Too many novelists skim the surface of the New York art world: a decadent setting for parties and ready-made satire of all things faddish and fashionable. But Siri Hustvedt, who brought us The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, actually gets it. She gets the way a painting trains or tricks the eye, the way an artist’s name gains currency in the marketplace, leaving a paper trail of reviews and sales in place of the work itself. Her third novel, What I Loved, delivers rare insight into the artist’s need to make things, the critic’s drive to name things, and the transforming—but also transfixing—power of love.
Offered as the memoirs of aging art historian Leo Hertzberg, the novel has three parts. They are distinct enough in plot and mood that the whole thing seems a bit like a literary exercise, like writing a novel without the letter e or, as Hustvedt’s husband Paul Auster did in Leviathan, taking your narrative cues from a conceptual artist. Only the moments when Hustvedt shows her hand, by arresting and redirecting narrative flow, are more emotional showstoppers than avant-garde experiments. As Hustvedt once put it, “If contemporary fiction is a city, Paul and I live in the same neighborhood, but not the same house.”
The novel begins in the 1970s with an only-in-Soho love story. Our narrator, Leo, an art history professor at Columbia, meets Erica, his lit-crit soulmate, in the stacks of Butler Library. Before long, they are living the New York intellectual’s fantasy. They buy a loft on Greene Street, spend summer vacations in a big old farmhouse in Vermont, and feed each other highly publishable ideas. Leo regards his marriage “as one long conversation.”
Directly upstairs from their Soho loft, another love affair rages. Bill, a painter who incorporates shreds of everyday life into his flesh-obsessed canvases (think Robert Rauschenberg meets Lucian Freud), leaves his wife for Violet, the sensual center of the novel. She too is an academic, but she writes pop histories of the cultural epidemics that plague women, from hysteria in the 19th century to anorexia today. Meanwhile, the two men, art historian and artist, become fast friends. Leo writes about Bill’s work. Bill confides in Leo. Cementing their bond, both men have children at the same time: Matthew and Mark.
Then, tragedy. If you like to be surprised, you should stop reading this review now. Because the second part of What I Loved begins with a shocker—the sudden, senseless drowning of Matthew, Leo and Erica’s 11-year-old son, during his second week of summer camp. The event rips through the novel like gunfire, and drains the main characters of life. The second part of the novel becomes a negative image of the first, a ghostly image much like the “ghosty boy” that haunts Matthew’s grade-school drawings. Leo becomes an impersonator of who he once was. He holds so tightly to an idealized version of the past that his marriage slips away.
Here, Hustvedt hits her stride. While the novel initially suffers under the monotony of Leo’s professorial drone, which is hardly juicy enough to express the ecstasy he supposedly feels, Hustvedt finds her voice in these nausea-swelling, heart-stopping passages. And she understands the seductive tug of grief.
“That summer,” Leo says, “light, noise, colors, smells, the slightest motion of the air rubbed me raw with their stimuli. I wore sunglasses all the time. Every shift in brightness hurt me. Car horns ripped at my eardrums. The conversations of pedestrians, their laughter, their hoots, even the lone person singing in the street felt like an assault. I couldn’t bear shades of red. Crimson sweaters and shirts, the red mouth of a pretty girl hailing a cab forced me to turn my head. . . . Wind blew through rather than over me, and I thought I could feel my skeleton rattle.”
Matthew’s death also makes for an urgent meditation on the meaning of art. At times, painting is the only thing that keeps Leo going. Even after he suffers another sudden loss in the book’s third part, which takes a wild detour into American Psycho territory, Leo keeps the faith. He finds consolation in a quiet still life by Chardin, a demonic painting by Goya, and, above all, in the fantastic world of Bill’s studio.
Although Bill starts out as a painter, he ends up making something a lot more like life—filling cardboard or glass boxes with sundry found and made objects to stage modern-day, miniature fairy tales. One series is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, only the characters are canvas cutouts, the candy is Hershey’s, and the setting is the American suburbs. Another box offers a window onto Sleeping Beauty, only she lies comatose in a hospital bed with flowers off to one side and IV tubes to another.
Indeed, Hustvedt describes Bill’s art in such meticulous detail, tracing not only its evolution over decades but its public and critical reception, that I wondered more than once whether it actually exists. Did Rauschenberg do a series I don’t know about? Did Joseph Cornell ever put Hansel and Gretel under glass? Is there a hospital in Tom Sachs’s new miniature city? Hustvedt makes Bill’s mixed-media work so palpable and plausible, and so expressive of the current zeitgeist, that her novel itself represents a significant contribution to art criticism. All the more important, considering Bill’s art won’t see the light of day in any other form.