At one point in Siki Hustveldt’s The Sorrows Of American, the narrator dives into his father’s grave. The family has gathered to inter his father’s ashes and not prepared any device to lower the urn, so he grasps the container holding the ashes and inserts himself head first, others holding his heels for safety, into the earth, past the roots until he is able to at last drop the box the last inch or so to its final resting place. It’s a moving and sensuous scene, a moment lived in the moment with every sense stimulated.
More scenes of that sort, and I would be writing a very different review of this book. More scenes like that and fewer–many fewer–of the endless meanderings through the brain of a psychoanalyst with stunted emotional growth. More scenes like that and fewer of the arcane, pointless conversations about philosophy and dream theory and memory research. More scenes like that and fewer wasted plot lines that begin with some hope of tension or drama and end with anti-climax or no climax at all.
Hustveldt has contrived a multitude of themes and situations–there are at least two voyeurs, probably more. Myriad father-son/daughter parallels. The perils of family secrets. Most of them amount to little or nothing when they’re followed to the end. Even the purloined letters of a literary/film celebrity, supposedly explosive missives which threaten to destroy his family, fizzle like damp gunpowder.
The narrator quotes large section of his father’s diary. So nearly identical were the voices of the narrator and that of the diarist that most of the way through the book, I accused Hustveldt in my mind of channeling the narrator into the diary. Then in the afterword, I learned that the diary entries were more or less direct quotes from the author’s own father’s journal. So I guess she was channeling her father as she wrote the narrator. It’s also possible that the title is a play on Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is about lovesick adolescence. That would fit, sort of. Otherwise, I can’t explain the title at all.
Either way, the result is mostly dull and flatline. Hustveldt has published five novels, has won some awards, and has a web picture with Paul Auster, a writer I like a lot. So I guess I must be missing something that might make me like her better. But unless some circumstances intervene, I’ll be missing the rest of her books and will never find out because this one is such a dud.