Memories of the Future is narrated with a crisp, professorial tone, which risks coming across more like cultural critique than fiction. Declaring herself “free to dance over decades”, SH lays an array of selves, fictive and autobiographical, over each other like transparencies, to reveal deeper patterns. The fallibility of memory, madness and the artistic process are all incisively traced, but male entitlement emerges as the most insistent motif. The pent-up misogynistic rage of her assailant is connected to the refusal of her otherwise gentle father to inform his wife in advance about trips he has planned. If this sounds like thesis fodder, Hustvedt has the imaginative mastery to encase complex ideas in the flesh and blood needed to render them visceral.
The problem here isn’t the fact of the key change, or the bones of the argument. Obviously it is true that powerful men have dominated story lines for centuries. But Hustvedt’s elucidation of her theme feels crude, even dogmatic. The men she holds up for excoriation are easy targets: the rapist, the chauvinist, the entitled jock. It’s telling that in an interview with The Guardian, Hustvedt suggested that many of the book’s mundane details were taken from life, but the rape was invented. Although the point she’s making is on-trend, it’s also (whisper it, you bad feminist) a little tired. The one requirement of the novel form, in all its variousness, is novelty. In this charming, intelligent, puzzling and ultimately disappointing book, Hustvedt jettisons a promising new riff for a chorus we can all sing by heart.
There is a lot of depth to Memories Of The Future, and at times it asks a lot from the reader; to consider constructs of identity while remaining interested in several sotries (Minnesota is also trying to write a book, which is shared with us, and is also transfixed with the night-time murmurings of her emotionally unstable neighbour.) But it is beautifully written, with Hustvedt gifting her intense love for literature to her protagonist. We're taken on a wonderful tour of writers, poets and libraries all over Seventies New York.
Reading a Hustvedt novel is like consuming the best of David Lynch on repeat: the rotting ear nestling in the immaculate flowerbed in Blue Velvet; the twisted secrets witnessed from the hiding place of a closet. Spying and being spied on are intrinsic to Hustvedt’s work: it is part of the flourish and the theatrics...Ideas somersault nimbly in the novel as memoir jostles with memories. Primarily, SH writes of a past of navigated possibility from a future of unforeseen jeopardy: in 2017, the established novelist laments the current political scene of progression lurching backwards. It is a point at which both SH and her creator appear, in this intense, high-spirited Bildungsroman, to have come full circle.
Although primarily a novelist, Hustvedt has also written widely about art, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. Her style is elegant and pragmatic. She deftly masters postmodern fictional techniques while also tapping into the broader liberal humanist tradition and placing feminism in that context. She’s a 21st-century Virginia Woolf, with many intellectual and creative rooms of her own – including a delightful talent for drawing cartoons, a host of which appear throughout her book.
Hustvedt is that rarest of beasts: a deeply intellectual writer whose work is joyful and not intimidating in the slightest. This is terrific, opening in a grimy, insalubrious late 1970s New York where narrator S.H. has arrived fresh from the Midwest with ambitions of becoming a writer. Forty years later S.H. is a published novelist and, while clearing out her mother's house, she finds her old New York notebook with drafts of a never-completed novel. With the notebook she is able to measure what she remembers against what she wrote during that fateful first year in New York.