William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and twin daughters. Follow him @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at www.nickripatrazone.com.
I am having trouble with a sentence. The point I would like to make is that I wish Stanley Fish’s new book had taken a different approach. Complicating that is that I mean for it to be a first sentence, and, hence, it bears all the burdens of a first impression. As a place to start, consider:
Although I have generally loved Stanley Fish’s work, I found his new book disappointing.
Weakening this sentence is that awful “generally.” I have adopted, it seems, an academic’s defensive precision: “I certainly wouldn’t want to say I have loved all of Fish’s work, I haven’t read all of Fish’s work and I don’t want to be held responsible for it.” That “generally,” and the underlying thought it betrays, is weaselly, and, really, I can’t recall ever actually disliking one of Fish’s essays (which is not to say I never disagreed). It’s gotta go.
Although I have loved Stanley Fish’s work, I found his new book disappointing.
Of course, now it seems like my sentence is missing a word. I could replace it with something. “Always”? Too…breathless. Especially with “loved.” I’m not sure what to do.
I suppose this sentence is an example of the
Although [general condition], [exception to the general condition].
form. We use this form a lot, of course, in the (often false) hope of awakening interest in our readers. In order for this move to really work, the reader has to have some investment in the general condition, or else the general condition needs to be such a commonplace that it would be surprising that I would be disputing it. Mostly neither condition obtains, and what the construction of my sentence really represents is lazy, good-enough-to-get-started writing.
Let’s ditch the offending clause.
I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing.
At least this has the advantage of directness. But now, the sentence is about me, which I guess would be OK, especially if I was an important reviewer of books on writing, or if I was participating in some forum where Fish’s book was well known. As it is, though, this sentence has misplaced emphasis, about what I found rather than Fish’s book. I could invert it —
Stanley Fish’s new book disappointed me.
— but even inverted, it’s about my disappointment, and, worse, it now has an unfortunate schoolmarmy tone to it: “Stanley, you have not lived up to my expectations.”
Well, let’s just take me out of it.
Stanley Fish’s new book is disappointing.
In many ways, this is better. It is declarative. It takes an unsoftened stand. That the statement is my opinion isn’t really lost, since as the author of the sentence it is obviously my opinion. It might even awaken a reader’s interest: “disappointing how?” I could live with this sentence. However, I have altogether lost my original intention which was less about the disappointingness of Fish’s book and more about expressing my wish that he had taken a different approach.
You see, a while ago Fish wrote several editorials about writing in his New York Times column. In those, he argued, just like he does in his new book, that the form of a sentence is the proper focus for composition instruction. Much like what classical rhetoricians believed about eloquence, Fish argues you can teach students to write by teaching them to pour their ideas into the molds of well-formed sentences. Unfortunately, the notions of figure and trope in rhetoric kind of degenerated, like expositions of grammar often degenerate, into butterfly-pinning, and I don’t know of anyone who much teaches polysyndeton or aporia in their public speaking course nowadays. What I had hoped for, I guess, was not an extension of his argument, or a further call to pay attention to form in writing instruction. I hoped Fish would actually begin to catalogue the forms themselves, to begin to set all of the available rhetorical variations into some sort of order.
I mean, take the form I offered before:
Although [general condition], [exception to the general condition].
There is a lot you can do with this. Students can be asked to produce a bunch of examples of the case, and thereby learn to use it fluently. You can notice that the “although” can be moved to the second clause with just a slight change in emphasis, and, I think, an improved sentence resulting. (“I have generally loved Stanley Fish’s work, although I found his new book disappointing.”) You could develop a notation system — like sentence diagramming! — that captured the relation of the clauses and the optional placement of the “although.” You could notice that the second placement of “although” can be replaced by “however” or “but,” but not the first, and try to explain why. You could observe that this species of sentence is a member of a larger genus, something like
[statement], [contrasting statement].
whose various members entail differing specific relations between the clauses, and who require differing coordinating words between. (For example, see Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’sThey Say/I Say.) You could provide rhetorical analyses of each form you identify, much like I did earlier when I concluded that my original sentence was merely lazy, since it offered an irritant that wasn’t particularly irritating as a way to pretend to coax interest. This all seems to me, as it does to Fish, to be good work for students to do.
So my disappointment with Fish’s book is that it doesn’t offer a program to catalogue all of the various forms of sentences and variations and genuses and species, with rhetorical analyses for each. To try again to communicate this, it might be best to go back to my original statement of my intent:
I wish Stanley Fish’s new book had taken a different approach.
