Monday, July 16, 2007

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, Little Children by Tom Perrotta

Whenever an artist dies, the work slowly begins to replace his body, becoming a corporeal substitute for him in the world. It can't be helped, I suppose. Useful objects, like chairs and dishes, passed down from one generation to another, may briefly feel haunted by their former owners, but that quality vanishes rather quickly into their pragmaic functions. Art, useless as it is, resists incorporation into dailiness, and if it has any power at all, it seems to breathe with the life of the person who made it. Art historians don't like to speak of this, because it suggests the magical thinking attached to icons and fetishes, but I have experienced it time and time again, and I felt it in Bill's studio ... Although I knew better than most people that Bill himself and Bill's art were not identical, I understood the need to grant an aura to the work he had left behind him — a kind of spiritual halo that resists the harsh truths of burial and decay. What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt.

I'll confess I wasn't as taken with this novel as so many people seem to be. Part of my reaction is tied to a very gradual cooling I've had toward the work of Paul Auster, her husband (I still recommend Moon Palace to just about anyone). Hustvedt's own style and voice is often quite similar ("It can't be helped, I suppose" is the exactly the casual sort of toss-off that Auster's narrators pepper their stories with), and her concerns — art, identity, the public appropriation of same — align closely with some of Auster's.

For those of us who read the headlines, there is a prurience factor that can't be discounted: a great deal of the novel is devoted to parsing apart the seemingly psychotic behavior of a beloved stepson. What role does therapy or even salvation play in the artistic process?

I can't imagine Hustvedt is being anything but genuine when she brings the intensity of her focus to bear on these questions, but I also couldn't help but contrast the novel's observations with those of Little Children, by Tom Perrotta. Both novels present young children as ciphers, but where Hustvedt's progeny are articulate and frequently precious, Perrotta's kids are recognizably self-centred and manipulative — and, for all that, entirely loveable, too.

Despite the title, Perrotta's chief concern isn't children, but their parents, who seem to be having a tough time figuring out what passes for adult behavior in a physically comfortable, American middle-class environment. This is a concern that strikes a little closer to my heart than those of WIL, and Perrotta explores it with an honesty that had me giggling and squirming in equal measure. In another time and place, I would have immersed myself in Hustvedt's world, and probably emerged from it quite shaken and stirred. But at this moment, my highest recommendation goes to Perrotta. So far, Little Children has been my favourite read this year.

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