Feminism, Meet Fiction

In an age where sexism is more subtle, novels tackle it best. A review of The Blazing World.

Is there lingering sexism in the world of books and art galleries? Many female novelists have ardently argued that their novels haven’t received the laurels and attention of Great Male Novelists, but they have not been able to deftly, subtly attack the larger problem the way Siri Hustvedt does in her sublime, playful new novel, The Blazing World.

The novel tells the story of Harriet “Harry” Burden, a sixtysomething artist who was married to a famous art dealer. She is larger-than-life in every possible way, bursting with ideas, with a great, ranging intellect; she is enormously tall and voluptuous, thickening in the middle, with uncontrollable curly hair. Her work has been snubbed or condescended to, subsumed by her husband’s reputation.

When her husband, who has complexly cheated on her, dies, she leaves her posh apartment and moves to a studio in Red Hook; suddenly a great artistic force is unloosed. She experiences a period of almost volcanic creativity. She dreams up an experiment, called “Maskings,” in which she shows her new art through a series of three younger male artists; the idea is to create living pseudonyms, and see what happens. Will the world respond differently if it thinks there are handsome young male artists behind the wildly ambitious work? The experiment leads her into an ominous pas de deux with the last of the three male artists, and into a very unsettling, deeply personal exploration of power dynamics between men and women.

The story of Harry’s life and work is pieced together in fragments: There are Harry’s notebook entries, and the accounts of her children, her best friend from childhood who is a psychoanalyst, a New Age girl named Sweet Autumn, a psychotic squatter who lives with her named “The Barometer,” condescending art critics, glib newspaper writers, the charming, overweight failed poet who became her lover after her husband’s death, and the young artists who were her “masks.”

In her notebooks, Harry writes, “All intellectual and artistic endeavors, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls.”

The novel is clearly a feminist undertaking, but it resists all easy declarations, all facile cultural readings. Hustvedt’s mind moves too quickly for that. Harry writes in her notebooks, “I am an Opera. A Riot. A Menace.” And yet for decades she also runs a nice bourgeois home on the Upper East Side. It is Hustvedt’s willingness to entertain and explore the uncertainties, to tease out the terrifying ambiguities, to truly and creatively plumb the angry depths of sexual politics and intimate life, that lifts this book to a whole other level of inquiry from the usual feminist tome. Hustvedt has the courage not to resolve, not to tie in bows, not to tame the wilds of intimate life into political truism, and this courage is fresh, original, riveting. It gives the whole conversation air.

Hustvedt creates an artist who is not oppressed or held back or irritated by domestic life. Harry loves her husband even after she finds out he had affairs with both men and women. She loved throwing herself into her children when they were young. Some of her uneasiness with her own ambition, her struggle with her art, is about the world’s reaction to her, and some of it is her own neurotic response. She begins to see all the ways that she held herself back. Untangling her intimate, idiosyncratic relation to cultural expectations, her complex internalization of sexist attitudes, and how she breaks out is part what gives the book its particular momentum.

This is feminism in the tradition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, or Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: richly complex, densely psychological, dazzlingly nuanced. And at the same time, the book is a spectacularly good read. Its storytelling is magnificent, its characters vivid, its plot gripping; it’s rare that a novel of ideas can be so much fun.

All of which makes me wonder whether, in coming years, the most provocative work in feminism will be in novels. Take a lighter but also trenchant commentary on residual sexism, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., which unearths and examines the stealth chauvinism of sensitive men. It may be that the challenges currently facing feminist thinkers, the subtleties of how sexism plays out in a world in which women are approaching social and economic equality, are better dealt with in fiction. Now that we no longer need to name or discover it—“Sexism exists!”—the flatfooted outrage of the blogosphere or feminist narratives is too crude, too simplifying, too unchallenging, too predictable, and the novel’s delicate touch may be precisely what is called for. As Virginia Woolf put it in A Room of One’s Own: “Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.”  

If we want to truly see and understand sexism at work at a time when it’s at its trickiest and least overt, to tackle its presence in real lives, to apprehend the fullness of its influence, to understand more deeply what it means and how it feels, we need something besides VIDA counts, or feminist bloggers snidely and resourcefully competing to deconstruct the latest conservative politician’s gaffe, or unretouched photos of Lena Dunham’s Vogue shoot. We need more beautiful novels like The Blazing World.