Art After Sexual Assault

Siri Hustvedt’s new novel explores fiction’s role in feminist consciousness-raising.

Flip Schulke Archives / Mirrorpix / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Few things are more excruciating for a writer than confronting the words written by her younger self. Her tone is bound to seem stilted, her thoughts alien or insignificant. Did I really think that? she wonders, aghast. Worse yet: Did I really commit it to paper? Ensure that my words would come back to shame me in the future? As Jane Austen well knew, the real pleasure in reading one’s “Juvenilia” or “Scraps” comes from measuring the distance between talent and art. At least, that is the hope.

Siri Hustvedt’s seventh novel, Memories of the Future, is a self-conscious exercise in juvenilia. The narrator, known to us only by her initials, S.H., and her nickname, Minnesota, is moving her mother from one area in a retirement home to another when she stumbles across her own journal from almost 40 years earlier. She recalls herself as she was then, a lanky blonde from Webster, Minnesota, who had left home for New York City to enroll in a graduate program in comparative literature. The year was 1978. The city was severe and inviting, alive with art, music, sex, drugs, poets, punks, panhandlers—the perfect setting for S.H.’s transformation into a novelist. “This book is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, the artist who came to New York to live and to suffer and to write her mystery,” S.H. announces, lest there be any doubt that the novel is a Künstlerroman. It proceeds to shift awkwardly between S.H.’s present-day narration and a clutter of found texts: S.H.’s journal entries from 1978 and 1979, a draft of a novel she wrote but has never finished, and delicate, undated caricatures of people ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Donald Trump.

A relentlessly self-aware writer, Hustvedt must know that she is stacking the deck against S.H. and herself. The novel amasses all the tired tropes of urban intellectual fiction: the single girl in the city, eager to convert life into fiction; her coterie of witty, intellectual friends (“the Dear Ones,” she calls them); the graduate student she dates, who, in the heady days of high theory, is too besotted with the work of Paul de Man and Michel Foucault to appreciate either S.H.’s desire (her “low-grade genital burn”) or her literariness; the dirty and dazzling romance of New York. As she has done in all her novels, Hustvedt indulges in lengthy metafictional meditations on art, time, and truth. “Every book is a withdrawal from immediacy into reflection. Every book includes a perverse wish to foul up time, to cheat its inevitable pull,” S.H. thinks, and even she finds her thoughts annoying. “Blah, blah, blah, and hum-da-di-dum. What am I looking for? Where am I going?”

Book cover
Simon & Schuster

The novel is not exactly good. Then again, a writer’s juvenilia are not supposed to be good. They are supposed to be tentative, aspirational, incomplete—imitative and unrestrained. “The kind of poem I produced in those days was hardly anything more than a sign I made of being alive, of passing or having passed, or hoping to pass, through certain intense human emotions,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Speak, Memory. Hustvedt’s novel asks us to forgive its ragged edges, its aggressive mediocrity. It invites us to sift through the disordered sheaf of papers to find sentences, pages, fragments that testify to the author’s future greatness, her ability to one day write a work of fiction as celebrated as The Blindfold—Hustvedt’s 1992 debut, also about a young graduate student in New York, a concept then still fresh—or The Blazing World, Hustvedt’s previous, Man Booker Prize–nominated novel, about a female artist masquerading as three different male artists to reveal the misogyny of the art world.

Yet Hustvedt is also after something else—a politically demanding Künstlerroman that doesn’t just chronicle the suffering of a single, white, well-educated aspiring writer in New York, but is ultimately catalyzed by a generically female experience of psychic trauma. “Given what readers have long loved about Hustvedt’s work, it will come as no surprise that Memories of the Future has special resonance in the age of #metoo, with its overdue discussions about parity, bias, and misconduct,” announces the publicity letter included in review copies of the novel. The novel’s contemporaneity is indeed pointed: The narrative present is 2017, soon after the election of Donald Trump. “I try not to think about the cruelty of the presidential election,” S.H. thinks. “I hear the roaring spleen of the white crowd as they spit and scream at the woman. The abomination. Cast her out. Push her hard.”

The image of women being pushed by men links individual characters, real and fictional, to one another in a chain of misogyny. At one end of the chain is Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016; it extends back in time to S.H. on the night of May 7, 1979, when a man named Jeff walks her to her door after meeting her at a party.

When I pushed the second key into the lock of 2B, he pressed his body against my back and pushed me flat against the door. I felt his hips move into my tailbone and then his fingers in my hair as he gently tugged at a bobby pin. Didn’t he understand me? Now I wondered if these were practiced gestures of seduction. They had probably been successful in the past. I turned around abruptly and looked up at him. I could see his gums. I found his mouth ugly with its red gums.

Evoking Jeff’s awful touch, the journal’s sentences shorten, the rhythm of the prose clarifies. The descriptive excess falls away, and the novel begins to pick up speed, gain in urgency. It races through Jeff’s unwanted kiss, his menacing hiss, his shove, the refrain of S.H.’s “pleading, sobbing voice” after he pushes her into her bookshelf. It hurtles through the lucky moment when Lucy, her neighbor, bangs at the wall with a broom, sending Jeff running, never to be seen again. “I want to tell it exactly as I remember it,” S.H. writes when she wakes up, committed to uniting language with truth. Thirty-eight years later, the journal entry and the narrative that follows it remain as sharp as the five-and-a-half-inch Brazilian stiletto switchblade she started carrying after the incident. “The memory hurts me—hurts me now—and that is how the past stays alive,” S.H. thinks.

