Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American

Sorrows
What a terrible title. I’m not with the Anti-Americanism thing. Among products that sell like hot cakes, Anti-Americanism is one of the most insulting ones. Still, the title feels like it came straight out of the American Exceptionalism everyone hates so much. America is an interesting country, sure, but the sorrows of an American aren’t more profound than others.

The novel avoids this exceptionalism, thankfully. In fact, it’s the opposite of what its title suggests. The novel is concerned with the emotional turmoil of many people. It seeks to understand them, even when they’re creeps. I doubt the disconnection between the self-centered album title and the thoughtful story is deliberate, though.

Siri rambles again. There is a center for these ramblings, something resembling plot. The ramblings are also less elegant than that novel about a summer without men. In that Siri could just ramble on and even if it felt like a digression, it was pleasant to read.

Sorrows has an oddly clunky prose. Imagine if someone stuck a lot of gears inside Auster’s writing. This style is supposed to flow easily and be easy to read. If it isn’t, then the abundance of words is frustrating. Why Hustvedt fails here when he succeeded later is hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s because Sorrows is more descriptive.

Maze of thoughts tend to ramble, but their content always remains subjective. We get a lot of thoughts but few details. Sorrows tries to combine both. Sometimes it works. There are some objects in the story with great importance who needed detailed descriptions. Even there Hustvedt disappoints. She tries, but she doesn’t manage to come up with powerful imagery like McEwan.

There is also a family tree which is hard to keep track of. Here’s a tip for writers. Don’t just give a list of names of who was in the family and what’s their relation to the main character. Simply have them appear when their role in the story is relevant. Unless you’re into the study of naming, a name without something attached to it is a random collection of letters.

She’s better at keeping track of her present-day characters. They drive the story with their personalities and desires. A mystery kicks the novel off but it’s pushed to the side. Even when it’s solved, the resolution only exists to put all the characters in one place and have them clash. This is more exciting than just solving a murder mystery. Hustvedt has the tools to produce a nice psychological thriller.

The best parts is how she treats characters who otherwise would’ve been antagonists. The characters who create conflict, bother the protagonists and otherwise ruin everything for everyone aren’t defeated. The end of the conflict is understanding how the others think and why they do what they do, even if we still disapprove. In fact, we can’t really disapprove of someone’s behavior if we don’t understand it at first.

This is where Hustved deviates from Auster. Auster’s novels are a self-centered psychodrama. He traps you inside a character’s head and only shows his point of view. We’re not meant to necessarily side with the protagonist, but examine his flaws and strengths. Hustvedt wants to examine a large cast. It’s more admirable, but she’s not as successful as Auster is at his game. It’s the clunky prose again. The smooth prose is also what brought the characters in Summer Without Men to life. If only that one was as long as this novel.

Some have complained Hustvedt’s male protagonist sounds like a female. I found it so surprisingly male I wanted to take off points for it. Hustvedt’s prose is so similar to other male writers, but there’s not a touch of femininity in it. She writes it with a straight way and doesn’t show the female’s spin on it.

When Hustvedt describes how the protagonist lusts after a female, I almost felt like I’m reading another male author who needs to let out his fantasies. Hustvedt never crosses the border. She only describes the female the protagonist notices, and at points where he’ll notice something specific. One thing that Hustvedt describes well is those little moments where you notice a woman’s leg or hair or arm and aroused by it.

It’s not ‘wimpy’ or other such macho bullshit descriptions. Guys need girls. I’ve seen a lot of macho dudes who work so hard trying to achieve positive feedback from females. Without it, they’re nothing. Sexuality makes fools out of us all. Most people who are cool about it just happen to have it at the moment.

Hustvedt still sounds like Paul Auster in Sorrows, but that’s okay. Her attempts at understanding others and her wider scope means a different spin on that style. Without Auster’s smooth prose, though, it goes nowhere. The irony is that Sorrows has more purpose and a better story than Summer, but its prose keeps all the events distant. I’m still interested in what else Hustvedt has to offer, but this isn’t her masterpiece.

2.5 secrets out of 5

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Siri Hustvedt – The Summer Without Men

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Chick Lit is a dirty word. Reading other reviews of this novel, many expressed fear that this would be Chick Lit and therefore a waste of time. While I didn’t have the fortune of reading Chick Lit, I heard it’s full of romance and character drama. Why is that considered so bad while Game of Thrones is praised for being ‘surprising’ is unclear. Maybe it’s just our society’s fear of femininty.

Femininity is a big issue in The Summer Without Men. The novel does live up to its title. There’s a moment where, instead of a teenage boy meeting the teenage girl it’s just her friends trapping her. Even the best female singers sing about wrecked relationships, while Marilyn Manson writes about metaphysical rebellions. We could definitely use a story to show us women can have a life outside relationships with men.

