Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men

Hustvedt, Siri (2011), The Summer Without Men, Picador
ISBN 978-0-312-57060-6

Here is something that is said far too rarely: Siri Hustvedt is undoubtedly one of the best novelists of her generation. In the past decade she has slowly built a body of work that has become more impressive with each new novel. Her fourth novel, The Sorrow of an American, may be a her crowning achievement so far, a perfectly sculpted examination of loss and memory, of identity and history. In less than 400 pages, Hustvedt offered us an intellectual novel that was considered, careful and driven by the urgency of the born novelist. It felt necessary, it was moving, and thanks to Hustvedt’s stunningly nimble pen, it was written with a precise and effective yet poetic style. Although she writes intellectual prose, her work does not resemble the ones of the likes of Paul Auster, Michael Cunningham, Haruki Murakami or Richard Powers, and not only because of her superior style. No, it’s the fact that Hustvedt’s work always seems necessary, well-rounded and complete. The point is especially obvious if we compare The Sorrow of an American with any novel by Richard Powers, for example The Echo Maker. Powers, a writer of gaps, of jumps and associations, has always put ideas before style; in his work, this has often meant relying on cliché plots and simple characters, reaching for a simple emotionality that is at odds with the sophisticated nature of the scientific and philosophical background of his work. Even his prose betrays his preferences, by slipping by turns into stock phrases and a slouching writerly gait on the one hand (as in The Echo Maker), or into a style marked by a sophisticated vocabulary crammed into a simple (sometimes even awkward) syntax, which makes for an unpleasantly bloated style (as in novels like The Goldbug Variations). However, there is a visionary air to the best of his books, and a highly insistent handling of the subject matter that keeps us reading, and that is responsible for the lavish critical praise he’s received over the past decades.

Hustvedt’s books are ostensibly more private, small-scale affairs, but no less visionary and a great deal more accomplished as literary works of art. She writes small dramas, employing her considerable insights into philosophy and science only as and when they are necessary for the story at hand. That, and the incredibly readable style of her novels might have obscured the fact of how extraordinary a writer she’s become, besting many of the male writers frequently regarded as ‘major’ writers of our age. There is bound to be a certain frustration with these matters, with this critical glass ceiling that many excellent female writers face who do not (or nor predominantly) write about the plight of their female characters. Most of Hustvedt’s characters are male, and her novels lack the shrill cry of canonical importance. As if we needed any further example, it was recently pointed out that Jonathan Franzen,yon bright beacon of self-satisfied canonized mediocrity, is reaping laurels writing the kind of domestic drama that female writers were always marginalized for doing. As I said, this state of matters is bound to create a certain degree of frustration, and I think that part of the astonishing energy driving Hustvedt’s slender, but magnificently dense new novel The Summer without Men is due to just that kind of frustration.

Of course, it’s easy for me to claim this since the book contains a plethora of rants and bitter and hilarious exhortations that touch on just these kinds of subjects. Indeed, The Summer without Men contains surprisingly little in the way of plot or characterization, especially when compared to Hustvedt’s other novels. The book takes off when Hustvedt’s protagonist, Mia Fredrickson, rents an apartment near where her mother lives after her husband Boris has left her for a French woman “with limp but shiny hair” and she suffers from a temporary psychological breakdown, which leads to a short hospitalization. The book doesn’t dwell much on the temporary insanity that gripped Mia, and dwells even less on her husband’s decision to call it quits after 30 years of marriage (although the novel does contain memories of happier times in their marriage). The rental she moves into is at the edge of town, and although there is no reason why it couldn’t be crawling with men, we perceive the area as a kind of female community, since those are the people that Mia keeps in touch with, both privately and professionally. Privately, she gets to know her mother’s circle of friends, a group of women who have made both happy and unhappy experiences in the company of men, and have drawn different lessons from it. The focal point of the group for Mia is the ninety-four year old Abigail, who has lived a life hiding in the embroidered folds of propriety. Literally. In her vast repertoire of embroidered objects, she has hidden images that would have clashed with the idea of what was proper for a woman of her time. Gleefully, she unveils her secrets one object at a time to a rapt Mia, who, talking to Abigail, her mother and the other older women, regains a firm sense of self. Her professional contacts mainly include a class of girls she starts to teach.

That class of girls starts to pick on one of their own, making her an outsider, a process that eventually leads to bloody tissue on the teacher’s desk, tears in the class room, and an extended exercise in writing intended to raise the self-awareness of everyone concerned. Even if we the readers had not been told of the extensive similarities that connects this group of girls with the group of girls surrounding Mia when she was their age, we would see that this is the obvious literary function of this part of the plot. In Mia, the old women and the mean girls in class, Hustvedt presents us with three generations of female experience. This is complemented by essayistic elements that discuss art, culture and science in almost acidic tones; this is done plainly, clearly and obviously. No attempt has been made to assimilate the various the plot strands, rants, comments, reminiscences and poems. They cohere only when we look at the whole of the novel as a long, coherent work. This is strikingly different from her earlier work which was always written in one voice, aperçus, remarks and various plot elements smoothed into one story. While her other novels are frequently novels of idea clothed in the sheep’s wool of a rich and engaging story, her most recent work is a much more obvious affair. Its story is more an excuse to develop a series of ideas about science, gender and relationships, and the author doesn’t attempt to hide the fact.