What I have lost here from the earlier attempts, besides my explicit disappointment, is the warmth toward Fish’s work that I have felt in the past. That, and there’s nothing here to really engage a reader uninvested in Fish’s approach. What I really want to express is the mixed feelings I have around my disappointment in Fish’s new book. Let’s go for that:
I admit, I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing.
I admit, I like this new sentence. It doesn’t outright say anything about my affection for Fish’s work, but it implies it pretty well without breathlessness. What I think is nice about it is that it suddenly has a voice (the previous sentences seem to me to be generically academic), and it seemingly — aporetically — places the blame for my disappointment on me rather than on Fish’s book. It expresses shame over having to admit that I found his book disappointing, and shame, I think, can sell a sentence.
So, although it isn’t really fair to criticize an author for not writing the book you wanted them to write, I admit, I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing. I can think of all sorts of reasons Fish wouldn’t actually want to take on the project I outlined for him, I mean, just to start with, it is pretty much endless, and if one were to take it seriously, one would inevitably end up, just like the classical rhetoricians, butterfly-pinning all of the various forms one found, an activity which entirely loses the point, I think, of the instruction Fish intends. You can catalogue and dissect, like God’s own grammar teacher, or like the authors all of those sentence diagrams I was forced to study in fifth grade, and learn literally nothing about how to write effectively, a point which Fish’s book, and, indeed, most every recent book that tries to help us write better, makes.
Back when I was trying to learn to play jazz guitar, I came across a book, Patterns for Jazz, that seemed to me to hold the promise of finally figuring out how to play across chord progressions. Apart from a minuscule amount of discussion (most of which concerns “how to use this book”), the book consists of little musical phrases, mostly four and eight notes long, that are to be transposed and played across an array of chord sequences. You could — I did — play these patterns over and over in hopes of learning enough phrases for each chord that you could sound halfway competent when confronted with “All of Me.” This book, in short, is the jazz equivalent of the writing text I wanted Fish to write: “Here are the forms. Put them to use.”
I never learned to play jazz guitar. I don’t know if that should be attributed to a failure of pedagogy, or merely a failure of musician. But, in retrospect, I can see that I wasn’t really using the text in the way that the authors of Patterns for Jazz meant. The point they intended (I think) was that students should play the patterns so much that they would be able to spontaneously predict how any given note or pattern would sound in the musical context they found themselves in. That is, you practice the rote forms so that you know your instrument and the chords so well that you don’t need rote forms to create.
Fish doesn’t seem to make his students spend too much time filling in sentence templates. Instead, he suggests that they elaborate simple forms into complex ones, discover variations and manipulations of forms (much like my observation, above, that the “although” could occupy two locations interchangeably), and, in general, observe how relationships between things and activities are manifested in sentences, and learn how to create those relationships. Like the successful jazz musician, students learn to attend to form and context (“prehearing” is the word Patterns for Jazz uses) in order to express themselves competently. Although he doesn’t say so, I believe Fish already knows that the butterfly project is hopeless. In fact, at least in a sense, you could summarize his whole program (including his literary criticism) as a disciplined approach to paying attention to sentences. If you can do that, he says, and not allow yourself to get bogged down arguing or applauding what the sentence is saying, or likewise mired in grammar and correctness, you can learn to write.
Back | 1. This parenthetical is also weaselly, and for exactly the same reason. Back | 2. This essay being an example of aporia. Back | 3. That was polysyndeton. Back | 4. [confession], [revelation].
