I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, one of the best things about belonging to a book group is that it puts you in the way of books that you might otherwise never have read. I’ve had Siri Hustvedt’s 2003 novel, What I Loved, on my radar for some time now but the necessary push to pick it up off that never ending mountain only came about because a fellow reader chose it as the focus for this month’s discussion. If you’re reading this Jen, then thank you, because while this book may be, as some of the group pointed out, flawed in certain ways, in my opinion, it is a flawed masterpiece.
How to even begin to tell you about this novel? Well, it’s set amongst the artistic and academic communities of New York’s Manhatten and covers roughly the decades of the seventies, eighties and nineties. It focuses on two families, those of Leo, the narrator, an art historian and academic and of Bill, an artist and, ultimately, Leo’s closest friend. We watch, through Leo’s eyes, as Bill develops from a painter, struggling to make a living, to an internationally recognised installation artist. We also watch the growing dismay that surrounds Bill’s only child, Mark, as it becomes apparent that he has serious mental health problems and finds it almost impossible to empathise with other individuals, however close to them he might appear to be. Both Leo and Bill make a living from trying to analyse aspects of the world around them and then presenting those analyses in ways that will illuminate their subjects to any who come into contact with their work. The irony is that while they are busy dissecting and reinterpreting external matters neither of them has any real understanding of the situation closer to home: of the damage that Mark has suffered and which in turn he is inflicting on others.
More interesting than the plot line for me, however, were the various ideas that Hustvedt explores as she takes us through the lives of her main characters. These are so many and varied that it would be impossible to discuss them all. For example, if you are interested in the art world and the way it is manipulated by a small number of individuals, you will find it examined here. If your concerns are more to do with the relationship between physical and mental health problems, then that is scrutinised too. Consequently, I am going to concentrate on just one aspect of the novel, that is, what Hustvedt has to say about our relation to story, partly because it was what interested me the most and partly because I think what Hustvedt is saying in relation to this topic also finds echoes in respect of the other issues she covers.
In the very first paragraph Leo reflects on
the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again
and this notion of what might be seen as a palimpsest of narratives building up over time, each telling either adding weight and meaning to those that have gone before or concealing something of importance from a previous experience, is relevant both to Bill’s work, which focuses on revealing the unexpected hidden in the depths of the ordinary, and in the way in which those around him fail to understand what is happening to Mark.
As I made my way home, I realised that two narratives about Mark had unfolded inside me – one on top of the other. The superficial story went something like this: Like thousands of other teenagers, Mark had hidden parts of his life from his parents. No doubt he had experimented with drugs, slept with girls and maybe, I was beginning to think, a couple of boys…like so many children his age, he had tried on various persona to discover which one suited him. He behaved one way with his peers and another with adults. This version of Mark story was ordinary, one tale like a million others of a normal, bumpy adolescence.
The other story was similar to the one that lay above it, and its content was identical: Mark had been caught lying. He had formed a friendship with an unsavoury person I privately called ‘the ghost,’ and Mark’s body and voice changed depending on whom he was speaking to at the moment.But this second narrative lacked the smoothness of the first. It had holes in it and those gaps made the story difficult to tell. It didn’t rely on a larger fiction about teenage life to fill in its ragged openings but left them gaping and unanswered.
I find the idea that we tell stories about the people we know which fit the template of a generic fiction we carry around with us, rather than seeing the actual narrative of their lives both compelling but also very disturbing. And yet, it is difficult to see how society could function smoothly if we didn’t. It is only when something goes radically wrong that we realise how superficial our knowledge of another really is.
Eventually, however, Leo changes his view of the way in which Mark relates to story. From believing that
Mark’s life was an archaeology of fictions, one on top of the other and [he] had only just started to dig
he shifts his position because
[a] story is about making connections in time, and Mark’s stuck in a time warp, a sick repetition that just shuttles him back and forth, back and forth
until finally he is forced into the belief that
he doesn’t understand what language is. It’s like he never figured out symbols – the whole structure of things is missing. He can speak, but he just uses words to manipulate other people…It’s more than that. Mark doesn’t have a story…he doesn’t know what it is.
Can you imagine anything worse than not being aware of what your story is, of simply existing moment by moment without being able to make the causal linkage that moulds those moments into a meaningful existence? As Leo says very early on in the novel
stories [are] like blood running through a body – paths of life
imagine what it must be like to live your life lost in a wood, surrounded by trees and with no path to help you chart your way through. I caught the tail end of a discussion on the radio the other day in which someone was claiming that he didn’t think narrative was that important and that we all made far too much fuss about the way in which it related to human existence. I’m sorry but I couldn’t disagree more. For me, Barbara Hardy was spot on when she wrote that narrative is a primary act of mind. The fact that when you read about a character who has lost the ability to make any narrative sense of his life you are not only chilled to the core but unable to find any point of contact with him, unable to get any handle on the way that he thinks and what motivates the way in which he behaves, only goes to emphasise how vital that sense of story is.
I could continue to explore the ways in which Siri Hustvedt moved me in this novel, but you must by now be getting the idea. If you haven’t read What I Loved then I can only suggest that you do so as soon as possible. You may not get out of it the same things that I did, but I can promise you that you will come away from it thinking deeply about some of ideas that she considers because there is something in this for everyone to engage with.