Disparaging the role of dreams in constituting meaning, Nabokov wrote that it’s when “one is wide awake, at moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits.” Siri Hustvedt, in her new novel, The Sorrows of an American, appears to take a more conventional, Freudian approach: Her characters mine their dreams to grasp their own imperfect reality.
After the death of their father, siblings Erik and Inga Davidsen—a psychoanalyst and a philosophy professor—attempt to use the written detritus of their father’s past (a memoir, a mysterious letter) and their own memories of his dark moods to create a coherent narrative of his life. Inga struggles simultaneously with the tainted legacy of her late husband Max, a well-known literary figure. And her daughter, Sonia, is haunted by nightmares of 9/11. “By telling a dream, a patient is exploring some deeply emotional part of himself,” says Erik, who narrates the novel, “and creating meaning through associations within a remembered story.” He believes that dreams are the seed of unexpected revelation, which doesn’t seem far afield from the author’s own view. In her collection of essays, A Plea for Eros, Hustvedt writes: “In dreams, and in some moments of making art, the underneath seems to roar to the surface.”
Hustvedt has a keen eye for visual detail and a sure handle on narrative structure. Her well-crafted prose and impeccably paced story pull the reader along as her characters uncover the secrets of the dead and probe their own subconscious desires. So it’s disappointing when—after eagerly following her characters through brilliant psychic landscapes—we arrive at a place that’s neither surprising nor satisfying: The secrets uncovered are too ordinary, and the characters’ epiphanies too often dissolve into easy tearful exchanges.
Unlike this latest work, Hustvedt’s previous novel, What I Loved, doesn’t spare her characters the bitter real-world confrontations—sexual betrayal, addiction, aging, the death of children—that force them to react rather than meditate. It seems you can’t achieve revelation without breaking a sweat.