“EVERYTHING IS AUTOBIOGRAPHY and nothing is,” Siri Hustvedt told Guernica’s Meara Sharma in 2017. In Hustvedt’s new novel, Memories of the Future, the main character finds herself ghostwriting an elderly rich woman’s autobiography: “a work of fiction like all autobiography is,” she concludes. This melding of fact and fiction, the unreliability of memory, and the importance of storytelling serve as the main themes of Memories of the Future, which follows S.H., a young woman raised in a small town in Minnesota who moves to Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the late 1970s to study English at Columbia University. (Hustvedt herself did the same thing.) But before S.H. starts grad school, she takes a year off to “find the hero of my first novel.” As S.H. settles into her apartment on West 109th Street, she keeps hearing her next-door neighbor chanting, yelling in different voices, and despairing over the death of her daughter. S.H. listens to Lucy Brite’s tirades with great interest, using her dad’s old stethoscope to hear better through the wall and recording her neighbor’s seemingly inane rantings in a notebook. As the story progresses, we meet S.H.’s new cohort (who calls her “Minnesota”) as they dream up different theories of what’s happening on the other side of their friend’s wall. The pinnacle of the story arrives in the form of a horrifying instance of sexual abuse, with Lucy Brite ultimately coming to the rescue. In the denouement, the mysterious neighbor comes to light, herself a mélange of facts and fictions that S.H. seeks to decode.
But S.H.’s youthful experiences in New York only serve as the most prominent layer of Hustvedt’s storytelling in the novel. That narrative is taken from a notebook that a much older, present-day S.H. finds while moving her elderly mother into a new care facility. As the middle-aged S.H. reads her old journal, she comments on how she remembers various events a little bit differently. She also discovers drafts of the unfinished mystery novel she’d been working on at the time. Ultimately, Memories of the Future is composed of three separate, interweaving texts: S.H.’s old journal, scraps from her first novel, and comments and musings from S.H. 40 years later.
In many ways, Memories of the Future is reminiscent of Hustvedt’s first novel, The Blindfold, which came out in 1992. The Blindfold’s protagonist, Iris Vegan, is also a young woman of Norwegian descent from Minnesota, who’s just moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side to study at Columbia in the 1970s. Like S.H., Iris lives in an apartment on West 109th Street and hangs out at iconic haunts of the Upper West Side, like Tom’s Restaurant and the Hungarian Pastry Shop. Both characters are blossoming feminist intellectuals, and they both cite German philosophers, make art historical analogies, and argue with mansplaining boyfriends and acquaintances. They’re both poor at times, eating noodles and eggs, and even sandwiches out of garbage cans. And they both encounter their fair share of misogyny and, ultimately, sexual abuse. But in as much as S.H. and Iris are both fictionalized versions of Hustvedt herself, the novels they inhabit couldn’t be more different.
The most obvious difference is the structure. Memories of the Future is largely told in a linear fashion, and though S.H.’s voice from the present often interrupts the 1970s narrative, it’s in conjunction with the older S.H.’s reading of her journal and first novel. In other words, present-day S.H. lacks a compelling story arc of her own that’s separate from that of her journal. She mostly serves as an explanatory character, much to the detriment of the novel as a whole. The Blindfold, on the other hand, first reads like a series of loosely connected vignettes, the timeline of the various snippets from Iris’s life only revealing itself toward the end, adding to the noirish sensibility of the work at large. Were it not for the existence of the journal to keep time neatly organized in Memories of the Future, a more nonlinear structure similar to that of The Blindfold would have made a lot more sense in a novel devoted to the unreliability of memory.
The straightforwardness of Memories of the Future continues in the characters themselves. S.H. and Iris are extremely similar on a superficial level, but somehow S.H. isn’t nearly as relatable. This is largely due to the fact that although the reader has access to her inner thoughts in both her journal and reflections decades later, we’re still kept at a distance. S.H. tells us what she wants to tell us and never hints that there might be anything hidden from the reader. Iris, on the other hand, is a more vulnerable character, a more confused character, all of which comes to light when she starts putting on a man’s suit and frequenting dive bars under the pseudonym Klaus — named for the sadistic child protagonist of a German book she helped translate for a professor with whom she’d later have an affair. (Female characters disguising themselves as men in an effort to dodge the misogyny of the world is also an important facet of Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.) Iris is just more complex, and hence more human than S.H. Many of the other characters in Memories of the Future fall into this same trap of one-dimensionality.
What makes The Blindfold a fantastic novel is that it’s told through the accumulation of its characters’ subtle thoughts and actions, leaving readers to draw our own conclusions. Memories of the Future, on the other hand, suffers from over-explanation. We are reminded over and over again of the fictional qualities of memory — “Tell me where memory ends and invention begins”; “Is it possible to celebrate or regret what has vanished from the mind?”; and quoting Simone Weil: “Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.” By the end of the book, Hustvedt has tied all the loose ends of her narrative neatly into a bow. Frustratingly, the entire last chapter serves primarily as an explanation of the book’s themes. It’s almost as if Hustvedt doesn’t trust her readers to make these conclusions on our own.
But it’s not just Hustvedt. In the Trump era, there appears to be a wider trend among writers and artists of all kinds in creating works that drill their themes into the minds of their audiences, to the point where these works sometimes feel more like propaganda than art. It seems that our new age of extremes has resulted in extremely unsubtle creative endeavors. When writers and artists are made to feel that the well-being of the world is at stake, they see their work as doubly politically consequential, at times creating not in order to explore humanity (as they may have done in the past) but rather to make a very clear point about the world crumbling around them.
Memories of the Future very much falls into this category of Trump-era political fiction. S.H. as a character can’t have too many flaws or she may fall into a gross female stereotype. The themes of the book need to be explained over and over again or the reader may misread the text. So in the end, it’s not so much that Hustvedt doesn’t trust her readers; it’s that she’s afraid we may draw the wrong conclusions. And as we’ve seen in the news over the past couple of years, drawing the wrong conclusions can have devastating effects. In 2019, mere explorations of the banality of evil are no longer enough.
Elena Goukassian is an arts writer based in Brooklyn, covering literature, history, art, theater, architecture, dance, music, and film. Her pieces have recently appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Artsy, BOMB Magazine, Poets & Writers, and The Calvert Journal, among others.