In Siri Hustvedt’s newest book, The Blazing World, the protagonist, artist Harriet Burden, refers to one of her assistants as unheimlich, a Freudian term that means uncomfortably strange or uncanny. It’s an excellent description of this unsettling but immediately engrossing novel about art, identity, memory and the stories we tell ourselves and the world.
Unappreciated and dismissed by critics early in her artistic career, Harriet marries a leading gallery owner and retires from serious art making. For decades, she is smilingly supportive of the world from which she feels excluded. After her husband dies, however, her anger and injury boil to the surface and she decides to create an experiment that will test the limits and perceptions of the New York art scene and finally provide her with the recognition she deserves. She will create three new bodies of work and exhibit them behind the mask of three different male artists. Although the shows are successful, Harriet doesn’t get the ending she had hoped for.
The Blazing World is named for the writings of another ambitious woman thwarted by the misogyny of her time, unable to be recognized for her gifts: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle and the first science fiction writer. In many ways, the novel brings to life familiar issues of first-wave feminism. Harriet did not conform to the gender role of her time–tall, ungainly, frighteningly intellectual, stridently opinionated–so much so that her other mentor/hero is Mary Shelley’s monster. This theme of monstrosity, of not belonging, keeps reappearing in her artistic output, and it is difficult to not sympathize with her isolation and insecurity as she abandons her art to become a dutiful wife and mother.
However, Hustvedt’s writing is too complex to allow Harriet’s journey to be simply another “women’s story.” The newly liberated Harriet–or Harry now, casually–returns to her work, takes a lover, collects young artists to support, reads voraciously and concocts her scheme. She relishes her new trickster mentality and pushes the boundaries of her new identity. In therapy, she sifts through her memories, abandoning some, inserting others, revising the rest. Although she is unable to correct others’ perception of her, she can, in fact, recreate herself.
Related after Harriet’s death through a series of interviews, journal entries, articles, footnotes and other scraps of incomplete information, a profile of the complex artist and her failed experiment emerge. The reader sees Harriet both through her own eyes as well as how she is perceived by her friends, family, enemies, colleagues and critics, allowing a multifaceted but also conflicting persona to emerge. None of the narrators, even Harriet, are precisely reliable, and this ingeniously supports Harriet’s own theory that we are all just monsters wearing masks.