Thursday, July 08, 2010
What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
My character type, according to the Jungian Myers Brigg Type Indicator, suggests that I am someone who is a seeker of truth, for whom the actual experience of something is secondary to the understanding of it: the concept, rather than the experience itself, is the motivating force. I am happier to have done something than to be doing it. Another such character is Leo Hertzberg, the narrator of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. This is the story of an ageing man, an art critic who is turning blind, looking back on his life and seeking to understand it. In this reflective state – the unavoidable result of the passage of time – he and his family and friends are ‘no longer the actors in the story, but its spectators who have chosen to speak.’ And the speeches that ensue form the basis for a retrospective search for understanding. What is real, what is artifice? Does the nature of love, like the characters of each one of us, shift over time? How are our lives shaped by those whom and that which we love?
The trouble for characters like Leo and me, of course, is that we have a tendency to over-analyse. In our search for meaning we delve deeper and deeper into any situation, seeking the elusive answer. Everything has to be understood and then explained. That can make us difficult people to live or work with. And it can make any novel written from the perspective of someone with such a disposition extremely hard work. What I Loved is extremly hard work. It is also extremely good. If it were only a hundred pages shorter it would be superb.
Leo Hertzberg is a professor of art history. His best friend, Bill Weschler, is a significant modern artist. They and their families – Bill and Violet and Bill’s son Mark, Leo and his wife Erica and their son Matthew – form the core of the novel. They are close, and live conventionally privileged lives within the cocoon of the New York art establishment. This is drawn in elaborate detail. Each of Bill’s art works is described exactly, both figuratively and symbolically, and the characters’ daily events are subjected to precise psychoanalytical dissection. This is not simply the characteristic perspective of the truth-seeking narrator: all of the characters, even the children, are constantly analysing themselves and their situations to such an extent that one wonders how they found time for any new experiences at all amid all that agonised self-examination. The INTP character type shared by Leo and me is relatively rare – only about 1% of the population – and there’s a good reason for that, because get too many of us in a room together and a kind of psychic chaos ensues. Life is meaning, and meaning is understanding. Thus, reality cannot be allowed to proceed until everyone understands everything that is happening. Physical responses become subsumed by intellectual analysis. If 22 INTPs were playing a game of football it would take them until half time to realise they’d forgotten the ball, by which time they’d have changed the rules anyway so that they were playing chess. What I Loved seems to be stuffed full of INTPs, all trying to invent their own rules for life. My guess is that Siri Hustved, herself, is such a character type, and it has infested each of her creations. It is a serious weakness.
It is not until 130 pages in, when tragedy intervenes, that the novel truly takes off. Even then, as you would expect, the resulting bereavement becomes the focus of much agonised soul-searching (and never try to manipulate the feelings of an INTP, we instinctively kick against it), but it proves the catalyst for a shift in the novel which is fascinating and sustained and drives the narrative forward. Bill’s son, Mark, becomes the key character, an initially sweet child who increasingly becomes a troubled youth, and who falls under the spell of a charismatic but malevolent artist, Teddy Giles. Giles is part Andy Warhol, part Svengali but, as the novel develops, the overriding question becomes whether he is, too, part Ed Gein. Michiko Kakutani calls this section of the novel ‘a hokey thriller‘ with ‘sensationalistic tone and implausible events’ but as usual she is wilfully misreading the narrative to confirm her preconceptions. One gets the impression that Kakutani makes snap judgements, from which derive strident soundbites – positive or negative –and all subsequent reading must either confirm that judgement or else be discounted. Far from being implausible, what makes this section of What I Loved so skilful is that Hustvedt creates a genuine sense of doubt in the reader. Giles’s art is shocking, focusing heavily on dismembered bodies and the detritus of death, and he is, too, surrounded by hints and rumours of dark events in his real life. He may simply be a charlatan courting sensational publicity, or he may be dangerous. Indeed, he may have killed a young man who had formed part of his entourage. We don’t know which he is, opportunist or psychopath. Nor do we know the extent to which Mark is complicit in Giles’s machinations, or or to which he is simply an ingenu caught up in forces he cannot understand. Out of this confusion Hustved creates an impressive degree of tension, and her characterisation of the troubled Mark is beautifully handled. He is easily the most intriguing character I have read this year, with Giles not far behind. If it wasn’t for the narrator Leo continually dragging the narrative back into tortured reflection and analysis, theirs would be an extraordinary story. As it is, it remains an excellent one.
Hustvedt is an impressive writer, with an acute psychological understanding of her characters. This is both her strength and her weakness. What I Loved creates living, breathing characters, but at times one gets the feeling that Bill, Leo, Violet and Erica are essentially the same character, endlessly dissecting the world to establish its meaning. Having created such living, breathing characters, it is a pity that Hustvedt didn’t leave them to analyse a bit less and live a bit more.