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Book Review

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Ron Charles

Siri Hustvedt's new novel is difficult to summarise and hard to recommend. Its intricate plot -- in two different time frames -- splinters in complicated, creepy, even absurd ways. Its narrator is stuck in a state of "anhedonia" -- an inability to experience joy or pleasure. Its themes bombard us with psychoanalytic theory, avant-garde films and Kierkegaard.

But I think I'm in love.

Despite everything about The Sorrows of an American that makes it sound repellent, this is one of the most profound and absorbing books I've read in a long time. Hustvedt pushes hard on what a novel can do and what a reader can absorb, but once you fall into this captivating story, the experience will make you feel alternately inadequate and brilliant -- and finally deeply grateful.

Her thoughtful protagonist, Erik Davidsen, is a psychiatrist in New York, divorced, childless and chronically lonely. His father, a history professor, has recently died in Minnesota, leaving behind several boxes of personal papers, including letters and an unpublished memoir. While sorting through these effects a few days after the funeral, Erik and his sister, Inga, find a short, vague note that seems to implicate their father in a woman's death at least 50 years ago.

Tracking down the details of that event -- a tragedy? a crime? -- becomes a low-level crusade for Erik and his sister when they return to Brooklyn. Their father's mystery, however, is quickly subsumed by other complications. In a frenzy of intellectual insight, Inga begins a new book about the history of philosophical breakthroughs, but she's being harassed by a seedy journalist who reveals lurid details about her late husband, a prominent writer and filmmaker. "I've suddenly discovered that I've lived another life," she tells Erik. "I mean, now I have to rewrite my own story, redo it from the bottom up." The challenge is how to do that while protecting her teenage daughter, who's still haunted by the horrors she witnessed on Sept. 11.

Erik is determined to help his sister and niece, but crushing loneliness threatens to disrupt his practice, which is shown in a series of fascinating sessions with his patients -- more people desperate to rewrite their life stories. "My solitude had gradually begun to alter me," he tells us, "to turn me into a man I had not expected, a person far more peculiar than I had ever imagined." On top of all this, he's falling in love with a single mother named Miranda who rents his first-floor apartment. She doesn't return his affection, but she needs him: Her deranged ex-husband is leaving stacks of defaced photos at the door -- images that document her life and eventually include Erik, too, in private, unguarded moments.

All these complications sprawl out in ominous, often exciting ways. Hustvedt seems unwilling to turn away any tangential character; she practices a kind of authorial hospitality that gives the book an ever-growing list of side stories. Not the least of these is told in arresting excerpts from the memoir by Erik's father that describes his childhood during the Depression and his experiences as a soldier in World War II. Erik studies this manuscript with rapt attention, knowing it contains the best chance of understanding his heritage and perhaps his own troubled soul as well.

Hustvedt reveals in the acknowledgments that these stirring passages from the senior Davidsen's memoir were, in fact, taken almost verbatim from her own late father's memoir, making The Sorrows of an American a striking demonstration of its own theme: the blending of fiction and nonfiction that gives coherence to our lives. "Telling always binds one thing to another," Erik thinks. "We want a coherent world, not one in bits and pieces."

This, of course, is what Erik's father was trying to find -- or create. "By becoming a historian of his own immigrant past," Erik explains, "he had found a way to return home again and again. Like countless neurologists, psychiatrists, and analysts I know who suffer from the very ailments they hope to cure in others, my father had relieved the raw sore inside him through the work he had chosen. He had archived innumerable diaries, letters, newspaper articles, books, recipes, drawings, notebooks, and photographs of a dying world. . . . His was an illness that besets the intellectual: the indefatigable will to mastery. Chronic and incurable, it afflicts those who lust after a world that makes sense."

To demonstrate that point, Hustvedt elegantly knits together these subplots, often from different genres: elements of the thriller, the hospital drama, the historical novel and even the spy caper and noir film, along with autobiography, philosophy, letters, case studies and art criticism. Even Miranda's little girl gets in the act, winding kite string around the apartment, striving, with disastrous results, "to tie everything together."

This is a radically postmodern novel that wears its po-mo credentials with unusual grace; even at its strangest moments, it never radiates the chilly alienation that marks, say, the work of Hustvedt's husband, Paul Auster. The remarkable conclusion of The Sorrows is a four-page recapitulation of the story's images racing through Erik's mind -- and ours. It's a stunning, Joycean demonstration that invites us to impose some sense of meaning on a disparate collection of events, to satisfy our lust for "a world that makes sense." I reached the end emotionally and intellectually exhausted, knowing how much I'll miss this book. ·

This review first appeared in The Washington Post.

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