Sunday, March 09, 2008

Siri Hustvedt's "What I Loved"

One of the great things in this novel is its description of grief--that of parents for a young son suddenly taken away from them. Another great thing is the exciting psychological mystery revolving around a young pathological liar and thief. Underlying both achievements is the idea that human interaction is a matter of mixing, or, more accurately, a mixing of matter. The narrator of the novel, the art history professor Leo, hears about this from the wife of his best friend, the painter Bill Weschler. Violet says:

"I've decided that mixing is a key term. It's better than suggestion, which is one-sided. It explains what people rarely talk about, because we define ourselves as isolated closed bodies who bump up against each other but stay shut. Descartes was wrong. It isn't: I think, therefore I am. It's: I am because you are. . . ."

She goes on, after an interruption from Leo,

"What matters is that we're always mixing with other people. Sometimes it's normal and good, and sometimes it's dangerous. . . . Bill mixes in his paintings, Writers do it in books. We do it all the time."

A child is, in a sense, a mixture of two people, and loving parenting means a deeper stirring in of oneself into the child, at the same time as one is stirred by the growing being. How could the loss of the child not feel like the loss of something given, and the loss of something received?

The dark side of this mixing is seen in the case of Mark who, faced with his parents' divorce, learns to be whoever the other person wants him to be. I am because you are. Not only does he not have a stable identity, he also does not understand empathy and responsibility.

But it is not right, even if it is possible, to stop mixing with the world. Violet who is writing a book on hysterics retells many accounts of people who eat too much in order to form protective layers against the world, and of people who eat too little in order to fall back on a bare-boned identification of the self. Both kinds of sickness warn against the understandable desire to withdraw from mixing.

If sickness provides the metaphor for the dangers of mixing, art is the novel's trope for good, though not untroubled, mixing, or for necessary mixing. At the beginning of the novel, Leo describes Bill's painting, Self-Portrait, in which the central figure is that of a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. I am because you are. The painting's "mixed styles and shifting focus" provide the aesthetic equivalent of its mixed subject.

The description of this and other paintings is another great achievement of the novel. I don't think the descriptions of the later sculptural installations work as well. The multiple meanings of Bill's glass cubes and his doors series seem to be reduced to the single dimension of prose, perhaps inevitably. The depiction of the friendship between Leo and Bill, praised by many of the novel's reviewers for its sensitivity and intelligence, does not feel convincing to me. Leo sees Bill through feminine eyes.


Rui said...

*taking the bait*

yeah, one of my (very minor) complaints about the novel was that the *entire* narrative sounds female. it's not confined to the way Leo sees Bill.

the friend who first recommended this book to me had this to say in response:

"Naturally it was a female-sounding voice, he's an art hist prof, he might as well be a lit academic, yikes."

which i thought was really hilarious.

Shropshirelad said...

Good luck with your reading tonight at the Cornelia Street Cafe. I'd love to come and listen but indications are that I will be working...

Incidentally, I listened to some of your April sonnets last night, thanks to those convenient links below and to the right. Excellent pieces.

I may need to get a copy of that chapbook of yours.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Rui,
Thanks for the excellent recommendation. I enjoyed the novel tremendously, despite the minor complaints.

Hi shropshireland,
It'd be lovely to meet up at one of the readings sometime.