The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt

September 6, 2011

Regular readers may recall that I am a fan of Joyce Carol Oates and that my favorite of her novels is Beasts. Oates frequently delves into obsession, near-madness, and madness. She also crafts beautiful prose and suspenseful stories. How she maintains quality given the quantity she produces will likely forever remain a mystery of American literature.

Hustvedt has written five novels over the past, roughly, twenty years. (Somewhere Oates chuckles.) This was her first, though not my first of hers. I quite enjoyed What I Loved and was spurred to explore her (to give Oates a laugh) oeuvre in greater detail. Having explored a full 40% of her novels, I have not developed a crush. I am indifferent to the fact that she has published a novel this year (The Summer Without Men; free excerpt here), while Oates manages only a short story collection and a memoir.

But why am I comparing these two? It is because this book reminded me of Beasts with respect to the plot or, more accurately, the setup. The story of both hinges on a student-professor relationship. The stories, however, are not really the same. The Blindfold is more about identity and the fictions we construct to make sense of ourselves and the world than about the psychology of mentor-mentee romance, the darkness of sexual obsession, and the cruelty of conquest.

It is easy for me to read too much into the fact, so I will, that Hustvedt is, and was at the time of writing this book, married to Paul Auster, author of the identity-obsessed New York Trilogy. Hustvedt’s work post-dates Auster’s and, I am tempted to speculate, owes a significant debt to it. The Blindfold is told in a series of interweaved stories, really, about a young woman named Iris Vegan. Iris is, as are probably most first-person protagonists, a “version[] of [her creator]” pieced together from bits of the author’s “personality, nerves, and [] experiences.” She is intelligent, depressive, and a bit lost.

Some of the stories seem almost allegorical, such as the one in which she finds employment as a dead woman’s medium. In that story, a strange old man is determined to write the history of a young woman who was murdered in his building. He hires female university students to minutely describe objects that formerly belonged to the dead girl, hoping that some psychic residue will rub off on his assistants’ prose. Iris is unaware of this quirk when she begins, but soon has the gist of the story from the old man. The unlikelihood of the fellow having legitimate custody of the dead woman’s things raises the possibility that he was the murderer.

Iris’s project is very similar to that of Blue in Auster’s Ghosts. Both characters are given the task of transcribing details without being told which details are important or what the ultimate purpose of the transcription is. Where Blue is watching a person, Iris is examining an object, yet both are really about the same thing: the way in which reality can be fit into any number of stories and how individuals fill the void of supplied meaning in ways that smooth their own emotional potholes. Of course, the effort of consciously creating a fictional story can be maddening and, again, both husband and wife explore this aspect.

Given that I had already read Auster’s New York Trilogy and Oates’s Beasts, this work was a bit of a come down. It seemed to tread the territory between the two, neither engaging on full-blown philosophical allegory, as did Auster, nor into the dark caverns of the obsessive mind as did Oates. Hustvedt’s first novel seems to me less a combining of the best of two ideas or themes, but a dilution of them. This sounds unnecessarily harsh. While I would recommend either Auster’s trilogy or Oates’s novella before this work, Hustvedt is an excellent writer.

For instance, she makes a more effective critique of the American health care system in one paragraph than Lionel Shriver did in a novel focused on the issue. Hustvedt’s Iris, in the hospital:

That afternoon Dr. Fish sent a psychiatrist to my bed. He spoke to me kindly in a low voice, and he had a white beard that I found reassuring….I think I would have enjoyed my talk with him had I not worried about what the conversation was going to cost. He looked expensive to me, and I kept wondering if his sympathy was covered by my insurance.

The scene is most notably for the humor rather than any political polemics. And this is an excellent part of Hustvedt’s writing, while always serious, she is never only serious. Like one of her more interesting characters, she maintains sufficient authorial distance to treat serious subjects lightly, thereby penetrating reflection. A male friend tells her:

”I watch myself live, Iris, like a movie, and that image of myself is everything. I don’t want to betray it. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m telling you that what I can’t bear is the ordinary. I don’t want to bore myself, to sink into the pedestrian ways of other people – heart-to-heart talks, petty confessions, relationships of habit, not passion. I see those people all around me, and I detest them, so I have to be divorced from myself in order to keep from sliding into a life I find nauseating. It’s a matter of appearances, but surfaces are underestimated. The veneer becomes the thing. I rarely distinguish the man in the movie from the spectator anymore.”

I felt sorry for him and hated the feeling. He had delivered his explanation in a fierce tone of self-mockery and it bruised me. “I do understand you, Stephen, but don’t you think that everybody is finally the same in the most essential ways? Some lives are probably much duller than others, but it’s impossible to know how people live inside themselves, isn’t it? I mean, a life could seem boring on the outside and be tumultuous within. Isn’t cruelty more contemptible than ordinariness?”

