Hustvedt’s exquisite, elegiac novel layers past and present, creating a complex story of loss and loneliness. The novel opens with narrator Erik Davidsen, a psychiatrist, and his sister Inga, an academic, flying from New York City home to Minnesota, where the pair begins the painful process of sorting through the study of their deceased father, Lars.
The Sorrows of an American is a novel of secrets and ghosts: Lars’ ghosts, which follow him back to Minnesota after his service in World War II; Erik, divorced, lonely, plagued by a patient’s suicide; the widowed Inga, who learns her husband, famous writer Max Blaustein, led a secret life during their tumultuous marriage. Even Sonia, Inga’s 18-year-old daughter, carries painful burdens, including what she saw from her schoolroom window on September 11, 2001.
While many writers are beginning to tackle 9/11 in fiction, few handle it as deftly as Hustvedt:
Three years later (after Max’s death from cancer) on the morning of September 11, 2001, Inga and Sonia had found themselves running north with hundreds of other people as they fled Stuyvesant High School…They were just blocks from the burning towers, and it was only later that I discovered what Sonia had seen from her schoolroom window.
Later in the novel, Erik and his friend Burton, heading homeward after a night out:
While we waited for cabs, we looked downtown, and I know we both thought not about what was there, but about what wasn’t, and neither of us said a word as we gazed at the empty sky above lower Manhattan.
Perhaps only Joan Didion could match this articulation of that overblown, media-saturated loss so, leaving us newly breathless with pain.
September 11th is one of many psychological traumas folded into the novel. Lars is haunted by the killing of a Japanese soldier, who assumed a position of prayer rather than aggression; Erik treats several patients suffering the aftereffects of parental abuse. Poor Inga is triply traumatized by Max’s death, the events of September 11th, and the intrusive, threatening Linda Fehlburger, a reporter claiming to know secrets about Max. Continual subtle references remind us that those involved in the Iraq war are enduring the same suffering.
Hustvedt is fascinated by neurobiology, the way the brain “makes” and retains memories, dreams, and traumatic events. Inga is afflicted with neurobiological deficits; as a child she had petit mal seizures. In adulthood she suffers intermittent hand tremor and migraines, whose auras can resemble both dreams and seizures (I am a migraineur, my brother an epileptic. Our onset symptoms are identical). All of Hustvedt’s characters are vivid dreamers, particularly Erik, who finds himself visiting his grandparents’ decrepit farmhouse and surrounding fields repeatedly. Later Lars appears in a dream, willing to speak with his son “any day but Fridays.”
In a lesser writer’s hands, this glut of thematic material could wind a novel into a hopeless knot. Hustvedt’s facility is such that instead, we are lead through the inseparable interactions of mind and body as her characters move through the story. The effect is exhilarating rather than jarring, as events urge us forward, each secret offering up a truth that in turn unlocks another door.
Lars Davidsen’s journal, excerpted throughout the novel, links the Davidsens to their immigrant past. Lars’ father, Ivar, in debt and trying to pay his mortgage, eventually loses his 40-acre farm during the Depression. Lars writes:
Our father worked the fields from four to six in the morning and from 7:00 p.m. until dark every evening. The American shibboleth that hard work guaranteed success became in this case a crass lie, after some years of this, just when things began to improve, came foreclosure.
Neither Lars nor his father Ivar recovers from this loss. Ivar has nightmares, while the adult Lars is given to leaving his wife and two children for all night “walks”—fugue states that conclude with wife Marit retrieving him from his parent’s abandoned, crumbling farmhouse, 17 miles distant.
Recounting Minister Adolph Egge, weeping in the pulpit as he memorializes the community’s sons killed overseas, Lars writes, “This caused mother to wander around in cellars of despair for days.”
This elegant sentence is made all the more wondrous by its writer, Hustvedt’s father, Lloyd, who, just before his death in 2003, gave his daughter permission to use passages from his unpublished memoir in her novel. Daughter Siri’s talent is clearly her father’s legacy, and we are fortunate to have his chillingly apt words. While Mr. Hustvedt thought himself documenting the past, he was just as unwittingly writing of a near-future, complete with wars and foreclosures.
Hustvedt’s ability to incorporate so much material so seamlessly makes reading The Sorrows of an American like drinking a wonderful old burgundy: rich, complex, lush, smooth (I will refrain from comparisons to oak, honey, or long finishes). Memory, love, loneliness, death, dreams, ghosts, fame—all are here. So is Hustvedt’s longtime fascination with, and involvement in, the visual art community, personified by Erik’s alluring tenant, Miranda Casaubon, and her disturbed romantic partner, Jeffrey Lane.
Miranda is a book designer and artist, Jeff a multimedia photographer whose “art” often crosses boundaries of privacy. Lane is fond of taking on multiple personas, including those of the mentally ill. He harasses Erik, breaks into his home, photographing him—and exhibiting the photographs—without consent, a decision with both personal and professional ramifications for both men.
In a sense, The Sorrows of an American picks up where Hustvedt’s previous novel, What I Loved, left off: Lane’s transgressions are reminiscent of artist Teddy Giles’ frightening antics. Hustvedt’s fascination with lifelike dolls or figures, made by artist Bill Wechsler in What I Loved, reappear in The Sorrows of an American as the elaborately rendered dolls Lisa Kavacek creates with her niece, the stoic Lorelei. Even Leo Hertzberg, protagonist of What I Loved, appears at a dinner party of Inga’s, appearing like a beloved yet pathetic uncle.
The Sorrows of an American concludes thoughtfully, all secrets confessed, the characters, to greater or lesser extents, healed enough to move beyond their individual traumas into, we hope, happier futures.