A critic publishes a rave review of an art installation, the work of a charismatic, “bad-boy celebrity” artist, describing the work as “muscular,” “rigorous” and “cerebral.” Would he have applied the same adjectives if the art had been presented as the work of a grandmother approaching 60? Would he have bothered to review the work at all?
In her dazzling new novel, “The Blazing World,” Siri Hustvedt confronts these questions, along with more subtle ones relating to the degree to which expectations and prejudices shape not only taste, but perception itself.
Returning to the New York gallery scene that served as the setting for her 2003 novel, “What I Loved,” Ms. Hustvedt offers a sophisticated commentary on sexism, ageism and myth-making in the art world. Not a new topic, to be sure: the repression of female artists and their relative absence in the history of art have long been a feminist theme.
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However, “The Blazing World” manages to present so many perspectives, arguments and counter-arguments, conjectures, facts and fictions that you can’t help but think about the subject in a more informed and nuanced way after reading the book.
The novel tells the story of Harriet (“Harry”) Burden, an embittered artist who never received the professional recognition she craved. Instead, she was known primarily as the wife of a powerful art dealer, suffering in silence and playing the roles of good wife and mother. Freed from those roles by the death of her husband and the maturing of her children, Harry decides, on the cusp of the 21st century, to “experiment with the perception of her work through the use of masculine personas.”
She devises an experiment she calls “Maskings,” in which she will present her own art as the work of three young men, each very different from the others — one an unschooled “young hunk,” another a well-meaning gay, biracial performance artist, the third an art world “cowboy.” Each agrees to the Faustian bargain for his own reasons.
As Harry had anticipated, her pseudonymous art, when presented behind three “living male masks,” garners more attention and praise than her work as Harriet Burden ever did, and the last of the installations, presented as the work of the single-named Rune, becomes a cultural sensation.
Attributing this reception to the “male enhancement effect,” which she believes affects female viewers as much as men, Harry makes plans to exact her sweet revenge by revealing the hoax.
However, Rune, the only one of the three “fronts” who had achieved critical and financial success prior to his arrangement with Harry, is not willing to acknowledge that the much-lauded work is not his own. While admitting that Harry served as a muse and supporter of the work, he implies that she is a delusional old woman: “You know, she’s been in psychiatric treatment for years. Let’s just say she’s a kind lady, but a little confused from time to time.”
Seldom will you find a character less confused than Harry. She may be angry, obsessive and vulnerable, but she is totally clear about her quest. We get glimpses into her brilliant and analytic mind through excerpts from her voluminous journals, from written statements and transcripts of interviews with those who knew her, and from scholarly articles and criticism.
“The Blazing World” is ingeniously constructed as a collection of purportedly factual documents, edited by “I.V. Hess,” an academic researching Harry’s still-questioned claims of authorship years after her death from cancer.
This literary device, echoing Harry’s own “not what it appears to be” art project, allows for a multiplicity of viewpoints and the presentation of huge amounts of background material, both of which would have been almost impossible in a conventional narrative.
Remarkably, the voices of the many narrators are varied and distinguishable, while their contradictory testimonies highlight the inherent unreliability of each of them.
The book is unapologetically intellectual, with footnotes explicating many of the references to art history, philosophy, critical theory, literature, psychoanalysis and neuroscience. While these contribute to the “masking” of the book as an academic tome, I found myself skipping many of the denser footnotes on Kierkegaard, Husserl, Freud and French cultural theory.
Happily, there is also a good deal of satirical humor in the book, often arising from the author’s superb ear for cultural cliches and talent for deflating pretentious or fatuous pronouncements. Additionally, she creates a cast of richly drawn memorable, quirky secondary characters — in particular Harry’s later-life lover, Bruno, and her son, Ethan, who publishes a very small magazine called the Neo-Situationist Bugle.
“The Blazing World” is a serious, sometimes profound book, tackling head-on the knotty issues of identity and sense of self, and our unconscious ideas about gender and celebrity. It offers an exhilarating reading experience for anyone willing to meet its challenge.
Eileen Weiner, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Shadyside (email@example.com).