I love novels about the New York City art scene. I lived in New York in the late 'sixties with my then-husband, who was an artist hoping to find a gallery to show his work and to become the next young painter for the critics to watch. That it didn't work out that way is no surprise; there were reputedly 40,000 artists living in New York at the time, all hoping for that big break that would launch them into the big time--a retrospective at the Whitney, say.
It was a turbulent time, as anyone who was sentient in those days can well remember. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy sent shock waves that threatened to ignite the city. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago galvanized the nation. Abstract Expressionism duked it out with Pop Art and Minimalism, and Mark Rothko committed suicide. I was just out of college in the mid-west and felt I had somehow stumbled into the nexus of history. There was conflict in the air--the Viet Nam war raged, and the Civil Rights Movement moved the nation in a new direction--but there was optimism too. In New York anything could happen. I was certain that living anywhere else would be unbearably dull.
Long story short: I discovered the venality of the art world, the trading of sex for a good review in Art Forum, the sycophants who circled the celebrities like pilot fish around a shark, the incredible snobbery. For almost two years I lived on my nerves in a state of jacked up energy; it was like taking a roller-coaster ride every time I walked out my door. It was in New York that I first began to have migraines. So when I read a novel set in the New York art world, I feel as if, in a sense, I am going not home but to the scene where I spent the most surreal years of my life. I am fascinated by it and very grateful to have left it far behind.
Siri Hustvedt, who is married to the novelist Paul Auster, has done her research, that's for sure. Her depiction of the New York art scene in the mid-seventies rings true, from loft-living in SoHo to the gallery scene, to artists' quest for the New, and the sometimes outrageous behavior, including drug use, that was part of that world. The main characters are two couples, who are close friends, and their two sons, who are the same age: Matthew and Mark. Bill, an artist, is Mark's father, who is quickly in a second marriage, giving Mark a step-mother with an important role. The narrator, Leo, teaches art history at Columbia and is Matthew's father. Both wives write books. These parallel families, who live in the same building and take family vacations together, are embedded in each others' lives, and each has a story worth telling. But the two characters who are the real engine of the plot are the two boys. One dies in an accident when he is eleven; the other is a sociopath.
With just this to go on, you can tell this is a novel with a plot. Aristotle said Action is Character, and that is certainly true here. Matt dies, then Bill dies suddenly some years later, leaving Leo and Violet, Bill's widow, to come to terms with these violent disruptions in their lives. Leo's wife Erica leaves him to teach at Berkeley, where she mourns alone. The cast of main characters thus narrows down to three: Leo, Violet, and Mark. It is at this point that things turn very dark indeed.
I love a novel with Plot, and "What I Loved" supplies that in plenty. The second half of the book intensifies as Mark's behavior spins out of control. He is a classic case. Even in high school, he is good-looking, smart, and utterly charming. His sincerity is so profound that his apologies and excuses are always accepted. He always gets the benefit of the doubt and a second chance, even as he abuses the trust of the people who love him most. He starts a fire on the roof, or did he? He says he was trying to stop some other boys from burning some cardboard. Matthew loses his beloved Swiss knife, and Mark, searching high and low for it, expresses his sympathy as though the loss were his own. The truth about the missing knife emerges later.
Art and mental illness are two foci of Hustvedt's novel, and her descriptions of both are detailed and informed. I can't think of another book that so effectively shows the sociopathic personality. Mark's lack of empathy is chilling; he in fact ruins the lives of everyone else in the book. Not even love is enough to stop the damage. In some ways this novel is a painful read. Matthew's death and its aftermath will break your heart. When Leo loses his sight at the end, you wonder what else could possibly go wrong. There is no happy ending, but out of the wreckage comes endurance. That itself is no small victory; nothing else is possible.