Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (Sceptre 2014)
Before the meeting: I’d missed a number of book group meetings – travelling, and then other evening commitments had got in the way. Alice Munro, The Red Badge of Courage, some Hemingway, The Dinner by Herman Koch – all were discussed without me. I thought I was going to miss out on the Siri Hustvedt dinner as well until Friday, when I realised the evening was wide open. I dashed into Gleebooks on Saturday morning and bought a copy, not actually intending to read the whole thing – I had a lot on my plate and the group’s emails that been less than enticing: ‘I am only up to page 32 and struggling with it!’ ‘I think page 32 is a mammoth effort.’ I planned to read to page 40 or so so, enough to have some hope of following the talk when we met.
It was not to be.
The book is presented as a collection of documents – journal entries, art reviews, interviews, transcripts of statements, scholarly essays – by and about a New York artist Harriet Burden, edited by a scholar named I V Hess, whose ponderous introduction accounts for the first 12 pages and no doubt led to the book’s lack of appeal in some quarters. But Harry, as she is known to her friends, transcends the ponderousness. Having been the wife of a successful art dealer, she embarks after his death on a new artistic trajectory. Her work and she herself have been largely ignored or discounted by the art scene, and she comes up with a project to present new works as the creations of a series of three male artists. She’s tackling gender issues with passion born of a lifetime’s struggle, and at the same time exploring questions about the role of the creator’s reputation in how a work of art is seen, and deeper philosophical and psychological issues of identity, creativity, intersubjectivity, perception. I was hooked.
Other pressing demands on my time fell by the wayside and I read the book in three days. I rationalised that it was relevant to the online writing course I’m doing: this was a chance to see if in spite of its fragmentary appearance the book had something like the classic three-act structure. And behold, it does have the nine plot points we have been learning to identify, pretty much where they are suppose to fall. As a result, at any point in the novel you can feel it moving in a clear direction: the scholarly citations, the dissertations on hoaxes (mainly gender based ones such as James Tiptree Jr, but Ern Malley is mentioned in passing), the intellectual arguments, the meta moments such as the reference to ‘an obscure novelist and essayist, Siri Hustvedt’, the detailed descriptions of artworks, the ruminations on art history, the quotes from Whitman, Milton and Emily Dickinson, are all borne on a current leading inexorably towards what we know from near the start is a conclusion with more than one dead body. Novels, of course, don’t have to be tied to the classic three-act structure as tightly as we’re told films do, but I was gobsmacked to see how closely this novel, apparently so all over the place, sticks to the shape. It’s hard to talk about without spoilers, but here – perhaps of interest only to me – are the 9 points (there are 380 pages in the novel):
- set-up: We meet all the characters, or at least learn their names; Harry is widowed and in upheaval; she dreams up the Maskings project
- inciting incident (10%): page 39–40, she chooses her first ‘mask’
- change of plans: page 41–58, three new, widely divergent perspectives are introduced
- significant setback (25%): page 117, Harry’s first ‘mask’ having told her he was damaged by the project, she tells her friend Rachel: ‘There’s something in me, Rachel, something I don’t understand. … It’s something horrible inside me.’
- midpoint – sometimes called the point of no return (50%): page 213, ‘We have made the pact’
- darkest hour (75%): page 301, ‘He said, You look dead, Harry. She said, I feel dead.’
- glimmer of hope: page 314 ‘And then I said the right thing for once.’
- climax (90%+): Depending on how you read it, the climax is either page 322–324, a description of an artwork (he said, tactfully avoiding any spoliation), or page 351–361, which I don’t know how to characterise without giving too much away
- resolution: the very last page, the description of another artwork.
As I drove to the meeting I was prepared to be alone in having been completely absorbed, completely satisfied by the book.
The meeting: There were six of us, of whom two had read the whole book and one other was intending to finish it. A key thing that made the difference seemed to be that the three finishers had an interest in some kind in the art world: thanks to the Art Student, I’ve picked up a smattering over the last few years so I knew of many of the women artists named in the text, and found something almost uncannily familiar some of Harry’s observations about being an older woman in a scene that privileges youth and masculinity; another finisher has recently been an art student at TAFE; and the third has some wonderful art on his walls and is generally interested in it. Without some kind of prior interest, the device of multiple narrators and the general sense of contrivance seem to have stopped people from engaging.
There’s not much more to be said about the discussion of the book: conversation ranged instead over Pesach (last night was the second night), walking out of the theatre, a risqué witticism that Governor Marie Bashir once made to one of our number, the excellent seafood pie we ate, the inequity of raising the pension age, the difference between our current way of taking in most information through seeing and earlier ways when it was mainly through hearing. The book, wonderful though it is, was a bit of a fizzer, but the dinner was a great success.
PS added later: I forgot to mention that one of us had started reading the book on his Kindle and found it very frustrating. When he shifted to a hard copy it became a much more manageable and pleasant experience. The difficulty seemed to have something to do with the way footnotes are treated in the ebook. They work better on the page.