THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Hustvedt's 'Sorrows' draws on diaries and dreams

Siri Hustvedt's novel excerpts her father's journal. Siri Hustvedt's novel excerpts her father's journal. (Marion Ettlinger)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ted Weesner Jr.
July 19, 2008

The Sorrows of an American
By Siri Hustvedt
Holt, 306 pp., $25

If HBO's recent hit show "In Treatment" has proven anything, it's that psychotherapy can make for compelling drama. Of course it doesn't hurt that the show's therapist is simmering Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, whose radiant paternal calm managed to launch even this heterosexual male into an unexpected "projective" tizzy. The zeitgeist must be in need, because now we have novelist Siri Hustvedt shrinking heads in "The Sorrows of an American." And while her version may be more realistic, it hardly springs dramatically off the couch. Instead, readers of this novel may feel like psychoanalysts dozing off as their patients describe their most desperate, anguished past.

Thankfully, the patient/doctor relationship is not the only narrative line Hustvedt pursues. Told in retrospect by psychiatrist Erik Davidsen, the novel frames what his sister, Inga, calls "the year of secrets." Most central, these two characters, who like Hustvedt make their home in New York City, have recently lost their father. As the two adult children return to their Minnesota home to settle his affairs and sort through the papers he's left behind, they come across diaries that point to a mysterious encounter between their father and a girl during his teenage years, bait that Hustvedt trolls for the next 300 pages.

Still, sprinkled throughout are several crumbs that keep a reader tiptoeing forward. Erik takes a romantic interest in his downstairs tenant, who in the meantime is being stalked by her camera-snapping, art-making ex. Inga, the widow of a famous author, faces down new painful information about her husband's complex past. (Hustvedt herself is the wife of celebrated novelist Paul Auster.) Meanwhile, Inga's 18-year-old daughter is working out her own father issues, complicated by having been direct witness to the twin towers falling. Even if these actions are not momentous, Hustvedt makes her characters' stories quietly engaging.

Yet clotting the momentum are the father's journal entries, interpolated throughout the novel. If Hustvedt's prose is always precise and even elegant, the diaristic passages surface often and without clear reason. Erik will be walking down a Brooklyn street and suddenly his father's words (even paragraphs) come to him with instant recall, at the same time bogging the far more active present. (One finds in the book-concluding acknowledgments this revelation: Although we've been reading a novel, the journal entries are actually Hustvedt's father's verbatim, perhaps pointing to a conceit that proved nigh impossible for the author to offload.)

Diary excerpts are not the only passages that cobweb the novel's internal geography. One question all novelists must pose to themselves in the revision stages: In how many circumstances - outside of a therapy session - can one interest a listener in their dreams? Likely not many, and yet Hustvedt litters the path with her protagonist's unwoken life. Equally problematic are Erik's pervasive memories. On many pages one encounters the phrase "I remembered." Of course flashbacks are a time-honored novelistic strategy for deepening a sense of what's happening in the now. But when the past starts to overwhelm the present, a reader feels swamped in amorphous time. Not helping matters: when the protagonist alerts us to what he sees - as in "I noticed" - creating a visual scrim that obstructs direct sight, sound, and experience. This is the sort of tic that an experienced novelist should be well past.

One promising character, the young daughter of Erik's tenant, likes to stop by and chat. At one point, a ball of string in hand, she playfully wraps him and his furniture to the point of near immobility. It's the sort of misfit, offbeat moment that Hustvedt can surprise you with. But it also strikes the reader - who has wandered somewhat dazedly through aimless dreams and diaries, tripping over cumbersome signposts along the way - as an all-too-apt metaphor for what needlessly cuts off this novel's circulation.

Ted Weesner Jr. is a writer living in Somerville.

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