Face to face

Times Staff Writer.

SINCE Freud and Jung, the novel has concerned itself with the self, an increasingly complicated subject after World War II, which, like other wars but more so, fractured families and communities and selves. Jung was a great believer in secrets and their critical role in forming the self, rather like the grit in the oyster shell that becomes a pearl. That journey -- grit to pearl -- forms the dramatic arc of many a 20th century novel.

Siri Hustvedt’s “The Sorrows of an American” is one such novel, though here in the 21st century it seems a little old-fashioned in its sources of drama and tension. Peopled with intellectuals, authors, psychoanalysts and their patients and set in TriBeCa and Brooklyn, it seems a precious diorama, like something you might see in the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. And yet, and yet, the pages turn themselves. The old story, the search for the self, holds water once again.

Ghosts, ancestors, secrets and stories. Ghosts are to ancestors what secrets are to stories. A little understanding, a little psychoanalysis, can bring the mystery and fear into the broad light of day, turning ghosts into ancestors. A little imagination, some empathy, a little emotional flesh on the bones of characters, a bit of narrative, can turn secrets into stories. Families are their repositories, and novels weave them into a work of art. Not true stories, necessarily, but a reflection of the author -- the author’s self, refracted.


A novel, like a family, can be a kind of reliquary. Hustvedt writes in her Acknowledgments that some of the passages in this novel were taken from the memoirs of her father, who died in 2003. “In this sense,” she writes, “after his death, my father became my collaborator.” Hustvedt, who has written three previous novels, volunteers at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York City, where she teaches a writing workshop. She also thanks her students as well as the psychoanalysts and neuroscientists who informed this novel with their expertise.

Psychoanalyst Erik Davidsen, the novel’s narrator, is, like his creator, a Brooklyn resident and the descendant of Scandinavian immigrants. When the novel opens, Erik’s father, Lars, has just died. Erik is very close to his sister, Inga, a philosopher and writer, whose husband, Max Blaustein, a famous novelist, died five years earlier. Their daughter, Sonia, is 18. Max left several secrets -- possible affairs and children -- in his illustrious wake. Lars also left secrets and regrets: an unjust killing he witnessed during the war and something much darker, from his childhood in the Midwest. His journals help Erik piece together the story of his father’s life.

There are enough ghosts in Erik’s ancestry to populate an entire novel, but Hustvedt adds a single mother and her 5-year-old daughter, Eglantine (Eggy), who move into the lower floor of Erik’s brownstone. Erik is divorced and lonely and immediately falls for the beautiful and mysterious Miranda and her lovely daughter. Miranda’s ex-boyfriend and Eggy’s father, Jeffrey Lane, is a dangerously unstable artist who is photographing his disturbed life, documenting his many selves. Erik is drawn into Lane’s circle of rage and blame when Lane begins stalking him along with Miranda and Eggy, leaving ominous Polaroids on the brownstone’s doorstep.

Many of the characters display neurological symptoms: Inga has petit mal seizures, Lars was a fugueur (someone who periodically wanders away from his life) and Lane has various disassociative disorders. The journalist who is trailing after Inga, ostensibly to write about her famous husband, bears a childhood grudge. Sonia suffers from post-traumatic stress brought on by Sept. 11 and the destruction of the twin towers, which she witnessed firsthand from her school in downtown Manhattan. Lars’ wartime memories reverberate through his son as Erik reads his journals. Erik’s patients display a wide variety of syndromes and disorders. In other words, every character in the novel is damaged (though perhaps most psychiatrists would say that we are all in some way and to some degree damaged.)

The tension builds as Hustvedt adds more layers, more memories, more dreams and nightmares to each of the characters’ stories. “The Sorrows of an American” begins to resemble an Ingmar Bergman movie -- particularly “Face to Face,” in which a psychiatrist (Liv Ullmann) attempts to heal herself. It also becomes a kind of folding screen, as the characters’ relationships deepen: For example, Eggy helps Erik to remember his childhood self, even as his futile lust for Miranda evokes his awkward adolescence.

Many of these sorrows -- and they are myriad -- are not particularly American. What’s American are the immigrant histories of hard work that (contrary to popular myth) doesn’t pay off, the offensive layering of heroism and misguided patriotism post-Sept. 11 and Lane’s desperate search for an identity he often confuses with race, claiming (thanks to a few drops of Cherokee blood and a half-black grandmother) to be something other than a privileged, self-involved white American.


About three-quarters of the way through the novel, one longs -- like little Eggy, tying string around the furniture in Erik’s living room -- for a coherent story, a coherent world. The characters all have elaborate identities, many selves. (“I don’t know you,” one of Erik’s disgruntled patients tells him. “You sit here and listen.”)

Some of the loose threads are tied up in the novel’s last 50 pages, but certainly not all of them. It’s a bit of an old worn carpet, echoes of Henry James. We look for figures we recognize within it. Why? Because as readers (indeed, as human beings), we look in childlike fashion for someone we can trust, someone who will keep us safe. The older we get -- as our ever-increasing life span means more layers, more memories, more regrets, more ghosts -- the more we realize that such certainty is not forthcoming. Not in life, not in fiction, not from Siri Hustvedt. Can’t trust anyone.

You heard it here first.