Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt

‘I haunted the Upper West Side …’

The protagonist of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blindfold is, for the bulk of the story, aged about twenty two, a period of life in which certain things – art, lust, ideas – can seem to needle more prominently at your conscience. This is one of the things Hustvedt’s debut does well, outlining the youthful need to define things and be defined. The novel rings with the urgency of conversations, events and thoughts, but equally frustrates with inertia and the inability to make things happen, which of course is just as youthful.

Iris is a grad student, an eye through which we see New York and its difficult parameters, where she attempts to bring herself to life in a number of guises. Iris is also the author’s first name reversed, inviting an autobiographical reading of the text and, told in four temporally-fudged parts, the story does operate as a convincingly fragmented exploration of the way memory and recall work, and how slippery they can be. The migraines that trouble and eventually hospitalise Iris add another veil of frustrated perception to her tales.

Whether posing for a photographer or translating an obscure German novel, interactions with art and artists colour Iris’ sojourns through a city that’s often masterfully indifferent. She is negotiating not only the streets and their heavily masculine terrain, but her identity. She attempts to forge some kind of rewarding path there, all the while striving to obtain a self-image she can trust. This is almost always done in relation to difficult and inappropriate men. Set in the late seventies, it’s possible this is a woman who literally does not know what to do with her own liberation. In fact, the possible liberating effects of fluid personalities means reality itself is frequently wrong-footed. At one point it seems a posed photograph of Iris has taken on a life of its own. The power of self-image can be too great.

Hustvedt interrogates a number of female stereotypes in The Blindfold: woman as model, as muse, as student smitten with older male intellectual. These scenarios aren’t subverted as you might anticipate, rather our protagonist is left sprawling and helpless beneath their sheer accumulated power. The subversions she does undertake, such as cross-dressing for the purposes of safely bar-hopping in the small hours, liberate her in terms of social barriers, but come at the cost of her own body; she literally begins to wither away. When negotiations with identity break down, so eventually does Iris. The last and most affecting of the female tropes the novel deals with is of women gone mad. The scenes set on a female hospital ward, with its array of bedraggled outcast women, showcase best what a terrifically powerful writer Hustvedt can be.

No comments: