Artist tackles gender bias with a bold experiment in Siri Hustvedt’s terrific ‘The Blazing World’

“An original thing would be so foreign, we wouldn’t be able to recognize it, would we?” muses a character in Siri Hustvedt’s new novel. But she’s wrong. The Blazing World is unique and recognizably so, a bracing examination of the act of creation, of fame and identity, gender bias and feminism, love and desire, psychology and philosophy and — yes — a lot of other stuff. Full of life and ideas and intellectual prowess, it’s also a compelling story with richly drawn characters, set in the New York art world, which Hustvedt knows intimately.

Author of three other works of fiction, a memoir and three collections of essays, Hustvedt has written extensively about this sphere, using it as a backdrop for her excellent novel What I Loved and as a springboard for her essays on painting in Mysteries of the Rectangle. She paints a stinging portrait here, one in which the cult of personality and the whims of popularity too often trump talent. But Hustvedt’s got a secret weapon, too: Novels about art suffer because the reader can’t see the works in question, but Hustvedt’s precise and intricate descriptions are vivid and evocative, easy to envision.

The Blazing World is the story of Harriet Burden — Harry to her friends — an artist in her 60s who’s unhappy with the cool reception to her work. The wife of an influential dealer, the fiery Harry is sure her gender is blinding critics and the public. “I suspect if I had come in another package my work might have been embraced or, at least, approached with greater seriousness,” she writes in her journal. “Not to my face: That’s Felix Lord’s wife. She makes dollhouses. Titters. To my face: I heard that Jonathan took your work because he’s a friend of Felix. Plus they needed a woman in the stable.”

After her husband’s death, Harry sees her discontent grow into full-blown rage. It’s too late, she thinks: “I was over the hill and had never had a penis.” Then she hits on an idea: She will stage installations under three male identities, one with a young up-and-comer, the second with a gay performance artist friend, the third with a highly acclaimed but enigmatic artist. The accolades will roll in, then she will reveal herself as the creator, exposing the limitations of perception and sexism and finally gaining the respect she craves.

But fame, timing and critical approval are fickle, and the collaborations don’t go precisely as planned — especially the third installation, conducted with the mysterious artist Rune. Some critics doubt Harry’s claim to his work; what they don’t doubt is that the two were involved in some sort of dangerous psychological game that ended with his death.

The Blazing World is presented as an editor’s collection of articles, Harry’s journal entries and interviews with her friends, family and art world figures who provide fascinating insights. “Mostly the art business has been about men. And when it has been about women, it has often been about correcting past oversights,” one female critic says. “It is interesting that not all, but many women were celebrated only when their days as desirable sexual objects had passed.”

Another (male) critic rejects that idea, suggesting political correctness is counterproductive to creativity: “Art is not a democracy, but this blatant truth must not even be whispered in our prickly, tickly city of do-gooder, liberal, decaffeinated-skim-latte-drinking mediocrities blind to facts. To suggest, even for an instant, that there might be more men than women in art because men are better artists is to risk being tortured by the thought police.”

One can’t help but wonder where Hustvedt stands on the issue; she’s married to novelist Paul Auster, who has gained the lion’s share of literary attention in the family (she wryly refers to herself as an “obscure novelist” in one of the articles). But she’s not suggesting that the creative impulse is easy for anyone. Harry’s lover Bruno, a writer who can’t finish a poem he’s been working on all his life, sympathizes with Harry’s predicament but doesn’t believe women suffer more. “I couldn’t tell Harry, feminist warrior, that it was worse for a man, worse for a man to fail, to lose the strut in his walk as he feels the power sucked from his guts.”

Hustvedt wraps literary allusions into this extraordinary puzzle — there are echoes of Pygmalion in Harry’s relationship with young Anton Tish, the first of her artistic alter egos, and Frankenstein’s monster imagery recurs throughout. “I am Caliban to his Ariel,” laments Harry of her relationship with Rune, whose cool, handsome exterior generates more interest than her bulky, hulky self. “He was not seducing anyone,” a friend of Harry’s says. “He was seducing everyone, and there’s a big difference.”

But The Blazing World — named after a 17th century fantasy novel by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle — is all Harry’s, as moving and beautiful and as fierce as the artist herself. “She pushed her art out of her like wet, bloody newborns,” Bruno tells us. She’s so fascinating we can only wish that she truly had done so.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.