Rather, we live in a world of competing accounts, our own narratives constantly bumping up against–and being undermined by—counternarratives. Both siblings are menaced by representation: Erik and Miranda by the theft, abuse and misleading recontextualization of their likenesses; Inga and Sonia by the journalist’s revision of their carefully constructed family history. Confiding in Erik, Inga reflects on the ramifications of what has been revealed to her by the journalist:

“What’s truly odd,” she said to the darkening street, “is that I’ve discovered that I lived another life. Isn’t that strange? I mean, now I have to rewrite my own story, redo it from the bottom up.”

Inga articulates an anguish shared by Erik, Sonia and Miranda alike: the angst of being a subject in another author’s story.

Mimetic menace has long been a favorite theme of Hustvedt, whose work perpetually interrogates issues of representation: Iris Vegan, from The Blindfold, is haunted by a photograph of herself which surfaces in a downtown Manhattan art gallery; Lily Dahl unwittingly serves as the model for an unhinged young man’s life-size Lily doll doppelganger; In What I Loved, rumors of a homicide lend a frisson to art world enfant terrible Teddy Giles’s “murder pieces.” The contours of reality and representation are fluidly drawn in Hustvedt’s fiction and subject to revision. Hustvedt balances a Platonic suspicion of mimesis with illustrations of its useful, cathartic properties. The children in her novels (Matthew from What I Loved and Eggy in The Sorrows of an American) are constantly drawing, pictorially working out their psychological frustrations on the page. Erik’s patients, as well, presumably derive some comfort from verbalizing their experiences. Hustvedt’s plotlines play out in the dialectical tension between these two poles: catharsis and menace.

Viewed in the context of her work, The Sorrows of an American is Hustvedt’s most orthodox novel. An aficionada of the uncanny, Hustvedt uses a lighter touch here than in her earlier novels. “Uncanny” slips in occasionally as an adjective but is not the novel’s over-arching aesthetic. (Although, again, as in The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, there are lifelike dolls.) The Sorrows of an American also stands out for breaking Hustvedt’s garland of flower-named heroines (Iris, Lily, Violet), the significance of which—save for Iris, which is an anagram of Siri—has always been lost on me.

In other respects, such as the book’s unabashed intellectual vigor, The Sorrows of an American is entirely characteristic of Hustvedt’s work. This most recent novel inhabits the elite milieu that Hustvedt is clearly most comfortable working in: Hustvedt has never been shy about writing for and about cultural mandarins. In a conversation with Thisbe Nissen, Hustvedt commented on the tepid reception of The Enchantment of Lily Dahl in the United States: “After it was published, I realized that intellectuals (mostly in Europe) loved the book, but a great many people didn’t understand any of the undercurrents.” If anything, Hustvedt’s novels are enjoyable sometimes despite what she calls their “rich associative subtext,” which is not always as “sub” as Hustvedt seems to believe. Rather, her references are often artlessly planted on the surface of the text, winking knowingly to the initiated reader, like Gatsby’s green light. “I’m a reference,” they seem to whisper so loudly that they might as well be speaking. (Sure, her novels are sometimes intellectually masturbatory but that’s not entirely a bad thing—masturbation gets a bad rap.)

  With the exception of Lily Dahl—the small-town soubrette of Hustvedt’s second novel, tellingly her only protagonist treated in the third person—most of Hustvedt’s characters are her intellectual equals: personages one could easily imagine holding forth at the Hustvedt-Auster dining table. In fact, Leo Hertzberg, the scholarly narrator of What I Loved, makes a cameo appearance at a dinner party hosted by Inga. (The short capsule summary of the novel, which accompanies Leo’s first mention in The Sorrows of an American, is, frankly, awkward—a far from elegant allusion.)

Inga is Hustvedt’s most blatantly autobiographical character since The Blindfold’s Iris Vegan. Like Hustvedt, Iris came to New York as a graduate student at Columbia University, escaping the banality of rural Minnesota. (Hustvedt’s native Northfield appears or is suggested in all of her novels: Fictive backwaters such as Lily Dahl’s Webster and the Davidsens’ Blooming Field are linked to actual Northfield through Division Street.) Iris’s trajectory is common for Hustvedt’s Minnesota-born characters, who typically flee the Midwest for cosmopolitan New York. Inga is, naturally, a more adult incarnation of Hustvedt: tall, willowy, beautiful, cerebral, prone to suffering quasi-epileptic episodes (and likewise prone to invoking Dostoevsky when describing these attacks).

Other characters resemble Hustvedt’s family as well. Like Lars, a professor of history at Martin Luther College, Siri Hustvedt’s father, Lloyd, taught Scandinavian literature at St. Olaf College in Northfield. And Hustvedt’s mother, Ester Vegan, emigrated from Norway as an adult—a migration history mirrored by the Davidsen children’s mother, Marit. But perhaps most interesting is Hustvedt’s rendering of Inga’s Tribeca clan. Slender, lovely Sonia clearly resembles Hustvedt’s own daughter, Sophie Auster, to whom Hustvedt dedicated the novel. And film-dabbling ladies’ man Max Blaustein, whose fame eclipses that of his high-minded wife, is a lot like Hustvedt’s husband Paul Auster, only dead. In a tête-a-tête with Erik, Inga vents a frustration that sounds suspiciously close to home for the author:

“I carped and moaned and complained about my fate as the forgotten, misunderstood woman intellectual.” …“It didn’t help,” Inga continued, “that by then whatever Max uttered—I mean, he could say “I had eggs for breakfast’—and it was as if God had spoken”

There is something embarrassing about reading these intimate (or faux-intimate) passages, which may (or may not) shed light on the author’s own insecurities. Beyond creating fictionalized versions of herself and some of her family members, Hustvedt interpolates her text with her father’s actual memoirs, which become Lars’s memoirs in the novel. Hustvedt’s appropriation of her father’s memoirs suffuses the novel with a saga-like sweep but the inclusions are more interesting conceptually than narratively. The story and newspaper article about “Dave the Pencil Man”—a homeless, legless ancestor who made his living selling pencils on Minneapolis’ Washington Avenue in the 1930s—are also taken from life, the obituary quoted verbatim. Framed in fiction, the anecdote conveys a certain folkloric strangeness about life in the Midwest. It seems, oddly, less realistic than much of the novel. This narrative bricolage of biography and invention is a structural enactment of novel’s themes.

If we tell ourselves stories in order to live, Hustvedt’s novel demonstrates that our stories also serve to revive the dead. Intrigue resurrects as well as entombs and immortalizes: Lars and Max live on for Inga and Erik as characters in stories they are still revising. It is a stroke of quiet genius that none of the secrets contained in the novel are earth-shattering. Lars’s secret, when excavated, is as flat and as commonplace as the pastoral landscape he inhabited. Rightly so; The Sorrows of an American is not a novel about hidden truths but about the fictions we construct to make sense of the gaps.

Megan Doll is a recent graduate of New York University’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism M.A. program. She lives in Brooklyn.

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