Hustvedt’s examination of the intersection of story-generation and identity-creation seems, if not a re-working, then a reply to Auster’s own ideas on the subject.

In Ghosts, Blue is a man of surfaces as well. Through the mysterious writing project, he becomes better acquainted with his own interior. And, too, he comes to realize that the external reality, Black in his case, is “a kind of blankness, a hole in the texture of things, and one story can fill this hole as well as any other.” Iris has the same sort of recognition when trying to speak to or for the dead woman.

I wonder now whether it isn’t dangerous to assign significance to that which is essentially vacant, but we can’t seem to avoid it. We cover up the holes with our speech, explaining away the emptiness until we forget it is there.

The stories she could tell are endless and, therefore, pointless, when only the truth matters to her. The catch is that, like Blue, she also begins to question truth as a concept and as a good. Maybe the world, as far as humans can capture it, is made only of stories. What then of identity? Iris learns less what her identity is than that identity can be as fluid, as full of holes that need filling, as another’s life, whether the life is that of a man sitting, as Black, in an observable room or that of a dead woman evidenced only by detritus she left behind.

Hustvedt is ambitious and, I think, has grown as a writer. Her first effort is good, perhaps even very good. My favorite part of the reading experience was the way The Blindfold recalled to mind other, to my mind better, books and enriched the ideas in them. For that reason alone, it was well worth the read. And, despite being in no rush, I may well snag a copy of The Summer Without Men on the strength of this work and What I Loved. As for you, dear reader, I do think she is worth your giving her a try.

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

June 14, 2010

I am reviewing my most recent reads entirely out of order. I would have to go back to check when this started happening, and maybe I could not unravel the mystery even with the effort. The reasons are various. Sometimes, I want to wait and think about a book. Other times, I am excited about the book and want to get my thoughts down as quickly as possible. Sometimes, I am ambivalent about the book just finished, so I write instead about one that moved me in some way. Other times, this time, I feel almost sullied, so I write about it to purge myself.

I do not mean “sullied” as a negative. Siri Hustvedt is a poet and writes beautiful prose. The novel is engaging and has depth. And, yet, by the end I had a feeling of contamination. Perhaps, she writes too well, knows her subject too well, conveys the emotions of her characters too well.

Leo Hertzberg, an art historian and critic, narrates the novel and, from very early, it is clear that Hustvedt is intimately familiar with the New York art scene. On the opening pages, Leo recounts the contents of the fourth of five letters from Violet to Bill in which Violet declares her love for Bill. The power of the letters prompts Leo to write this book.

Leo then embarks on the chronological narrative, which begins with Leo buying from a gallery a painting that impresses him. The primary subject of the painting is a woman lying on the floor in an empty room.

It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting. Far to my right, on the dark side of the canvas, I noticed that a woman was leaving the picture. Only her foot and ankle could be seen inside the frame, but the loafer she was wearing had been rendered with excrutiating care, and once I had seen it, I kept looking back at it. The invisible woman became as important as the one who dominated the canvas. The third person was only a shadow. For a moment I mistook the shadow as my own, but then I understood that the artist had included it in the work. The beautiful woman, who was wearing only a man’s T-shirt, was being looked at by someone outside the painting, a spectator who seemed to be standing just where I was standing when I noticed the darkness that fell over her belly and her thighs.

Leo tracks down the artist of this “self-portrait”, William “Bill” Wechsler, and strikes up a friendship. Leo and his wife, Erica, end up living in the same building as, and directly beneath, Bill and his wife, Lucille. Both couples have sons at nearly the same time and become a close-knit group: “two families, one on top of the other.” Violet is the beautiful model in the painting.

This book is steeped in art, for that is what initially binds Bill and Leo. Many are the expositions on the meaning of art or the content of particular works, whether real or imaginary. This novel is so tightly constructed that each conversation is packed with meaning that, on a re-read, would undoubtedly multiply and reverberate.

In one of Bill and Leo’s early discussions, Bill is discussing medical drawings and Cezanne.

”That’s the problem with seeing things. Nothing is clear. Feelings, ideas shape what’s in front of you. Cezanne wanted the naked world, but the world is never naked. In my work, I want to create doubt.” He stopped and smiled at me. “Because that’s what we’re sure of.”

Little scenes like this take on new meaning after you have finished the work. Not unlike Bill’s painting, close examination reveals new and surprising details that deepen and complicate the work. Leo’s failing eyesight in late life has already been disclosed, but the completeness of the metaphor is not entirely revealed until the final pages. Early on, there are hints, like this one, of the ubiquity of doubt and its importance in our lives.

Closely related to doubt is duplicity and this novel fully explores dishonesty in its many manifestations. As that early letter reveals, Bill is not faithful to Lucille. His infidelity has far-reaching consequences for each of the primary characters in this book.

