Sunday, July 5, 2015

Review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

First published:- 2014

Star rating:-

The problem with this book is that none of it rings true - the characterization, the narration, the atmosphere, the dialogues, the relationships, even the emotions. Everything seems so fake and overwhelmingly dramatic that at times I cajoled myself into reading on in the hopes of spotting some noticeable evidence of parody at work. But nope. Sardonic self-deprecation isn't the objective here. These people are all serious and want me to take them seriously. 

Although once I persuaded myself to go with the flow and obsequiously accepted the narrative's palpable delusions of grandeur and omnipotence, the reading experience became a lot more bearable. Because sometimes even if a book manages to irritate me with its undisguised self-admiration, I can gleefully read on if it contains an intelligent discussion on the human condition. And the good thing is 'The Blazing World' is blazing with new ideas, bursting at the seams with complex concepts on neuroscience, memory, phenomenology, perception and gendered identities which require careful, prolonged contemplation. Additionally, Siri Hustvedt can rustle up a wonderful turn of phrase and a syntactically elegant, lexically succulent sentence. So the negatives and positives are fairly balanced. 

Much like its protagonist Harriet Burden's creations, The Suffocation Rooms or Beneath, the book is like an elaborate contraption, a labyrinth of contrasting worldviews and allusions to arcane texts designed to aid the reader in comprehending the mess that lies outside clearly demarcated boundaries defining human existence. Friends, family, therapists, gallery owners, art reviewers, journalists, expose layer after layer of prejudice, personal contempt, vague conjectures, hollow biases while projecting their own image of Harriet Burden as an artist who had to use male pseudonyms to get attention in the art world. In posterity, Harriet is only reconstructed as a montage of other people's opinions and her journal entries, as a widely learned woman whose talent is overlooked by her rich, influential art collector husband and the male-dominated art world in general. Desperate for recognition, she decides to pull off an intricate con on the artworld by showcasing her work using three male artists as her 'masks'. But her plans derail when her last front aka Rune Larsen, an eccentric, manipulative artist, refuses to play along and takes credit for her work.

All intellectual and artistic endeavors, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls (odorless, of course). The pecker and beanbags need not be real. Oh no, the mere idea that they exist will suffice to goad the crowd into greater appreciation.

Women artists are less appreciated than their male counterparts, viewed with prejudice, treated with contempt, rarely allowed entrance into the hallowed halls of fame.... yada get the picture. Except something about the way Hustvedt delivers this feminist-y rant left me a little cold. I blame the highly unconvincing multiple perspectives and Hustvedt's general disregard for the 'show don't tell' device. This is where I prefer Margaret Atwood's deconstruction of the mind of a female painter/artist (Cat's Eye) because Atwood knows how to fashion a blistering denunciation of male chauvinism without being overt about it and she can recount a believable story like nobody's business. Hustvedt, on the other hand, seems rather intent on creating opportunities within a text to insert esoteric references and paragraph length footnotes which scarcely add anything to the world which our characters inhabit. 

Long story short, I want to remember this as an intellectual exercize, or as a corpus of interesting ideas.


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