Harriet Burden, an artist of strange and wonderful works, has shed her identity. Realizing that there is gender-bias (and money-bias, and fame-bias, etc. etc.) in the art community, Harriet (or Harry as she is known to her friends) selects men to present her artwork as their own. Each man she tries on is a mask - some are famous and established artists, others are meek and, until Harry lays her hands on them, undiscovered. Her story is told through letters, interviews, snippets of the artist's journal, and anecdotes told before and after her death. Through examining these pieces of her life, we view Harry as she sees herself, as her family sees her, as her lovers see her, and as the public sees her. Though all of these viewpoints differ, there is one unified idea: Harriet Burden was a monstrously passionate creature. Disguised as a non-fiction account of an eccentric artist, The Blazing World, like so many of its characters, is a novel caught in the shifting and burbling eddy of identity.
I have always been drawn to stories told in unconventional ways. The Blazing World definitely fit the bill.
At first, I longed for more chaos from the form; I wanted House of Leaves, not academia. Soon I found, however, that there was more than enough chaos and anxiety hidden within the art criticism and interviews Hustvedt has offered us.
At times, the form is tedious. It took me a good hundred pages before I truly felt invested in Harriet's story. Often, I found myself wondering, "What's the point? Where's the plot? Why do I care?" Some contributors are harder to read and connect with than others. However, it is important to understand that this is a story about a person's identity, not a person's life or achievements. It felt like a biography, but less focused on their life, and more focused on who exactly they were. And, weirdly (and somewhat paradoxically) enough, we need outside and distant interpretations of a person, no matter how dry, to truly understand them.This is not an action-packed thriller. It is a study in personality - an emotional, electrified glimpse into one woman's existence.
Hustvedt is a master of emotion and personality. I felt as if I knew Harry even though I was seeing her filtered through the eyes of many others. Though we do get pieces directly from her journals, one cannot help but wonder if those too are performances. Surely, with the level of planning put into her journals, these notebooks were intended for something more than quiet self-reflection. That is what is incredible about this novel - though we see Harry through the eyes of the fictitious editor of the book, the contributors of the interviews and articles, Harry, convoluted and distant, and finally through Siri Hustvedt, I felt as if Harry herself spoke to me, shining through the murky layers.
I didn't know I liked this book until, a few days later, I still couldn't get Harriet out of my head.
Buy The Blazing World March 11th in hardcover, audio, or e-book format from Simon & Schuster.