Duplicity is dishonesty, but the word calls to mind duplication and doubling as well, which is another pervasive theme in the novel. The two families are neatly symmetrical. Leo and Erica, Bill and Lucille. Later, they have sons: Matthew and Mark. M&M. Before this, though, Leo describes a conversation with Lucille, a writer.

She talked as if she were observing her own sentences, looking at them from afar, judging their sounds and shapes even as they came from her mouth. Every word she spoke rang with honesty; and yet this earnestness was matched by a simultaneous irony. Lucille amused herself by occupying two positions at once. She was both the subject and the object of her own statements.

Just as Bill was, in some sense, both the subject and the object of his “self-portrait.”

Despite the similarities of age, the two boys’ alliterative names, and their close relationship, Matt and Mark are quite different. While Bill is the visionary artist, it is Leo’s son, Matt, who shines with pen and paints. Bill and Matt bond over baseball too. “In a single body, Bill combined Matt’s two great passions.” And, yet, Leo does not seem to be threatened by their closeness and Matt loves his father. Bill, too, loves his own son. The close relationship between Bill and Matt is simply another confusing, complicating aspect of these two entangled families’ lives.

Violet is another. She and Bill have an affair that destroys Bill’s marriage to Lucille. Lucille moves out, Violet moves in, and the five adults and two children become more entangled than ever. Hustvedt is an extremely perceptive observer of human relations. Her depictions of intimate moments between lovers or friends or enemies have a quiet intensity that carries with it both truth and doubt, much like Lucille’s earnestness and irony. The reader both knows the characters and does not. Mysteries abound, both in personalities and events.

The novel is divided into three sections. By the end of the first section, Bill, Violet, Leo, Erica, Matt, and Mark are nearly a single unit. They vacation together, live in the same house, send their boys to the same camp to bunk together, and otherwise are as entangled as two families could seem to manage. Even Lucille unites them in a strange way. She has moved out of town, but is still relevant. She haunts each of the adults in a different way, her existence a shadow, for a time the only shadow, on their lives.

The second section opens with a punch to the gut. A character dies. The first third of the novel always had an ominousness to it, but that first section ends so happily that the shift is difficult to take. The raw emotion of the characters is difficult to read. Their grief is not only real but infectious. Hustvedt may write a little too well.

The grief never ends, but it does fade. The novel becomes something of a psychological thriller. The issues of duplicity and doubling take on greater and more unsettling urgency. One character, in particular, becomes something of a threat to the others, or seems to. Leo, for instance, is never quite sure whether the character is telling the truth or lying, sincere or fake, ally or foe.

Along with this potential menace, a shock artist, Teddy Giles, befriends one of the clan. Whether the friendship is based on a true connection or merely an attempt to undermine one or both of his detractors (Bill and Leo) is never quite clear to Leo or to the reader. Giles specializes in horror. Bill and Leo see his work as cliched, though Giles insists he is subverting cliched horror for more serious artistic purposes. Giles’ depictions of dismembered bodies and severed limbs are initially disturbing more for the attention they draw than for the truths they reveal about the mind that created them. Giles thrives on hype, rumors, and ambiguous history, never settling on an identity or a past. He embodies the worst of what plagues Leo and the surviving characters through the last half of the book.

To delve too deeply into the plot twists and turns of the second half would be resolve too much of the tension and ambiguity that is a necessary part of the novel. But I will try to convey my reaction.

I felt dirty. By the end of the novel, I had spent too much time with a seriously disturbed character and, more wearyingly, with those trying to help and those trying to exploit that character. I wanted to give up on the character, I wanted the others to give up too. But the families are too entangled for any of them to let the lost cause go. Leo says early in the book:

The longer I live the more convinced I am that when I say “I,” I am really saying “we.”

This is a story of a group and, however defective the one character is, the group cannot just push the character out. They have too much loyalty to each other, to the group, for that.

I have not addressed many of the novel’s complexities. Hustvedt did extensive research on eating disorders, hysteria, and psychopathy to supplement her apparently encyclopedic knowledge of art and literature. In addition to the themes I have already mentioned, she also examines the idea that people often “become what they [are] near” or, perhaps, merely emulate what they are near.

Despite this depth, the book was not entirely satisfying to me. I think that is primarily because of the character who is not only a liar, but seems unable to grasp the truth. The effect on the other characters is devastating. For me, I lost interest in what happened to the character. Next to violence, lying is the most destructive human behavior. And lying is more unsettling than violence. Hustvedt did a fantastic job conveying the full consequences and pathologies of compulsive lying, but the result is not an easy book. And yet, though it has only been a day since I finished, the trying aspects are fading while the strengths remain impressed in my recollection. I will seek out more of her work, only not too soon.

I will be reading something by Paul Auster soon. He is Hustvedt’s husband and the man to whom this work is dedicated. I am looking forward to comparing their styles. I have not yet read any Auster, but I am intrigued. Hustvedt is good, but there is room, in my opinion, for Auster to be better.