I have a special admiration for books that take on the emotional complexity of the human psyche, and then successfully and without melodrama, reveal something novel about personal interaction. Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American is a dense and thoughtful little book about a variety of human relationships – siblings, lovers, children to parents, friends, doctor to patient.
The book is about Erik, a divorced psychiatrist in New York, who becomes attached to the woman (and her child) who rent half of his house. The woman has a troubling relationship with the child’s father, an artist, who often pushes the boundaries of sane, rational behavior. Personal boundaries and emotional/mental health are big issues in this novel. The main story focuses on Erik, his work, his loneliness, his memories, but there are several other stories involving his widowed sister Inga (who was married to a famous writer) and his niece (who witnessed the fall of the twin towers).
One of the more subtle but very powerful stories in the novel revolves around Erik’s grief for his recently deceased father. A small mystery arises when Erik and his sister go through their father’s papers. I’m tempted to say that the mystery in and of itself becomes superfluous (and that would be an accurate statement) but it isn’t superfluous to what the novel has to say about grief, about its painful, disorienting perplexity. I appreciated the intricacy of Erik’s grief for a father he loved, but ultimately never understood or was able to be close with.
The dialogue in the book caught my attention. Hustvedt allows her characters to speak, really speak. Saying things to each other with actual substance. I believe this is often difficult to pull off, our reader’s ear finds falseness very quickly in dialogue that tries to sound too profound. Here is an example of what I mean, taken from a conversation in which Erik is speaking with his sister about his work:
“I miss the patients. It’s hard to describe, but when people are in desperate need, something falls away. The posing that’s part of the ordinary world vanishes, that How-are-you?-I’m-fine falseness.” I paused. “The patients might be raving or mute or even violent, but there’s an existential urgency to them that’s invigorating. You feel close to the raw truth of what human beings are.”
I like the risk Erik takes in saying this. He’s admitting something about his emotional need to be exposed to the rawness of other people. This doesn’t come in the middle of a long, serious conversation. He says this a little out-of-the-blue while he and his sister are discussing something unrelated. I like the authenticity in that. Sometimes people say things like this, meaningful confessions in the midst of common conversation.
There were two elements of the novel, however, that kept me at a distance. The first was the narrative voice. This is such a difficult thing to quibble with…and I suppose Erik convinced me of his maleness by the end, but I couldn’t quite shake my original impression of the voice as distinctly female. Putting the book down and rereading the first pages helped (and I note that we learn Erik’s first name in the third paragraph, but somehow I managed to overlook this) but the shadow of a female narrator hovered over my entire experience with the book.
I dislike when this happens because I hate to think of myself as a prejudiced reader, one that assumes a female writer can only write in a female voice. Some of my favorite authors routinely write from the perspective of the opposite gender and I’ve never had any trouble with it. Now, on the other hand, I loved most of the other elements of the narrative voice.
The only other thing that niggled at me while I was reading was the sizeable amount of psychoanalytic theory or imagery. On the whole, I really enjoyed Erik’s thoughts about the mind and how fragile it is, but there were a lot of dreams in the book, most of which had quite in-your-face symbolism, and I’ve never found this revelatory in literature. Also, some of the “troubling” behaviors from the daughter of Erik’s renter were too facile. I believe that children under stress do exhibit behaviors which can be clarified and understood through a psychoanalytic lens, but in literature it often strikes me as contrived.
Despite these two small criticisms, I was overwhelmingly impressed with Hustvedt – the eloquence of the prose, the nuances of the characters, the dense but artful layering of the different stories.