When a Novelist Defies All Conventions: "The Blazing World"

Siri Hustvetd's latest novel, The Blazing World, defies all conventions about novel writing. Its format is quite literally like no other novel ever written (that I know of), which is why I bought it and read it. I love it when someone has the courage to break down all the rules. It's wonderful to find yourself in unknown, undiscovered territory. Very refreshing.

The Blazing World is a novel different in both form and structure. To begin with, it presents itself like non-fiction. It pretends to be the work of an "editor" who has put together a biography/portrait of a recently deceased contempory artist, Harriet Burden. The (fictitious) editor uses, as is always done in this kind of work, testimonials from art critics, family and friends and extracts from the artist's personal diary.

This format enables the author to tell Harriet Burden's story from various points of views. I was struck by the novelist's remarkable ability to change "voice" and convincingly draw a highly sensitive portrait, as Harriet is differently perceived by the people who knew her.

From the start, you are told that she has recently shaken the New York art scene, putting on highly successful shows using male artists as "screens" or pseudonyms for her work. She has used three artists, two unknowns and one well-known, for this bizarre project that she has called "maskings" - a project intended to "prove" that one's perception of the art one sees is governed by one's knowledge of the artist. In particular, she wants to show that art made by a man sells better than art made by a woman; that there is a diffuse gender bias in the art world. Harriet Burden's art  had never attained prominence when it was shown under her own name but now it suddenly achieves success simply because it is seen by the public as the work of a man.

Harriet Burden's plans go awry when Rune, the third artist who is a celebrity in his own right, refuses to reveal that she is the author of the show. He takes on all the critical acclaim, leaving her in the dirt. She smarts from the injustice and as a reader, you smart along with her - which shows how effective the author's writing is.

No spoilers and I won't give out more of the plot, except to say that the story is practically known from the start. That's another peculiarity of this novel: there is next to no suspense. You know from the first page that Harriet is dead and you know very soon what happens to the man who betrayed her (the third artist in her "maskings" project).

So why do you keep reading? Because of the superb writing of course, and because of something else too. Questions are asked that you never thought of asking. The book is filled with gems - insights into life and art and the human condition. The sort of thing that gives you arresting moments of self-revelation and a deeper understanding of the world around you. 

Here's a few quotes to give you an idea:
  • "...it is not what is said that makes us who we are. More often, it is what remains unspoken" (this came up in connection with Harriet's upbringing and difficult relationship with her father);
  • "It is my time, and I will not let them take it away from me. The Greeks knew that the mask in the theater was not a disguise but a means of revelation. And now that I have started, I can feel the winds behind me...(Harriet, commenting on her "maskings" project);
  • "Mostly, the art business has been about men. And when it has been about women, it has often been about correcting past oversights. It is interesting that not all, but many women were celebrated only when their days as desirable sexual objects had passed."
  • "Human beings are the only animals who kill for ideas."
  • "Celebrity is life in the third person."
I actually underlined the book 51 times. That (for me) is something of a record and a good indication of how much I enjoyed it (lucky I read the digital version, if it had been the printed one, it would have looked very messy indeed).

Is there anything wrong with this novel? 

Yes, for anyone looking for suspense. There is none. 

And yes, there's a little too much about art, perception and gender. To a large extent - you're warned! - this is a feminist book. Harriet Burden makes a lot of allusions to philosophers in her diaries, allusions that would get lost or misunderstood without (very academic) footnotes. So you find yourself reading the footnotes. Actually, there's a certain, perverse pleasure in reading them but at times, it does become a little too much. And perhaps, while the footnotes make sense in a book that pretends to be non-fiction, they certainly detract from the pleasure of reading the book as a novel - in principle, a form that never has any footnotes (unless it's a classic for school use).

My conclusion? It is well worth reading and I highly recommend it. But it really isn't a novel as such - more an intellectual joy ride. I doubt that this book will spawn off many more books of the same type. The format is enticing but not easy to follow or reproduce.

However this total departure from the novel form is interesting inasmuch it seems to indicate that we may be reaching a certain degree of fatigue with the "standard" novel and the three act structure. We live in an age of experimentation. That is certainly what I did in Luna Rising (in Book One, I combined novel and play writing).  Many books lately are "cross-genre" and even "serialized" (broken up in bits like a TV series, making them easier to consume in our fast-paced, attention-squandering digital age). And of course we have fictionalized biographies and documentaries.

 So why not fictionalized non-fiction?

For more info, visit her website
For those curious about the author: she is the wife of Paul Auster and author of five internationally acclaimed novels, The Sorrows of an American, What I Loved, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, The Blindfold, and The Summer Without Men, as well as nonfiction, notably Living, Thinking, Looking, a compendium of 32 essays about philosophy, memory and imagination. The same questions that animate The Blazing World recur here: How do we see, remember, and feel? How do we interact with other people? What does it mean to sleep, dream, and speak? What is "the self"?   

The Blazing World, just published (March 13, 2014) is available on Amazon here and Living, Thinking, Looking can be found here. Note that The Blazing World is expressedly called after Margaret Cavendish's own magnum opus (available here - yes, titles cannot be copyrighted!) 

Margaret Cavendish was a 17th century aristocrat and a brilliant scientist and philosopher who suffered from that fact that, being a woman, she wasn't taken seriously by anyone in her own time, though she corresponded with Descartes and Hobbes. Siri Hustvetd's main character, Harriet Burden, considers Cavendish as her idol and role model.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)

Blazing World was reviewed by the New York Times, see here, as well as in the following articles in the British press:
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