In a poignant opening scene of Siri Hustvedt's fourth novel, Erik Davidsen cleans out his deceased father's desk.
He finds a ring of keys meticulously labeled "unknown," which symbolizes the secrets that Lars, his father, has left behind.
By Suri Hustvedt
Erik and his sister, Inga, also find an unfinished memoir and a letter. The memoir, which is quoted throughout the novel, helps establish the pace of the story and is a window into his father's life before marriage and a family.
The letter is a mystery that becomes the scaffolding for the story, which evolves without chapter breaks for the next 300 pages. The lack of formal chapters is a bit unsettling in such a dense book. Although it does add to the story's dreamlike quality, I found it difficult to find a stopping place when I wanted to put down the novel and head back into my own life. As the story unfolds, we witness Erik's loneliness and isolation. He's newly divorced, and depression comes on slowly, much to his surprise, even as he treats patients with a variety of depressions and separation disorders in his Manhattan therapy practice.
"I'm so lonely," he says out loud, surprising himself. "That is the strangeness of language; it crosses the boundaries of the body, is at once inside and outside, and it sometimes happens that we don't notice the threshold has been crossed."
The meditative tone of the book is poetry at its best; the language has resonance and meter and meaning. Its cadence is often in sharp contrast to bustling New York City and its inhabitants. But it is in describing Erik's pastoral Minnesota hometown that Hustvedt, a native Minnesotan, is at her best.
Erik's hometown serves as a catalyst for memories. There is no present tense there, only the past, unfolding:
"During my trip to Minnesota I was plagued by the thought that I was in a dream, wading forward through heavy air in a distorted landscape."
Memories are as alive as the present in this book. They produce sensory scenes where characters eavesdrop into their own lives as well as into the lives of their ancestors.
But the book isn't all about the interior. The characters are very much alive. Hustvedt provides nicely drawn details of both the intimate and mundane in their day-to-day lives, and she clearly has done meticulous research into psychiatry and psychoanalysis.
The wide cast of characters includes Inga's daughter, Sonia, a budding poet; and Erik's downstairs tenant and unrequited love, Miranda, an artist, and her precocious daughter, Eggy, who at one point in the story is both actually and figuratively tying everything up with string.
There are also the perpetually sweating colleague Burton, who also lusts after Miranda, as well as the troupe of would-be biographers hovering around, trying to uncover gossip about Max -- Inga's dead husband, yet a still famous writer.
Finally, there is Miranda's manic ex-boyfriend Jeff Lane, who photographs her, Eggy and Erik for an exhibition examining his own timeline, his own anger and confusion over the loss of his parents.
It's a big, swirling, complex world, and Erik stands at its center. In one memorable scene, nearly everyone is present at the same dinner party.
Whether it's Erik's father, his sister's husband, Burton's mother, people jumping from buildings on Sept. 11, or his patient Sarah, the people who die in this book suddenly become mysteries to those who knew them. The living are left to reconstruct lives without them.
In the acknowledgments, Hustvedt lets us in on the fact that the passages from Erik's father's memoir are taken directly from the unpublished memoir of Hustvedt's late father.
At its heart, "The Sorrows of an American" explores loneliness and untold stories. It asks the question, "How do we make amends with our memories?"
It suggests we continue by surviving "the loveless present." We continue by trying first one key, then the next, until a door opens.
Sherrie Flick is co-founder and artistic director for the Gist Street Reading Series whose work is in the anthology "New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond."