Book Reviewlet: The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt

Setup: a wealthy white genius daughter/wife, pissed at the patriarchy and tired of exclusion by the Art World, plots a long con. She secretly hires dudes to pretend her work is theirs. After three, she’ll unveil herself in triumph to prove to the Patriarchy that the Patriarchy exists.

The Patriarchy’s like, uh, yeah? What’s your point?

And the world blazes on. With footnotes.

The setup seems like it’ll be pedantic. Further, it’s got a pseudo-academic frame narrative. A scholar of indeterminate expertise, IV Hess, has edited this volume, The Blazing World, about the artist Harriet Burden. Hess ostensibly excised reams of fragmentary journals to pull the choice bits together with first-person writing by Burden’s friends and family into a semi-cohesive story.

Hello absence [constituting representation], my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.

It metas its meta wantonly. Burden publishes multiple art theory articles under multiple male pseudonyms, almost none of which are included in the frame narrative volume. Some layers about the art works themselves–verbal representations of installations that would be experienced by an embodied art fan moving through space-time, if such works existed outside the volume’s meta-textual representation of them. Another layered subplot about the Singularity/AI to reinforce its meta-questions about the ethics of identity, representation and knowledge.

Except despite all that, plus footnotes, it’s not all that pedantic. It’s a little pedantic. But not much.

Punching pedantism in the face, even as she cites a breathtaking diversity of writers in her journals and continually kvetches about her unappreciated genius, is Harriet Burden herself, as close to a living, breathing character as we get in contemporary novels. Especially novels of “ideas.”

True to our second wave heritage, Hustvedt makes the personal political. Burden’s rage at the art world burns on private fuel. Her dad was cold. Her husband cheated. Both suppressed her in real ways.

However. While I’m no Terry Castle, I’ll note that the psychological underpinnings of Burden’s rage ring a bit hollow to me. The trauma of patriarchy is real, but I expected a more violent experience in Burden’s past to compel her radically self-abnegating magnum opus and perpetual fury.

Later traumas in the book feel more true and successfully humanize her. Which is great. But.

In this sense, Hustvedt lays squarely in the David Foster Wallace trajectory of big-ass brainy novels humanized by a traumatized character. Wallace’s work is almost completely populated by traumatized people, as if there’s no other way to grab a reader’s heart. Wallace is only the lead example. Trauma, major illness and disability are the key character traits of modern fiction–I include TV here too. Like how Girls gave Hannah OCD to make us sympathize.

I know from being a human as well as from my day gig doing children’s health policy that trauma is far more pervasive than one may think. I’m therefore sympathetic to trigger warnings and suspect their proliferation has more to do with a widespread cultural acknowledgement of trauma than with a sudden new generational onslaught of oversensitivity. So yes. Trauma. It happens. Its effects are real.

On the other hand, I’d like to see fiction in which characters deal with the trauma of white male supremacy without some additional melodramatic abuse or neglect, fatal illness or major disability.

One of the novel’s and Burden’s major points is that when you take women’s intellectual production seriously, you have to confront the failures of Enlightenment philosophy: bodies matter. Descartes’ most famous one-liner lied to all of us, even if Burden’s journal describes his work as more subtle than his legacy may suggest.

The novel embodies Burden thoroughly enough, shunting off sexist Cartesian dualism just fine, without her continually reliving the non-traumas of childhood. And certainly without her affecting, realistic but odd-feeling end.

And in fact, the novel proves its point about embodied knowledge and the legitimacy of alt history much more effectively through a minor character, Sweet Autumn Pinkney. Sweet Autumn is a new age healer. She was an assistant for Burden’s first piece and a lover of the young man who showed that work as his. She returns at Burden’s/the novel’s end to clean Burden’s aura. With crystals.

By giving her narrative the closing word in the novel, Hustvedt presents her knowledge as equivalent to Burden’s fierce intellectualism. This alone transforms the novel from an experimental postmodern campus novel into the radical statement about knowledge that Burden herself couldn’t quite reach.

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