As a reader, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a wide variety of literary pieces – from potboiler mysteries to critically acclaimed tomes. I just like to read, I guess, and I like to talk about reading. And because I (unfortunately) don’t have a lot of people in my life to talk about reading with, I find myself simply reading more, filling the spaces usually reserved for discussion with another book or two.On the other hand, I’ve always cast a wary eye at the book club culture. Though sometimes desperate to speak about East of Eden and the themes therein, I hate the idea of joining a book club (or book group, or reading circle, or whatever you call it) and essentially being forced to read a specific novel, regardless of whether or not it’s on your list of “To Be Reads.”So here I sit, frightfully aware that I am shunning the most popular way to communicate about books while lamenting on the lack of literary conversationalists in my life. I mean, it’s hard to talk about books that I’ve read if the people I know haven’t read them as well. Hence, a book club would be a good idea.And with that, I will admit my defeat. I have crumpled. My wife, who has always wanted to start a book club (and has herself appeared in a few over time) convinced me that it was the proper way to go. We gathered some friends, chose a book, and made a date. I’m in a real book club now, no longer clinging to this faux book club gimmick that I’ve used here at Millions to reach a wider audience.The book of the month (both here and at home) is Zadie Smith’sWhite Teeth. Have you read this? If so, can you believe that this is Zadie Smith’s first novel? (It is!) Can you believe that it first appeared on the scene in 1997, when she was just 22? (It’s true!) It’s amazing, actually, that I didn’t spontaneously combust while reading it. I was that jealous – of her writing, of her storytelling, and especially of her complex narrative – one that weaves through two generations of London outcasts so wonderfully that I felt attached to their stories, each one of them.White Teeth is a tale of immigration, albeit an angry and forlorn type of immigration. In it, we find a pair of immigrants, their friends (one of which is also an immigrant), and their children struggling with acceptance. Every character has a sort of pained disdain for every other character, which leads to a wonderfully rich web of alliances and experiences. It’s written with snark – as if Zadie had channeled the failed lives of her characters and funneled their speech through her pen.As far as first novels go, few are this good. Surprisingly, Smith doesn’t rely on clever writing and funny anecdotes to drive her characters. Instead, she delves deeply into the mindset of each character.There’s Samad Iqbal, a man who longs for his motherland and takes up a failed form of Islam, one that is constantly strained by both his wife, Alsana, and his location: 1980s London. There’s Archie Jones and his wife Clara – two amazingly simple people with amazingly complex friendships and pasts. And then there are the kids; three children who grow to despise their expected callings, forcing their way out of the caste and into an extreme and opposite version of their parent’s desires.Smith uses White Teeth to touch upon the bonds of parenthood. She searches for meaning within the failed expectations of a child led astray. She manages to grasp the bonds that tie us to our religion and sort them out while illustrating how complicated religion can be, even among people of the same beliefs. She shows us the difference between intent and action, leaving us to ask – which is more important? The intent to do good? Or the actual doing of good, even if on accident? And which, ultimately, will win out?Did I mention that she was 22? When I was that young, I was just learning how to drink alcohol properly. Damn it.White Teeth looks at immigration from a more resistive stance, one that is tense, sarcastic and angry. These people moved from high status to low, from small-town India and Jamaica to London, where they are easily lost and often mocked. Instead of helping to create the land they are moving to, they are expected to fit into the land, slowly fading into the background until they have become a forgotten relic of some ancient culture. Until they are more British, really, and less whatever they used to be. Instead of blending their beliefs with the culture around them, they are forced to become part of the culture, leaving their pasts behind.There’s a whole load of themes and discussion topics with White Teeth. I’ve probably missed a few: science vs. religion; nature vs. nurture; the power of a wonderfully planned, converging set of story lines. But one thing is for sure. I haven’t been more awed (and more jealous) of a book in a long time. Which is good.After all, I got the chance talk to more than just myself about it this time.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006.
The focus of Tom Rachman’s debut novel The Imperfectionists is the men and women immersed in the day-to-day of an unnamed English-language, Rome-based newspaper. Founded in 1953 by a wealthy Atlanta businessman named Cyrus Ott, for reasons that remain a mystery to his family some fifty years on, the newspaper has fallen on hard times. Buffeted by the Internet (and tragically lacking a website well into 2007!), hemorrhaging money, the paper is financially controlled by people who take no interest in it and run by people who are, as the title rather generously observes, “imperfectionists.” Their imperfections are meant to serve the narrative as a propeller.
The territory lying between journalistic idealism, the youthful desire to perfectly capture the world in order to help make that world perfect, and journalistic reality, filled with exigencies and disappointments and countless compromises, together rendering the ideal moot, is ripe and practically begging for novelistic treatment, and Rachman, a correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome, according to his book-jacket bio, captures the lay of the land, in prose that is fittingly functional, dispensing, for the most part, with unnecessary flourishes, efficiently doling out pertinent particulars with a simplicity that is so striking as to be deliberate. He fills his fictional paper’s newsroom with editors and copyeditors and reporters, then follows their tangled, intersecting lives out into the streets of Rome and beyond, through a succession of chapters—really, short stories—unfolding in the present tense, interspersed with brief past-tense accounts of significant moments in the paper’s history.
We begin in Paris, where Lloyd Burko, Paris correspondent, desperately searches for a story. This will be the story that restores his career, earns him desperately needed rent money, and brings back his wife, who has slowly begun moving her things across the hall to the apartment of her new lover. The quest yields nothing by way of an article, but it does produce a revelation that might change Lloyd’s life and his understanding of himself.
