This review originally appeared in Full Stop.
In his review of Siri Hustvedt’s 2008 novel, The Sorrows of an American, Ron Charles calls it “a radically postmodern novel.” This is a rather astonishing claim. Although this novel could be described as somewhat fragmented, containing numerous flashbacks and some interpolated documents, primarily a journal kept by the narrator’s deceased father, it could hardly be called formally adventurous at all, much less “radically” so. It is a mostly conventional first-person narrative, even if Hustvedt does exploit the narrator’s occupation as a psychoanalyst, as well as the general intellectual milieu he inhabits, to evoke various philosophical and scientific “ideas.” Perhaps it is this impression of intellectual density that leads Charles to consider The Sorrows of an American “postmodern,” but this seems an odd criterion for identifying the postmodern, since the “novel of ideas” surely antedates postmodernism. The fiction of Dostoevsky or Saul Bellow is probably even more intellectually dense than Hustvedt’s novel, but of course nobody thinks to call these writers postmodern.
Hustvedt’s new novel, The Blazing World, is likewise full of ideas, in this case, the ideas of Harriet “Harry” Burden, the novel’s artist protagonist. Readers familiar with Hustvedt’s work will thus find familiar in The Blazing World not only the references to Husserl or Kierkegaard but also the focus on art and the creation of art, as this is the focus as well of Hustvedt’s most well-known novel, What I Loved (2002). What I Loved featured a male conceptual artist whose idiosyncratic work ultimately finds an audience, but this novel is also a study in friendship, family dynamics, and dysfunction, narrated by the artist’s best friend, whose own story receives equal emphasis. By contrast, The Blazing World, although it includes a plethora of peripheral characters, in themselves of varying interest, uses these characters to provide perspective on Harry Burden, whose status as a female artist is the novel’s sole focus.
Like Bill Wechsler in What I Loved (Wechsler’s name is invoked in The Blazing World as an influence on Harry’s work), Harry Burden is also a conceptual artist, but unlike Wechsler Harry was never able to sustain herself as an artist, instead being known primarily as an art collector and the wife of a prominent art critic. Harry believes that the neglect of her work as an artist can be attributed to her gender, to the perception of her as the art critic’s wife, the hostess at his parties. After her husband’s death, Harry conspires with three men, one a well-known artist in his own right, to produce three separate exhibitions of her work, presented under their names. The shows are successful, seeming to confirm Harry’s notion that literally these works are being perceived differently when assumed to be created by male artists than they would be if exhibited with her name attached.
At the time of her own death, then, Harriet Burden had begun to get some of the attention she so clearly desired, although as we are introduced to the “case” of Harriet Burden, we are also told that her hoax is still somewhat controversial, the authenticity of the work still in some dispute. The novel we are reading, we also discover immediately, is in fact a kind of memorial volume dedicated to Harriet Burden and the scandal she created, a collection of interviews, reminiscences, and critical considerations, as well as selections from several different notebooks kept by Harry herself. The Blazing World is thus manifestly more adventurous formally than The Sorrows of an American (than What I Loved as well), but of course as a form of epistolary fiction such an approach is hardly new and could not be cited in support of a claim that this novel shows Siri Hustvedt to be a postmodern writer.
Harry’s notebooks feature her reflections on what she is up to, the recorded interviews with family, friends, and co-conspirators adding perspective on her behavior and to some extent a response to the work Harry produced from the motives and ideas revealed in the notebooks. The animating assumption Harry believes her art confirms — that aesthetic perception is never pure, is always colored by acquired preconceptions and implicit biases — is provocative enough, but again it can’t really be called an original insight, and it doesn’t become more exceptional or more interesting when it is illustrated not simply through one example by which Harry demonstrated her work was misperceived and undervalued, dismissed when directly attributed to her but extolled when accompanied by a male artist’s name, but three separate episodes related in considerable detail and reiterated in the surrounding commentary. One finishes this novel convinced that Harriet Burden certainly has a point in contending that women’s art is literally not seen on its own terms, but having long conceded that point at the price of diminished interest in the details of the story making it.
The Blazing World seems very much a novel with something to “say,” not just generally about human motives and behavior but very specifically about art and artists, and about “gendered” perception. The “ideas” the novel invokes, ideas drawn from neuroscience and philosophy, are thus ideas that Harry directly explicates and are offered to us as the inspiration for Harry’s practice. While this linking of art and idea may be an accurate enough reflection of the close relationship that does indeed obtain between art and idea in contemporary conceptual art — where art has arguably become subordinate to idea — it doesn’t serve well as material for the art of fiction. If conceptual art often reduces the experience of art to the contemplation of the idea that the art serves to bring into focus, The Blazing World settles for the ideas leading to the ideas leading to the art whose existence must remain imaginary. This problem is not solved by the literal, extended descriptions of the works Harry Burden exhibits, which are mostly colorless and functional, assuming, presumably, we will find these works inherently compelling because they are unusual and “quirky” (an assumption that plagues What I Loved even more severely). The Blazing World is “about” art in the least interesting way a work of fiction can be “about” something: as direct communication, as exposition of the subject’s “content.” What if in A Farewell to Arms Hemingway had given us a detailed analysis of the Battle of Caporetto, complete with reflections on its role in determining the outcome of World War I, instead of a story about a doomed romance? Surely this is not what we want from a novel “about” war.
The novel is not without its more admirable and more artfully executed features. Harriet Burden is by no means a one-dimensional figure without interest aside from her role in illustrating the status of women artists. She is obviously thoughtful and determined, but can also be exasperating and irascible, so that the discussions of Harriet that testify to all of these qualities don’t seem inconsistent. She can be clear-eyed and calculating, but also openly emotional, vulnerable to disappointment. If The Blazing World can be rescued from its own didacticism, it would be because the reader finds Harry Burden more interesting than the art world issues with which she is preoccupied. (More interesting than the art world itself as portrayed in the novel.) For this reason, the multiple perspectives from which we approach Harry turns out to be an effective strategy, since her intensity might be more difficult to take if she were in effect the narrator of her own story.
Still, however fortuitous the novel’s formal structure is in reinforcing its strongest feature, ultimately this structure has been employed primarily because it is the most convenient way to organize a novel that is essentially a consideration of a topic. Had that topic more consistently been the existential and psychological travails of a woman in Harry Burden’s personal and professional circumstances, rather than the exposition of her aesthetic philosophy, The Blazing World would be a better book.