Two grieving siblings sorting through their Minnesota father's papers find a letter that implies he was involved in a death.
Near the end of "The Sorrows of an American," Erik Davidsen, the middle-aged narrator, muses that "None of us is what we imagine, each of us normalizes the terrible strangeness of inner life with a variety of convenient fictions."
Davidsen is a psychoanalyst by profession, but in relating to us what he's taken to calling his "year of secrets," he gradually becomes something else. Not a storyteller, exactly -- more like a story-scholar, someone who is interested, exclusively, in how stories are made; for this "year of secrets" turns out to be "not of what was there, but of what wasn't." The answers to our unresolved questions, Davidsen -- and, by extension, Hustvedt -- suggests, are both simpler (dramatically) and more complex (psychologically) than we allow ourselves to imagine.
Which isn't to say that plot is completely abandoned in Hustvedt's elegant meditation on familial grief, memory and imagination.
After Davidsen's father passes away, Erik and his sister, Inga, find a letter among his possessions from a woman neither has heard of, alluding to a long-kept secret. The phrasing is such that the two of them suspect their father's involvement in a death. Erik, who is divorced, is one year into a self-diagnosed period of "anhedonia" (joylessness) and has a nervous habit of saying "I'm lonely" out loud. He immerses himself in his father's diary, though as a therapist he knows "autobiography is fraught with questions of perspective, self-knowledge, repression, and outright delusion." To complicate matters, he thinks he might be falling in love with his tenant, a beautiful single mother whose young daughter, Eggy, visits him regularly. On the periphery is Eggy's father -- a moody, unstable photographer, a "documenting maniac" -- who becomes jealous of Erik and intrudes more and more alarmingly into his life, breaking into his house at one point to take surreptitious photos of him.
Across the river in Manhattan, Inga has got her own set of grief-related problems. Her husband, who "represented the idealized cultural notion of the dashing novelist," has died, and the crazies -- the literary biographers, the women who claim to have been his lover -- are out to get a posthumous piece of him, claiming, in their favor, a series of letters he supposedly sent that contain shocking secrets. Inga, a writer herself, is only beginning to come to terms with a life without her husband, and is worried what these secrets will do to her memories of their life together. Plus, she's dealing with a college-age daughter who writes abhorrent poetry and who has been hammered by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
"There is no clear border between remembering and imagining," Erik says. The trick, as a psychoanalyst, is to look for "patterns, strains of feeling, and associations that may move us out of painful repetitions and into an articulated understanding" of trauma, of grief.
In this story, a father has died, a husband has died, a wife has left, and the twin towers have collapsed; Erik and Inga are moving in a sort of fugue state, unsure of anything except that their personal narratives, their idea of the story of their own lives, have in the last year been threatened.
Much happens in this book -- so many characters and themes are introduced it's impossible to keep count -- but it's important to remember while reading that Hustvedt, like Michael Ondaatje, is less interested in resolution than she is in the ways the stories overlap and reflect one another. The problem with trauma and grief is that it's inexpressible -- it is "outside story," as Erik says, it is "what we refuse to make part of our story." But solace can be found in the attempt at articulation. The epigraph is from Rumi: "Don't turn away. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That's where the light enters you."
Of special interest to Minnesota readers: Hustvedt was born in Minnesota, and the italicized sections in the book (which, in the novel, are purportedly written by Erik's father) were, in fact, written by Hustvedt's own father. In addition to giving the novel the pleasing charge that attends any blending of fact and fiction, these sections are fascinating in their description and memory of post-World War II life in the Twin Cities, and, earlier, in rural Minnesota. One example: "Dave The Pencil Man" was a local amputee famous for peddling pencils and who tragically died one cold afternoon in 1936 on Washington Avenue. That man was Hustvedt' s great uncle.
Ethan Rutherford is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Minnesota.