It happens in real life, too. I met many ‘tomboys’, women who’d rather be one of the boys and only get along with fellow tomboys. The subtle bullying of Cat’s Eye makes an appearance. The whole premise of the novel is, what do you when the opposite gender rejects you?

There are two possible conclusions here. One is not convincing enough and the other isn’t explored. Mia looks at her rubble and builds a house. That’s nice and all, but we’re just told that it happens instead of seeing it.

Siri employs a style similar to Paul Auster. It’s an introspective style with more telling than showing. It creates a maze of thoughts that you’re supposed to swim through and come up with something of your own. The key to making the style works is to make the narrator unreliable and deeply flawed.

Narrators of such stories tend to have an emotional affliction they can’t get over. It clouds their judgment and so we get two different versions of reality. One is presented in the details. The other is in the langauge and sentence structure. These are often obsessive characters, going over certain details over and over.

By presenting these characters as flawed and often the opposite of heroic, we’re invited to try to find the reality beyond the character’s perception. Mia lacks such an internal struggle. She has a psychotic episode, but we’re told that instead of being shown. In Catcher in the Rye, we’re not told that Caulfield has PTSD but we’re shown it by seeing him going over and over his brother’s death. A maze of thoughts tells us how reality is while showing us who the character is by his choice of langauge.

I never got an idea of who Mia is. What is her complex? What are her priorities? What is her worldview? She’s supposed to have had a psychotic episode, but the prose is clean and precise. It makes it easy to read, but I’d expect someone in an emotional turmoil to not be very coherent. The rambling style was necessary in those aforementioned novels because a character with emotional problems would be too busy venting them then making sure his words make sense.

The closest she come to doing that is breaking up the structure. She moves from topic to topic, rather than follow the typical “this happened and then this happened”. This works because the novel has a few different storylines that stand on their own, but that’s not a way to express Mia’s character. It’s just a way to make us take each individual story on its own, rather than try to make sense of the chronological order.

The stories themselves, while good, don’t rely enough on the rambling narrator tool. Stories with rambling narrators aren’t eventful. It’s less important what happens and more how it affects the characters. The action in this novel doesn’t, if it’s psychological, with Mia’s psychology.

There are two main arcs. One has a group of old ladies slowly dying out, and the other a group of young girls who are just entering the teenage wasteland. At this point, the novel is less about Mia and more about these characters. We get Mia’s opinion of them, but we also get some showing.

Siri needed to decide whether Mia gives us only her point of view, or whether she’s an observer who just reports what she says. We get something in the middle, which means it’s teasing without the orgasm. The arc with the old ladies is well-meaning, but is doomed from the start. One of the old ladies’ secret is that she makes quilts with hidden, profane images.

Siri was, what, 55 when she wrote the novel? There is the perception that old people are all prudes, but making them be into profanity doesn’t add any more life to them. The cliche of the Dirty Old Man or the old woman who seeks a sugar daddy are boring. If the only proof we have that this old lady still has life in her is her interest in profanity, then I don’t think she has much life in her left. Profanity is attention seeking. True rebels don’t care.

Profanity is impressive when you’re young, but by the time high school started it lost its charm. You occasionally get people who know how to use it, like what Bring Me the Horizon did in “Happy Song”. Most people, including the character in this novel, use it for pathetic shock value. When Abigail showed Mia that she put naked women in hidden in the quilt, I did not see an old lady with life still in her. I saw an old lady whose horizons are now so limited she can’t imagine anything more exciting other than profanity. By the way, this novel was published before Bring Me the Horizon’s album.

The almost-teenagers work better, but they deserve a whole novel to themselves. They are forced to write about the incident of bullying from the perspective of everyone else. This is a brilliant idea. How a character writes about another can tell us about both, and if an author is going to tackle this idea head-on we can get some serious character development.

Siri doesn’t do it. All we get is some snippets. They’re interesting enough, but again it’s all just teasing without even foreplay to compensate. There’s an attempt to understand the bully just like the bullied. It’s an interesting take that recognizes the cruelty of bullying, how these little thing produces social retards. It also tries to understand why bullies start in the first place. Many of them are sure they’re in the right and that the bullied just has a superiority complex. Siri touches that, but not enough.

There are off-topic digressions which don’t contribute much and reinforce the feeling this is just a collection of notes for an incomplete novel. Siri at least puts effort into writing her notes. Her prose flows smoothly and whenever she sinks deep into Mia’s psyche it gets better. The beginning is powerful, throwing us right in the middle of heartbreak and all the self-pity and anger that accompanies it. If Siri would let her loose a little and let Mia ramble, this could’ve been a great novel.

The Summer Without Men is too written-well to be bad. Even if everything in it is left unexplored, everything is interesting enough to make you want to do something with it yourself. The prose is pretty good and it’s short enough so it doesn’t drag. A good choice if you want a light read that’s not stupid, but that’s it.

3 summers out of 5