Occurring at exactly the book’s midpoint, the arrival of “My Almost Rapist” (as S.H. refers to Jeff) is the novel’s cold, dark core, its most emotionally and ethically resonant event. To put it another way, the best writing in the novel—taut storytelling that offers a respite from S.H.’s breathlessly labored prose about New York and Hustvedt’s jumble of texts—is motivated by a sexual assault. But what does it mean that sexual assault operates as the narrative hinge between immature and mature writing, allowing S.H. to speak the truth about misogyny clearly and directly?

For Hustvedt, the novel’s pivotal scene of traumatic awakening isn’t merely personal—the liberation of a single artist’s voice. Something bigger and more powerful, it seems, transpires: The unconscious memories of many victimized women are converted into a powerful feminist awareness. The novel rides the radical currents of 1970s second-wave-feminist thinking about rape speak-outs and consciousness-raising. It dips into 1980s trauma theory, too, which sought to explain how people could become emotionally possessed by the horrors of the past, so that in reliving them, they could access a history they had not understood when it was happening. “When you multiply the pasts and memories and ghosts of everyone in the room, you understand they aren’t quiet or contained because they inevitably reappear,” S.H. writes.

Whether or not Hustvedt had in mind Judy Chicago’s signature feminist art project of the period, The Dinner Party, the setting in which she dramatizes the triangulation of assault, memory, and authorial voice seems fitting. After the assault, Lucy’s friends Patty and Moth invite S.H. to a dinner party with a charmingly ironic philosophy professor at NYU named Martin Blume and his nervous wife, Sarah. The conversation turns to the philosophical problem of other minds, and whether a mother could ever really know her children (a theme, as it happens, of several moving subplots in the book that explore how parents and children struggle to make their peace with “an intimacy that is not intimate”). Martin dismisses the arguments of the women at the table with contempt. “Please, no philosophies from female nether regions,” he scoffs, before turning to S.H. “I don’t suppose you have anything to add to this venerable philosophical debate, my dear?”

When S.H. speaks, it is “as if someone other than I, some satirical demon had taken hold of me and was giving me dictation.” Her memories mingle with the memories of all the mistreated women at the table, and spur her to debunk Martin’s patriarchal notions of mental isolation. “If you think that I am ignorant of the analogical, criteriological, and theoretical-entities arguments, you are mistaken. I am not,” she declares, mimicking the authoritativeness of his tone to reject his logic.

Although I see the person, watch him move, talk, and yell in pain, I cannot assume that person has a mind. Apparently a mind is something that does not belong to a body. It is distinct, separate, and invisible: “the ghost in the machine.” Aren’t you asking me to produce proof that another person is, in fact, another person? Then again, where does this internal mind of yours that you feel so confident about come from, sir?

She faints at the end of her speech, depleted by the intellectual labor of consciousness-raising. The scene isn’t meant to be funny—even when flagging the speech as satirical in tone, Hustvedt remains generally earnest—but it wears its comic flourishes well: S.H.’s repeated address of Martin as “sir”; her sudden lapse into German to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein; and the revelation, once S.H. comes to, that Patty, Lucy, and most of the women at the dinner party are witches in a coven. They gather to cast spells that will prevent men from doing women harm, channeling their anger into chants. “Don’t turn away from your gifts,” Patty tells S.H. as she sees her to the door. “Don’t fear your anger either. It can be useful. And remember this: the world loves powerful men and hates powerful women. I know. Believe me, I know.”

In reenacting one woman’s traumatic memories, Hustvedt’s novel engages in a similarly ambivalent act of consciousness-raising. It recalls its readers—most of them women, presumably—to the project of second-wave feminism at a moment when speaking out has reemerged as a forceful political strategy. But the novel’s magical belief in the alchemy of anger also reminds us to be wary of counting on words, and words alone, to do the work of dismantling patriarchy. “Wittgenstein, however, even when quoted in the original, is no help at all if a man throws you into a wall of books,” S.H. observes.

“Something is happening,” Hustvedt writes on the final page. “Something is happening in the now of the book. Something is beginning to happen as you read this sentence … Hold out your hand. I am giving you the keys. One story has become another.” On the opposite page is Hustvedt’s final drawing: a woman, naked and ecstatic, soaring over the Empire State Building with a switchblade in her hand. It is a perfectly ridiculous image for a perfectly ridiculous aspiration—a naive, self-mythologizing, and imaginary view of the writer’s power to shape politics. The woman’s breasts are impossibly pert. The knife is pointed up to the sky (rather than at the president’s heart). But we can’t take it too seriously. Hustvedt’s novel is only playing with the illusions of youth.

This article appears in the May 2019 print edition with the headline “Art After Sexual Assault.”