This is a backlist title that I had picked up at a used book sale or store awhile ago and it’s just been sitting on my TBR shelf since then. I always try to sprinkle in backlist reads with new releases (which is always harder towards the end of the year), and this one was up. Which is strange timing – I’m on quite a roll with gender-exploration novels, having finished The Left Hand of Darkness by Le Guin immediately prior to starting this one…or, I was, when I read this. Which was a long time ago now. But I never posted the review. Whoops. However, as we are reaching the end of another year and I am facing crunch time for my Reading Women Challenge 2020, I’m going to finally post a review and count this as my book for Prompt #10: About a Woman Artist. Kinda cheating, but…I’m only human.
“Had there ever been a work of art that wasn’t laden with the expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener, however learned and refined?”
Harriet, or Harry, Burden is a female intellectual and artist who, for years, has been ignored by the critics and dealers of the art world. So, she embarks on a special and secret project, recruiting three men to serve as “fronts,” and present her work as their own in three separate exhibitions. However, after the completion of the third and final show, when Burden steps forward to announce the ruse and her own authorship of the works, the final artists “betrays” her, refusing to admit her role in the art. As Burden struggles for the recognition she has always craved, she becomes more and more obsessed with the lack thereof. And then that third artist, Rune, dies in an untimely and bizarre manner, leaving behind an art mystery that might never be fully resolved.
Hustvedt is a name that that I’ve seen around for years, mostly with glowing recommendations from literary reviewers, and I can see why. This is one of the most insightful and intellectual novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s told in manner that I have always enjoyed, a sort of dossier, with essays, interviews, art reviews, journal entries, and testimonies from friends and family collected by the novel’s “editor” after Burden’s death. I think this is such a fascinating way to tell a story, because it allows for complex and varied perspectives of the subject’s life and actions, untainted by that person’s own biases. Now, in this case, we do get to hear some of Burden’s own thoughts and actions in her own voice, through journal entries she made while living. However, since these journals were private, her personal reflections and explorations, and therefore theoretically uncensored, I feel that it still allows the reader to keep a primarily an objective outlook. Anyways, I just really enjoy getting to learn about characters in this myriad POV style. And even more than that, Hustvedt uses the technique to perfection. The voices that she chooses to use, and the way she is able to craft an outline of Harry Burden through these wildly different (and vocally opinionated) sources is incredible. She is able to show and capitalize on their individualities and internal partialities in a way that is both authentic to each of them (read: completely biased) and yet when all pieced together, end up giving the reader what seems like a very full portrait of what the real Burden was probably like. This extends from her personal peculiarities (which were many) to her interactions with each of her “masks” (the men who fronted her work at the three exhibitions) to her role as a wife/mother/lover to their own opinions of her fateful decision to work with Rune.
There are also a few sections that deal exclusively with Rune, his past and who he was as a person, and the interactions with Burden from his perspective. Since the great mystery of Burden’s life, left forever unknowable with Rune’s early death, really focuses on who, Rune or Burden, was responsible for that final show that they did together, the one what was so widely successful, this was a great addition to the novel. And it was truly fascinating to see the psychological and social impacts their collaboration had on each other, the people around them, and the greater world. In fact, the psychological aspects of this book are some of the most impressive. There are so many different “diagnoses” that Rune and Burden could have had, based on what I read, ranging from pathological lying to narcissism to bipolar disorder to borderline personality disorder and more. Honestly, this would be a great book to read in a psychology class, because the discussion for how to diagnose these main characters based on their actions would be long, intensive, and really interesting. And yet Hustvedt manages to write it all in a way that doesn’t throw it in your face, make anything seem unrealistic and never seems gratuitous. It’s phenomenally skillful.
Along those same lines, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is extremely intellectual in other ways as well: artistically, philosophically, and literarily. For every reference or name-drop that I caught, I know for a fact that at least seven more went over my head. I don’t think that this affected my personal enjoyment of the story being told and the novel itself, in general. It didn’t take away from the way the relationships developed and the picture of Burden that was painted. Also, I understood almost all of Burden’s gender arguments and explorations (and there were many) – they were fascinating (though perhaps a bit long-winded, in her journal formats). And yet, I also knew there were small points and extra tidbits I was missing that may have heightened my reading experience or made my understanding even more nuanced, if I had fully recognized them. Sometimes, knowing that things are going over my head frustrates me, partially out of pride and partly because I feel like I’m not completely “getting” the points. But in this case, Burden’s gender observations and experiments were so well crafted and written by Hustvedt that I didn’t feel like my reading experience lost much by not understanding as deeply, I just recognize that it could have been more profound if I had. I don’t know if that really makes sense, but basically, I would say it was like the difference between “light” philosophy and “hella” philosophy.
Overall, while I can’t say I enjoyed this book, I definitely didn’t dislike it. It was smart and thought-provoking and I, personally, always enjoy novels that explore gender as one of the themes. While I never really “liked” Burden (in fact, I wasn’t really sure I liked any of the characters in this novel) – her personal experiences and the way she handled them never endeared her to me – I appreciate and applaud the gender perception point she was trying to make. And really, that’s what matters. The way she acted is legitimate and not unrealistic, considering her life, and even though we would likely not be friends, that shouldn’t change the way I rate/respond to this story. I’m reading to learn and experience other perspectives and broaden my mind. And this novel definitely does that. But it definitely isn’t for everyone. And I think I may have slowed to a crawl that trailed off to unfinished without the audiobook to help pull me along, as there were points where the intellectuality just got a bit overwhelming.
While the book description does objectively describe the books’ content, I think it misrepresents a little. There was a lot of tension and drama in these pages, but not in the way I thought there would be. It was more of a slow, internal, private-relationship burn (with occasional out-lashes) and less a public spectacle of artists fighting over whose work/intellectual product was whose. So, go into it ready for those more academic aspects, since they are a focal point. But also, know that it’s not (quite) the dry, cerebral text that it could have been – it’s accessible and colorful almost to a garish extreme while exploring the fine line between genius and insanity.