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What I Loved


What I Loved

WHAT I LOVED, the new book by Brooklyn-based writer Siri Hustvedt, does not know what it wants to be. Is it a conventional family drama, or is it a study of the Club Kid subculture prevalent in New York City in the 1980s? Is it a book about psychological phenomena like hysteria and eating disorders, or is it an examination of a teenager's descent into lying, stealing, drug abuse and, perhaps, murder? The answer is that WHAT I LOVED is all of these things --- and that's the problem.

The first third of the book introduces the Wechslers and Hertzbergs, families featuring like-minded souls bound together by their love of art. Bill Wechsler, a rising artist, has a son named Mark from his brief marriage to Lucille, an emotionally stunted poet. The marriage is doomed and Bill leaves Lucille for Violet, his artistic muse and a psychology scholar. Bill's best friend, Leo Hertzberg, is a Harvard educated art history professor at Columbia University. Leo is married to Erica, an English professor at Rutgers. They have a son named Matthew, who was born within days of Mark. The families live in the same building in SoHo and share summer trips to Vermont, where they trade ideas about art and literature and chart the growth of the boys.

The author strains to make the adult characters sound like the intellectuals she wants them to be. There is no humor or even a touch of lightness in any of them. Hustvedt crams in so many French phrases, references to minor philosophers and fancy literary criticism terms like "elongation" that there is no room for any humanity to seep in. Moreover, the formal prose often clanks false and fails to advance anything --- not any plot line and certainly not our understanding of the characters. The boys do not fare much better. Matthew Hertzberg is a sensitive dreamer with artistic sensibilities, which is fine. But most eleven-year olds do not sound like this: "On the way home in the car when we were all quiet, I thought about how everybody's thoughts keep changing. The thoughts that people were having . . . turned into new thoughts when we were in the car. That was then but this is now, but then that now is gone, and there's a new now. Right now, I'm saying right now, but it's over before I've finished saying it."

Although the book is set in the sensory rich locale of SoHo and the Lower East Side, the City sits limp off camera and the reader never senses the crackling spirit of downtown life. For the author, it is enough to make stray references to "West Broadway" or "the Bowery." Hustvedt invests too much energy in developing the strange world of New York's mutable art scene of the '80s and '90s. Bill Wechsler's art exhibits are painstakingly rendered, with descriptions that last page after exhausting page. The author, writing under the pretense that more is more, does not trust the reader enough to give few, well chosen details of Bill's paintings and box art creations.

WHAT I LOVED is written in the first person, with Leo Hertzberg as its narrator. On two occasions, Leo delivers the news of untimely deaths --- those of his son Matthew and his best friend Bill. The deaths are treated with a matter-of-fact detachment that fails to engage the reader. But the deaths give the author room to move the story into strange, unpredictable terrain. Indeed, the last half of the book bears little resemblance to what came before it. Hustvedt surprisingly builds this part of the book around Mark Wechsler, Bill's shy son who, as he grows into a teenager, slides into the murky Club Kid world, with its bizarre costuming and fascination with horror art.

Teddy Giles, horror artist extraordinaire, is a 20-something sleaze whose "art" consists of destruction and grotesque, violent images. Giles befriends Mark and the two lead a life of mayhem, culminating in the murder of a fellow Club Kid. As Mark settles into his new life, he lies to Leo and Violet --- his surrogate parents after Bill's death --- and begins stealing from them. The lies get bigger, the stealing and drug use get worse and Leo and Violet decide to save Mark, who has fled New York with Giles. At this point, Giles hijacks the story and, incredibly, plays Leo for a sap. For some unknowable reason, Leo, a brilliant art history professor with a Harvard degree, decides he will just do whatever Giles wants. Giles wants Leo to chase him and Mark in a senseless cat and mouse game that leads from Minnesota to Iowa to Tennessee. Leo does not enlist any help, call the police, or say enough is enough. No. Giles says jump and, ludicrously, Leo does. It doesn't make any sense and it doesn't lead anywhere --- there's no payoff at the end of this chase.

WHAT I LOVED is marketed as an imaginative, breakout novel, but it is neither of these things. In many passages, Hustvedt does command the language in a voice that needs to be heard again. She misfires badly, but the reader senses a bright mind at work, one capable of much more than is on display in this disappointing book.

Reviewed by Andrew Musicus on January 24, 2011

What I Loved
by Siri Hustvedt

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312421192
  • ISBN-13: 9780312421199