Books

Hitting the 'Pause' Button: 'The Summer Without Men'

The Summer Without Men seems a window into the perambulations of one woman’s thoughts in a “pause”, the breath before middle age shifts to growing old.


The Summer Without Men

Publisher: Picador
Length: 182 pages
Author: Siri Hustvedt
Price: $14.00
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2011-04
Amazon

Siri Hustvedt is one of my favorite writers, moving easily between genres: essay, art criticism, fiction, and non-fiction. She is phenomenally well-read, intelligent, and a fabricator of sentences so good they can stop you in your readerly tracks. Her latest novel, The Summer Without Men is beautifully written and perfectly executed, exhibiting the polished sheen of a mature writer who has found her stride.

The problem is, I didn’t like it.

The ostensible plot of The Summer Without Men is poet Mia Frederickson’s recovery from the “pause” in marriage suggested by her Neuroscientist husband, Boris Izcovich. The pause, Mia tells us:

“...was French with limp but shiny brown hair. She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses, and an excellent mind.”

Mia reacts to Boris’s request with a brief but significant psychotic break. After two weeks of hospitalization, she flees New York for her hometown of Bonden, Minnesota, where she plans to spend a curative summer. She will visit her aged mother, speak with her therapist via telephone, teach poetry to adolescent girls, and entertain her adult daughter, Daisy. None of this will involve anybody with testosterone.

All well and good, but in places the plot is so loosely woven it threatens to unravel. The Summer Without Men is rife with long digressions on neuroscience, a subject Hustvedt is passionate about. One could argue these digressions add depth to the book, or you might wonder why they are there at all. Mia is understandably rattled by her breakdown, and poets are nothing if not analytical thinkers. But the analysis often veers far from the character, trolling through Freud, Heidegger, Hegel, and Kant, leaving this reader in the dust (aha, the real problem: our reviewer is an idiot!).

Add the unstable family next door, the cruelties of the aforementioned adolescent girls, the “Swans”—the aged friends of Mia’s mother, who inhabits an assisted living facility, a “presence” Mia senses in her rented home, and an anonymous, harassing emailer, and you have a plot with a lot of dangling threads.

A Summer Without Men repeats several motifs appearing in other Hustvedt novels, most notably 2004’s What I Loved and 2009’s The Sorrows of An American. All three books feature characters involved in neurological phenomena, strong ties to Minnesota’s Norwegian community, and most oddly, disturbing interlocutors.

What I Loved, based on real-life events involving Hustvedt’s stepson, includes a sinister character named Teddy Giles, who may or may not be a murderer. In The Sorrows of an American, narrator Erik Davidsen falls in love with Miranda Causabon, who is renting the ground floor of his brownstone. Miranda is being stalked by her former lover, Jeffrey Lane. Lane leaves disturbing photographs in front of the house, defaces a tree, even goes so far as to break into the building, encountering Erik on the attic steps. Instead of calling the police, Erik opts to speak with Jeffrey.

In The Summer Without Men, Mia begins receiving taunting emails from an anonymous stranger. In all three cases, the characters engage with their harassers. But The Summer Without Men's emailer gradually shifts from insults to a philosophical, often irrational email exchange with Mia that does nothing to enlarge upon events. Mia claims loneliness: “...without him (Boris) I had no one to dance with anymore.” This is a feeble excuse take up with an anonymous emailer calling himself Mr. Nobody, whose opening sally is “I know all about you. You’re Insane, Crazy, Bonkers.” Most of us would hit the 'delete' button.

Art features in all three novels. What I Loved details the friendship between art historian Leo Hertzberg and artist Bill Wechsler. Miranda Casaubon, the renter in The Sorrows of an American, is a book designer and illustrator. The Summer Without Men features the ancient Abigail, one of Mia’s “Swans”. Bent by Osteoporosis, deaf, barely mobile, Abigail fixates on Mia as the recipient of her “amusements”" intricate needleworks with secret buttons that, once opened, reveal unsettling tableaus of sex and rage.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are Mia’s neighbors: Lola, her temperamental husband, Paul, and their two small children, Simon and Flora. Mia becomes close to Lola, vicariously reliving the joys of cradling a newborn and interacting with a toddler.

Then there are her poetry students. Each girl is dealing with the horrors of adolescence; some are coping with mental illness or sick siblings. All behave badly in a subplot that, while perfectly turned, left me wondering how it contributed to the story of a middle-aged woman trying to cope with the breakdown of her marriage.

The tals seems to serve as a window into the perambulations of one woman’s thoughts in a “pause”, the breath before middle age shifts to growing old. Mia muses about women from youth to old age, the many ways women repress themselves in service to male attention, sex, and marriage. Often these perambulations are so widely ranging that the center—a woman coping with a broken marriage—fails to hold.

Boris also left me wondering. He appears the stereotypical scientist: Jewish, adored by his overweening Mama, self-absorbed to the point of rudeness. The sole chink in Boris’s scientific armor is his brother Stefan’s suicide. He seems a poor match for Mia, whose broad intelligence and craving for communication crash into Boris’s dismissive silences. Here is a man who responds to his wife with “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m waking up. Let me have my tea. We’ll talk later. I can’t talk about it. We’ve been over this a thousand times.” (Italics author’s) Yet Hustvedt is spot-on in her observations of long marriages, the way separate selves can dissolve into a “we” so shared that even ownership of memories is disputed.

Ultimately, a book that leaves the reader questioning is not necessarily a failed book, or as Paul Simon once said, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.

If you are a Hustvedt fan, you may feel, as I do, that The Summer Without Men is not her strongest work. If you are new to Hustvedt, I’d send you to What I Loved first, then The Sorrows of An American, then, with reservations, to The Summer without Men. But I would never say that Siri Hustvedt is anything less than the real thing.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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