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.
Memories of the Future is an experiment in theory of mind. In this big, ambitious novel, Hustvedt is quite clearly testing her readers, playing on the way in which feeling falters at each narrative remove. While her The Blazing World (2014) constructed the idea of empathy as a box of mirrors, the characters in Memories of the Future hover, like the inhabitants of distant tower blocks, just out of emotional range...And she captures the power of past narrative to shape a life to come. A person, as she puts it, may be “stymied by a narrative that predates her existence”. The overall effect is clever, funny, frustrating - but also, as her heroine puts it, “beastly and cold”. This is a book that merits rereading, not least because it’s trying to build something new.
After a while, I was finding it helpful to think of “Memories of the Future” as an essay rather than a novel. The best essays record the tacks and turns of an interesting mind, and Hustvedt — also an accomplished art critic and essayist — is never not interesting. Her acts of mind are more bracing than the story of SH, which feels thin and sepia-toned, like a photograph put through one of those antiquing apps... This time-defying preservation of selves, this dream of plenitude without loss, is like a snow globe from heaven, a vision of Eden before the expulsion. Mathematically demonstrable but emotionally impossible, it’s dangled just in front of us like a bauble we can’t have but can’t stop reaching for. Except that Hustvedt finds a way to give it to us. I won’t tell you how, but I will say that the ending manages to be quite moving and unconvincing at the same time, a recapitulation of the tonal contradiction that pervades this sometimes incisive, sometimes sentimental novel, or memoir, or whatever we decide to call it.
Memories of the Future is a catalogue wearily familiar from the #metoo movement, in which men place their hands patronisingly on their wives’ shoulders; boorishly explain things that women already know; they plead, steal, rape, and get away with it because they are men. SH’s husband, a physicist, receives a mere whisper of a mention. A suggestion that it is possible for men and women to have positive and fulfilling relationships might not have gone amiss... There is power here, fearsome and electric, bursting with rage at the patriarchy and all its perceived failures. And yet the scenes it describes are so familiar that they are almost tropes. In the end, Memories of the Future seems in its single-mindedness to drink a little too deeply from the fountain of the past.
The outcome of Hustvedt’s attempts to commit the past to the page depends on memory acting as her editor... It’s not the events of the past themselves but your understanding of them that shapes you, the book reiterates. To write the past into the present and the future is to take a relative measure of yourself so as to keep abreast of your life. You need to verbalise things that happened to you, to get your bearings in the landscape of memory before you can repeat after S.H: ‘What was is and what is was.’
Is Memories of the Future a novel or a memoir? It comes billed as a novel but is convincingly presented as a memoir, and indeed the situation and many events mirror the author’s own experience. Part of Siri Hustvedt’s achievement is to persuade us that whether or which doesn’t matter... Memories of the Future may be baggy and rambling but it’s under the control of a consummate intelligence. Hustvedt wears her erudition lightly and her cool intellect has a playful and warming passion. To experience her witty, speculative and incisive mind makes her book an unusual and great pleasure to read.
There is much to admire here even if Hustvedt’s earlier readers might regret the absence of a thrilling plot — which made her bestseller What I Loved such electric reading. Hustvedt has said: “There is an aspect of the culture that continually caters to 14-year-old boys. Show me some explosions! Show me some breasts! This is human, but there are many other pleasures.” We should all be grateful that she continues to explore these more esoteric pleasures in her work.
In the end, Hustvedt offers one possible solution to the riddle posed by this teasing, complex, disconcerting novel: that the greatest influence on the meaning of a story begins and ends with authorship – “who gets to tell the story, and in what way”. This holds as true, she suggests, for family mythologies as it does for novels; for history as it does for fiction. Unless and until women are fully in control of their own stories, meanings are being lost.
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.