“The difficulty of seeing clearly haunted me long before my eyes went bad, in life as well as in art. It’s a problem of the viewer’s perspective – as Matt pointed out that night in his room when he noted that when we look at people and things, we’re missing from our own picture. The spectator is the true vanishing point, the pinprick in the canvas, the zero. I’m only whole to myself in mirrors and photographs and the rare home movie, and I’ve often longed to escape that confinement and take a far view of myself from the top of a hill – a small ‘he’ rather than an ‘I’ traveling in the valley below from on point to another. And yet, remove doesn’t guarantee accuracy either, although sometimes it helps.”
In “What I Loved” Siri Hustvedt writes what, on the surface at least, is a narrative of friendships deep and profound. Our protagonist and narrator is Leo, a critic and scholar who can’t resist dissecting, analyzing, and describing things. His closest friend Bill, an artist, is similarly compelled, but for him the compulsion is to create. The two are drawn to one another and become more deeply intertwined than any adult-formed, non-collegial or familial relationship I’ve ever witnessed, particularly between two straight men. Bill and Leo marry women who become fast friends, have children at roughly the same time, share a duplex, and carry on a close, nearly co-dependent friendship for more than 25 years.
Behind the story-line of this friendship lies a deeper exploration into ‘seeing’. As the excerpt above so eloquently demonstrates, Leo – whose life is all about seeing, analyzing, parsing – is constantly mulling over this concept and, perhaps ironically, revealing his blindspots.
“…I found myself walking down a long shining corridor with a marble floor. A man in an overcoat was striding toward me. Several seconds passed before I realized that the man I had taken for a stranger was my own reflection in a mirror at the end of the hall. Such brief intervals of disorientation aren’t uncommon, but they interest me more and more, because they suggest that recognition is far more feeble than we suppose.”
Leo, the critic, is often blind to those around him and, more often, to himself. His vision always turned outward, Leo’s self-image meets a comical reckoning.
“The summer after I turned fifty-six, I suddenly noticed that my body had changed. It happened the day Bill swam, and I listened to Matt and Mark cheer him on as he moved across the pond. I had been swimming myself and was sitting by the water in my black bathing trunks. When I looked down at myself, I discovered that my toes were gnarled and bony. A long varicose vein had popped out in my left leg, and the wispy hairs on my chest had turned white. My shoulders and upper body seemed oddly diminished, and my pale skin was now marred by red and brown discolorations. But more surprising to me were the soft white folds of fat that had lodged themselves around my middle. I had always been lean, and although I had noticed a suspicious tightness around my waist when I zipped my pants in the morning, I hadn’t been particularly alarmed. The truth was that I hadn’t kept up with myself. I had walked around with a self-image that was completely out-of-date. After all, when did I actually see myself? When I shaved, I looked only at my face. Occasionally I caught a reflection of myself in a window or glass door in the city. When I showered, I scrubbed myself but didn’t study my flaws. I had become an anachronism to myself.”
Hustvedt delightfully and deeply explores seeing and knowing in this novel. The primary conflict she uses to juxtapose clear-seeing and understanding is something pathological, insidious. It is a bit of a mind-fuck of the type found in Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and Ian McEwan’s screenplay “The Good Son”, a twist which deserves to be explored and gradually revealed in the way Hustvedt has so carefully crafted it.
This novel was cerebral and introspective, its characters were quiet and thoughtful. Though Hustvedt surrenders to some seemingly perverse need to tidy up and avoid loose ends, providing a hollywood-type wrap up in the final 10 pages that is unnecessary and nearly insulting, the balance of the novel is a strong, compelling, and thought-provoking read by an author with a steady hand and assured voice.