Years ago I got to review the first novel by Michael Chabon, Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I was struck, then, by references to science fiction that crept into the novel, so I was not altogether surprised, years later, when he started writing genre fiction.
By that measure, I wouldn’t be totally surprised if Siri Hustvedt wrote some science fiction in the future. Her 2014 novel, The Blazing World, is suffused with sf references. There’s not only the reference to James Tiptree Jr that I have already mentioned, but she brings in ideas from Vernor Vinge, while J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick are among the sf writers who receive a nod. Above all there is Margaret Cavendish, whose own science fiction, Discovery of a New World Called the Blazing World, gives Hustvedt her title, and who plays the role almost of a household god for the central character, Harry Burden. Cavendish was a pioneer, almost the first woman in Britain to publish work under her own name, one of the first who wrote as a professional, expecting and receiving payment for her work (once, while in exile in the Low Countries during the Interregnum, she returned to London specifically to chase up payment for one of her early books). Not only that, but she was a very learned person who was held back by her sex; virtually uneducated, she moved in the scientific circles that included Descartes, Hobbes and others, she attempted to join the Royal Society but was refused because women weren’t allowed, she was the first person to write about an atomist cosmology in Britain, she wrote scientific essays, poetry, and of course her novel, The Blazing World. It is easy to see why Mad Madge is such an inspiration to Harry (Harriet) Burden, and also, I suspect, to Hustvedt.
Harry is an artist. She is the widow of a successful gallery owner, Felix Lord, who did little to promote his own wife’s work, and now that he is dead she can’t find anyone else interested in her work either. So she hatches a scheme: she will find a tame male artist and get him to act as the front for her work and see what happens. Inevitably, the exhibition is a tremendous critical success. So she does it again with another male artist, with the same result. The third time is the charm, as they say, but the artist she picks this time is not so amenable. Rune, as he calls himself, is arrogant, violent, and dishonest, and when the time comes to reveal the truth he continues to insist that the work was all his; and because he is a man, he is believed over Harry.
But these three artists are not the total of the masks that Harry wears, there’s an unknown number of male pseudonyms under which she writes very erudite art criticism, not to mention the name Harry that she adopts.
In a novel so devoted to masks and masques and other deceptions, it is fitting that the story is told in many voices. Harry herself keeps a variety of Notebooks, each identified by a different letter and each serving a somewhat different purpose. As edited by her biographer, I.V. Hess, these form the bulk of the novel. But around them are gathered articles different art journals, some of which are probably written pseudonymously by Harry, plus testimony by her children, by others caught up peripherally in the story, interviews conducted by Hess, transcripts of films, fictions by Harry’s son, Ethan, who is a short story writer, and much more. These different perspectives intersect and contradict each other; we get a parallax view, but not a single and coherent picture. By the end of the book we think we know what happened, we think we know which version of events we believe, but we cannot be sure.
I’ve been impressed by Hustvedt’s work in the past, but this is of an order of magnitude better than anything previous. It is a stunning, daring, intellectually challenging work that is going to demand reading and re-reading, and will still probably not yield up all of its riches.
Finally, thinking of masks, I note that as I was typing up this blog post, my tablet kept insisting on changing Siri Hustvedt into Sir Hustled. Now what would he write?