Back in Rome, we proceed to obituary writer Arthur Gopal, assigned to interview Gerda Erzberger, an Austrian intellectual recently diagnosed with cancer and refusing treatment. Arthur, whose “overarching goal at the paper is indolence,” is the son of a famed reporter, and, rather than competing with his father’s legacy, he dedicates himself to mediocrity, complacently allowing himself to be bullied by the paper’s culture editor. Arthur’s conversation with Gerda, and the phone call that interrupts that conversation, radically alters his world and sets off a chain reaction that will reverberate through the newsroom.
Business reporter, Hardy Benjamin, makes quick sense of the financial news but has trouble with her personal life. After she encounters a young aimless man, the two embark on a tentative courtship, though an accidental revelation compels Hardy to examine her romantic expectation.
Corrections editor Herman Cohen, grammar warrior and producer of the monthly Why? newsletter, which chronicles the most egregious of errors to have made it into the paper, welcomes an old friend, a visit that forces him to reevaluate his past and his present.
Editor-in-chief Kathleen Solson discovers her husband is having an affair and reconnects with an old lover, forcing her to confront her romantic history without the comfort of revision and evasion.
In Cairo, having recently quit his doctoral program in primatology, the stringer-hopeful Winston Cheung struggles to file a report while competing with a seasoned newsman for the position, only to learn some unpleasant truths about the profession.
I could go on, as the book does, but the pattern should, by now, be clear enough. Each chapter-story begins with a protagonist stuck in a limbo of sorts, unhappy but not desperately so, unsure about the exact progression that has led him or her to this particular place. Some unexpected event, some surprising encounter, some sudden recognition later, the protagonist acquires a more astute comprehension of the situation, a readjustment that inevitably relates back to the paper, usually validating the series of choices that have, almost imperceptibly, led to this moment. In the meantime, other characters, merely lurking background as shadows in one story, wait for the chance to become protagonists of their own tales, to explain lives otherwise just barely sketched.
Some of the stories are more successful than others in conveying the final insight, though most fall somewhat short of the Joycean epiphany that is the prototype. (The most compelling of the chapters in this respect is, to my thinking, the story of the paper’s CFO Abbey Pinnola, who finds herself seated next to a recently fired employee on a long plane ride; the ensuing account of their tentative flirtation is genuinely revelatory, its conclusion unexpected in the best possible way, simultaneously surprising and, in hindsight, inevitable.) The short stories are meant to tie together through collision of characters, the intersection of themes, the classical unities of time and place; under the auspices of these commonalities, they are, we are lulled into believing, something greater than the sum of their parts. But where this is true in Dubliners, whose deceptively delicate particles, when assembled together, produce a surprisingly robust total, this is rarely the case in The Imperfectionists. The characters—coming in and out of focus, growing more or less important—do not really develop, and the new information we glean about them from story to story is not always illuminating. The change in perspective tends to come off as artificial, lazily telling what was not convincingly shown. Individually, as a short story, each chapter leaves just enough unsaid: we know something of a character’s experience as it is experienced, asking us to imagine beyond the story’s parameters. The revelations in subsequent chapters, matter-of-fact as they are, do little to truly complicate our perceptions. Presumably intended to magnify, the accumulation of detail, in the form of minor references to characters we thought we knew, instead reduces and flattens, unconvincingly extending the storyline. This is particularly glaring in the final summing up, a last entry in the newspaper’s history amounting to a perfunctory conclusion.
I suppose the recent popularity of the stories-as-novel has quite a bit to do with decreased attention spans, allowing readers to pick up and put down the book as needed, all the while believing they are engaged in novel-reading. Or else it is a translation of hypertext into physical text: each character, no matter how minor on this page, has a full story, just a page-turn away! Given that Rachman is clearly concerned with the impact of the web on the traditional newspaper, it seems fitting that he adapt his writing to internet possibility, but, for this reader anyway, the aptness of the adaptation cuts both ways. Yes, it extends the novel’s cultural lease, but something—something intangible but very, very important—is lost in the accommodation. Is a newspaper still a newspaper on the Internet? the newspaper’s staffers ponder. Is a novel-in-stories still a novel?
In 2010, the Whitney Biennial made history when, for the first time, over half (52 percent) of its featured artists were women. In 2012, the numbers returned to their typical proportions, with women representing roughly 35 percent of all artists. At this year’s biennial, about 32 percent of the artists represented are women. What’s most frustrating about these numbers is that they haven’t changed much since the mid-nineties, when the Guerilla Girls first charted gender bias.