Although The Summer without Men is written from the perspective of her distraught and temporarily confused protagonist, the novel always keeps us at a remove from her by introducing a shelf-bending amount of other writers and thinkers by way of references and explicit quotes. Discussions of Emily Dickinson, behavioral psychologists and gender issues are woven into what is basically a long stream of thought that contains outside events as well as the the slow gestation of thoughts in the protagonist’s mind. Mind you, The Summer without Men is not a nonfiction essay merged with a novel, although the essayist fragments that swirl around in it are frequently brilliant. The book it most closely resembles is Nicholson Baker’s recent masterpiece The Anthologist, a meandering essay on modern poetry as channeled through the mind of its third rate poet/critic protagonist. Baker’s book is obsessed with its protagonist, molding the comments on poetic form and poetic tradition to fit his slightly unhinged mind. The effect would have been claustrophobic, if not for Baker’s light style; a book turned inward, its logic starting and ending with the limits and limitations of the eponymous assembler of anthologies. There is a similar web of connections that spans from Hustvedt’s protagonist to her elaborate musings on art and culture and finally even to characters and events that turn up in the novel. The effect is not at all claustrophobic, however, since Hustvedt’s novel looks outward, scans the ridges and valleys of culture and presents a woman protagonist who suffers both from a specific, individual fate, as well as from being part of a society that still fosters misogynist myths and stories.

This seems to be a somewhat common kind of narrative, but unlike canonical works of feminist literature (like Margaret Atwood’s scintillating, similarly slim masterpiece Surfacing), Hustvedt eschews essentialist symbolism. Her focus is not on the body and symbolism, or on locating ‘the feminine’ within loci and narratives thought of as male. Instead she hands us a story that could have been written by one of many mediocre postmodern novelists, but infused with a self-reflective awareness of how her protagonist is held and changed by her place in various discourses of power. It serves as a corrective mechanism to an American literary canon, where male narratives like Baker’s are perceived and read as universal. Books like Hustvedt’s point out how many things within such novels change if the gender of the protagonist, and the attendant contexts, change. If her earlier novel has easily bested those of Richard Powers at their own game, then this one takes on, and makes mince meat of, a different canon. This canon is led by writers like Paul Auster, whose work increasingly resembles that of the aging Philip Roth in that both contain sentimental plots that are garnished with a reasonably erudite discussion of literary and cultural contexts, all of which come to bear, in one way or another, on the sentimental education of his/their (male) protagonists. Women jump in and out of the books, mere foils for the protagonists to project their desires on. The sad climax of this development can be found in the lesbian fantasies in Roth’s The Humbling (2008, cf. my review here) and the pedophiliac fantasies in Auster’s Sunset Park (2010, cf. my review for details).

Hustvedt counters these stories with a doubting heroine, an angry, questioning woman stranded on what might as well be a planet without men, where women discuss and exhibit the problems incurred by living in a world where casual (and not so casual) sexism pervades science, criticism and everyday relationships. But her main hobby horse is literature. And it’s not just some odd obsession of Mia’s. One only needs to read one of the many put-downs of NYT book critic Michiko Kakutani’s writing; the tone and vocabulary of most of these petty criticisms (regardless of their overall accuracy) is frighteningly revealing as to the degree of misogyny of the writer of the negative assessment in question. One also might want to follow discussions of Jane Austen’s work, or read reviews of female poets. Whereas male poets are often just ‘poets’, female poets are ‘female poets’, more likely to be compared to other female poets, however close they may be to their male contemporaries. Mia Fredrickson is a poet and a teacher of literature, and acutely aware of these kinds of biases; what’s more, she’s aware of them in other areas, as well, pointing out again and again that the cultural and social center of gravity is predominantly male. So much so that, in fact, the “summer without men” is really a summer that contains a lot of men in absentia. Despite the female community and the female protagonist and the feminist topics, Hustvedt’s heroine doesn’t try to reclaim (as Atwood tried) a strong, separate female identity. These have, like all vaguely essentialist theories, weak points, reproducing identical biases, with the positions merely reversed.

In her brilliantly precise story, Hustvedt tells a story of a female experience that’s female not because of inherent biological factors, but because this sort of experience is forced on Mia and some of the women of her circle by the way society around them works. Lacking her exquisite precision, I find it difficult to pinpoint how fine a point Hustvedt and Mia put on this. In a discussion towards the end of the book, Mia argues for the primacy of experience over theory, but the whole of the novel is governed by a very clear view of the philosophical and theoretical foundations upon which the novel’s structure, from the individual events that happen, to the way the novel is assembled, is founded. There is none of the murky slough of despond like the one that takes center stage in the novels of the aforementioned aging Americans. Instead, Hustvedt’s book is driven by an almost crystalline clarity, which could also be seen as its main weakness. To some readers it may seem emotionally remote, an effect that derives from the fact that the novel depicts a mind thinking. Mia’s mind is working its way through various sets of knowledge; sets of things she knows and cares about: poems, lists of writers, stray memories. In the process of making sense of a radically changed emotional environment, even other people and events have to fulfill the role of objects about to be cataloged. The overall effect is mesmerizing, and The Summer without Men, while not Hustvedt’s best, is a powerful achievement. One hopes that she’s eventually accorded the place in the canon of major contemporary American novelists she deserves.

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