'The Blazing World,' by Siri Hustvedt
The Blazing WorldBy Siri Hustvedt(Simon & Schuster; 357 pages; $26)
In a more playful world, Siri Hustvedts 10th book, The Blazing World, wouldnt be marketed as a novel, but as what it purports to be - an anthology. The wonder is that Hustvedts experiment in fragmentation tells a coherent and moving story, with a beginning, middle and end.
The subject is a controversial artist named Harriet Burden. The anthologys editor has managed to track down the elusive Burden only posthumously, compiling interviews, statements and journal entries from Burden herself in an attempt to understand this driven, contradictory figure. The resulting compilation (otherwise known as a novel) is a glorious mashup of storytelling and scholarship, some of it invented. Through its absence of an authoritative narrator, the books format poses questions about the nature of perception. Many people, from Burdens children to a psychoanalyst friend to her lover and more, weigh in on who she really was.
Unmoored as Burden was - some insist crazed - following the death of her husband, prominent New York art dealer Felix Lord, her mute, inwardly raging little monster climbs out of the box as she conceives a plot to secure recognition as a serious artist and rise up against the patriarchs and their minions who control the machinery of public awareness.
Burden chooses three masks. Three male artists agree to present shows of her work as their own. Once recognition is established, Burden will employ yet another male mask, an invented scholar, to reveal the ruse.
The fallout is what Hustvedts fans might expect: emotionally fraught and brainy. Burden, with her rages, her shock of frizzled red hair and Amazonian height, is among Hustvedts messier characters. I sabotaged myself without knowing it, Burden mourns in a late journal entry, after the soulless, brilliant charmer Rune, her third artist mask and the most powerful, twists her Faustian game to his own ends.
Harry Burden is a genius, but like Abigail in Hustvedts The Summer Without Men, she has sublimated her gifts. Harrys prodigious intellect was too long suppressed by her need to please the important men in her life, her father and husband, who preferred their women silent. Abigails subversive quilts and the creepy, hyperrealistic dolls that appear in Sorrows of an American morph, in Burdens hands, into disturbing, confrontational effigies that would shriek if they could. Her installations are claustrophobic rooms, literally overheated, or a disorienting, maze-like Plexiglas structure through which visitors are funneled like cattle.
She believed in her steam and fury, and she pushed her art out of her like wet, bloody newborns, writes Harrys lover, the blocked poet Bruno Kleinfeld.
Despite its intensity, The Blazing World concerns ambivalence: that of both genders toward patriarchy; the lure of fame, and the art worlds infatuation with appearances; the undermining power of unconscious motivation. But the novel does not pursue philosophical high jinks at the expense of story or character. Its touching conclusion blazes hot and bright from the perspective of an aura reader, Harriets caretaker, whose vision of the artists work is at once spiritually charged and whimsical.
Helen W. Mallon reviews books for the Philadelphia Inquirer. E-mail: email@example.com