I looked up these statistics while reading Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, The Blazing World, which is set in the New York art world and tells the story of Harriet Burden, an accomplished, middle-aged artist so frustrated by her lack of stature that she arranges for three younger male artists to show her work as their own. Burden believes her artwork will be better received if exhibited by young men, rather than an aging widow. It’s an experiment of sorts, an artwork in and of itself, which she calls Maskings. At the end of the experiment, she plans to reveal herself as the true artist. In her journal, Burden calls it her “fairy tale”:
There will be three masks, just as in the fairy tales. Three masks of different hues and countenances, so that the story will have its perfect form. Three masks, three wishes, always three. And the story will have bloody teeth.
Unfortunately for Burden, her fairy tale has an unhappy ending, and instead of merely revealing the art world’s biases she ends up discovering some unpleasant truths about her own life. Of the three artists she works with, only one plays his part and remains friendly with her after their collaboration. The other two betray her, one breaking off contact, and the other disavowing their relationship — and then dying. Burden does not live long enough to set the record straight and dies with an uncertain reputation.
To back up a bit, Burden’s story, and the story of Maskings in particular, is presented as a scholarly work, a posthumous study of a controversial artist. Instead of a straightforward biography, the work is an anthology of interviews with people close to Burden, articles and reviews about Maskings, excerpts from Burden’s journals, and other miscellaneous writings, including experimental fiction from Burden’s son. The anthology is edited and footnoted by a professor of aesthetics, who describes Maskings as a work “meant not only to expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.” The professor/editor also explains the origin of the title, The Blazing World, which is taken from a utopian fiction by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. Cavendish is one of Burden’s many intellectual fascinations, a sixteenth-century writer and thinker whose work went unrecognized in her time.
Are you still with me? With the exception of the journal excerpt, almost all of the information I have conveyed so far is revealed in the first five pages of this abundant (and sometimes too abundant) puzzle of a novel. I was game for the challenge, but there were times when the format was wearying and I became frustrated with the uneven narration. But by the end of the novel, I felt the anthology format was the most authentic way to present Burden’s life. She wasn’t someone the culture took interest in, so it stands to reason that the information remaining upon her death would be fragmentary, inconsistent, and unrealized.
So who was Harriet Burden? Who did she love? What was she like? What did she think about? What were her worries? Her pleasures? These were the questions that ended up interesting me more than the actual machinations of the plot, which center around Burden’s three-part artwork, Maskings, and the fates of the men Burden colluded with. Some of this has to do, I think, with the difficulty of rendering visual artworks in prose. Hustvedt has written about contemporary art as a journalist and critic (as well as in a previous novel, What I Loved) and she conjures up Burden’s sculptures and installations with wit and authority. But there is still a huge imaginative gap between reading about an artwork and seeing it in person — one that doesn’t exist, I think, when describing people, places, or things. I often felt an intellectual connection to Burden’s ambitious installations, but not an emotional one.
Another reason I lost interest in the Maskings plotline was simply that Harriet Burden (“Harry”, to her friends) is a complicated, lively character, more fully drawn than her male masks. As I got to know her as a mother and grandmother, a friend, a partner, and finally, a patient, I became less interested in her elaborate plan to unseat the art world. Maybe it’s inevitable for the personal to overwhelm the political in a novel, but it also has to do with the way Hustvedt shifts the story from one of ambition to an intimate portrait of a family gathering around a dying woman. Burden’s final journal entries portray an artist still raging against those who underestimated her, but they also reveal a nostalgic mother, a mournful child, and a woman still searching for self-knowledge. Crucially, her final entries reveal Burden’s changing relationship to her body as she succumbs to death. Her thoughts return to the birth of her children: “Birth, like illness, and like death, is not willed. It simply happens. The ‘I’ has nothing to do with it.”
Female bodies and images of birth are a recurring motif in Burden’s artworks, an irony that doesn’t escape Burden, a woman who employs male bodies to represent her work. One of her final sculptures portrays a woman giving birth to letters and numbers and hundreds of little people. It’s inspired by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Burden’s spiritual mother. Burden includes a tiny self-portrait of herself among Cavendish’s progeny, one that is discovered by an art world outsider in the novel’s final pages. It’s the last view we get of Burden, a hopeful wink to anyone who cares to look closely at her legacy.