Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Sorrows of an American

I was wandering through a bookshop (how unusual) and saw this novel by Siri Hustvedt.  The blurb intrigued me. Until recently I have never borrowed novels from the library.  I decided not to risk buying this but borrowed it.  Correct choice: it's not a book for my collection.  Apart from anything else I should have been warned by the endorsement on the front cover from Salman Rushdie. I'm not one of his admirers.  But I digress.

The dominant plot - there are many plots and sub plots - revolves around a mystery unearthed by the narrator, Erik Davidsen (a New York psychiatrist of Norwegian parentage) who is grieving for his father, and his sister Inga (an academic).  They are going through their father's papers when they discover a cryptic note about which their mother knows nothing. 'Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing (sic) about what happened,' it reads. 'We swore it on the Bible. It can't matter now she's in heaven or to the ones here on earth.'  The author of this note is a mysterious 'Lisa' no one can trace.  

This is not, however, really a story about finding the meaning of the note but a look at the human mind and its reactions to, and contained in, the many plots and sub-plots.  The book is very much an analysis of the characters contained within it.  It obviously does that well and is acclaimed for that.  There is an element of autobiography in the book in that the memoirs quoted are those of Siri's deceased father quoted almost verbatim.  It is true, too, that one can learn a smidgen of psychiatry and psychoanalysis from the book.

It did have an element of compulsion and once started I had to finish.  It was not time well spent. If you desire a satisfying outcome to a mystery then this is not for you.  It may be strong on personal analysis but it's weak on storyline.  Despite discovering that the book is almost universally acclaimed by the critics it did not make me want to read any more of her, also highly acclaimed, novels.


It's odd that we're all compelled to repeat pain, but  I've come to regard this as a truth.  What used to be doesn't leave us.

"We don't experience the world.  We experience our expectations of the world." (Inga)

Our memories are forever being altered by the present - memory isn't stable, but mutable.

"Injustice eats your soul" (Inga)

"...the [psychiatric] patients are now referred to as customers." " That's revolting."  "That's America."

[Telling a story] Burton made another dash towards his point.

And so we held vigil in the eerie space of the ongoing present, an interval drained of all significance, except that it was suspended between a child's fall and some future moment when we would know.