[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, October 2014.]
By it’s nature every book is unique but The Blazing World is not at all like any other work of fiction I have read before. The author has published as many non-fiction titles as she has fiction and her journalist-like ability as a researcher but most of all as a listener, is abundantly clear. Except that the facts, interviews and personal ‘written statements’ in this book are all invented.
The sometimes cruel, superficial New York art scene is the setting for The Blazing World. Wealthy Harriet ("Harry") Burden is half Jewish, half Protestant but 100% individual and possess a singular, driven personality. She feels that years ago her ability as an artist was largely overlooked by the critics and gallery owners and after a long time of being a mother and wife, now in her early sixties, she is more than ready to "show them all" again that she has what it takes to be respected as a creative force. But Burden believes that it was her gender that originally prevented her work from being recognised and praised so she comes up with a plan to use three male "fronts" in a series of solo exhibitions. The first artist to display her work as his own is a cool young dude called Anton Tisch (changed to "Tish" so that there is an anagram of his name that suggests dishonesty.) The second is a "mulatto queer" and finally another man who ends up committing suicide – that excellent career move. After Harriet has had her fun with this "experiment" she intends to reveal the true identity of herself as the artist responsible for these remarkable pieces.
It’s not so much these brilliant disguises that are so striking but rather how well the story fits together that makes this such a stunning but believable one. The structure, where Harriet and each character in her life gets a chapter or more to give their account, draws on the authenticity of our ‘historical’ memory. There are disputed incidents and interpretations given to events and these help to provide an element of myth to Harriet and her art as well as establish the truth of recall as a subjective experience. Perhaps, there are one or two minor figures who are given major weighting in the text but having Harriet’s "diaries" as the main vehicle works convincingly. In fact, it is the complex and often contradictory nature of the artist herself that makes this novel so readable. We take her side because she has been misunderstood due to her physical features – overly large "man hands," an intimidating height, broad shoulders and a shock of curly hair – and because she has an extraordinary intellect and wit. In the next minute though we are in turn disgusted by her displays of temper and her egotistical manipulation of others. Like the best characters, she is not one dimensional. We can only wonder how much of Harriet comes directly from the author’s own life.
Any fiction of this kind must have the feeling that it all could have been true; it might have happened just like it does in the story. Hustvedt has passed this crucial writer’s test because we have probably known people who are a close likeness of her characters. Apart from that, there is the distinct sensation that her creations have their own originality and possess enough surprises to keep us closely interested in what becomes of them.