Tale of the tub

What I Loved

Siri Hustvedt <em>Sceptre, 405pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 034068237X

Strictly speaking, we don't need this American import, because we already have David Storey's As It Happened, which came out in the summer. Siri Hustvedt's novel covers much the same ground, again taking the viewpoint of a retired art historian to consider whether modern art has reached such a low point that even murder, if committed by an artist, counts as some sort of cultural statement. Like Storey, Hustvedt also includes thoughts on the ageing process, broken marriages, the Holocaust and various forms of mental illness.

In some ways Hustvedt offers better value. Admittedly, she lacks Storey's touches of bleak humour, and her New York is less atmospheric than his north London, but her style doesn't require as much concentration and, although the books are the same length, What I Loved spans a saga-like 25 years' worth of events, whereas the action of As It Happened is set over the course of just a few months.

Hustvedt's narrator, Leo Hertzberg, begins by taking us back to the 1970s, when he first meets the painter Bill Wechsler. The two men, and later their wives, and then their respective sons, all become friends. There is a spot of trouble when Bill leaves his first wife, a poet whose conversation is as clipped and baffling as Wittgenstein's Tractatus, for another woman. But the other woman, Violet, is much nicer, even if she is writing a heavyweight thesis on 19th-century female hysteria. Things soon seem to settle down.

This tranquillity is deceptive. Sudden tragedy, of a kind which, under the reviewers' code of practice, cannot be specified here, intervenes. On top of that, Bill's son Mark, when he reaches his teens, turns out to be a shockingly casual liar and thief. Bill thinks, or at any rate hopes, he'll grow out of it, but Violet and Leo both wonder if the boy might be a full-blown psychopath.

Bill is a fashionable artist in Europe, but not in New York. There, the big name is Teddy Giles, whose gimmick is producing life-size replicas of horribly dismembered corpses, with titles such as Dead Blonde in Bathtub. Giles indulges in mystification about his past and likes to encourage rumours that he really is a homicidal maniac. Rather worryingly, Mark becomes one of Giles's hangers-on. Another boy from the Giles set disappears in suspicious circumstances, only to be found by the police in even more suspicious circumstances - that is to say, floating in the river. In a suitcase. In several decomposed pieces. Has Giles done something a wee bit too avant-garde? And how far involved is Mark?

The convincing characterisation helps to underpin these lurid developments. Mark's little-by-little departure from normality is scrupulously managed. The downside is that a certain academic dryness creeps in, a case-history feeling. The same goes for the marital difficulties experienced by Leo and Bill, and for the account of Bill's career. We are treated to many long and detailed descriptions of his work, as he progresses from paintings to "fairy-tale boxes", little display cabinets in which he "used flat and three-dimensional figures, combined real objects with painted ones, and used contemporary images to tell the old stories".

After his box period comes his door period - the gallery-goer has to open various doors to discover the tableaux within - and finally his video period, when he shoots copious street footage of children displaying a range of quirky behaviour at all the different stages of growing up, a reflection of his concerns about Mark. It is unusual for a novelist to conjure up non-existent artworks so plausibly and vividly. Then again, it is perhaps unnecessary. For many pages, it leaves the reader's imagination with precious little to do.

Meanwhile, Violet likes to tell Leo, and us, all about her researches into hysteria. More than 20 textbooks on this and related subjects are cited in the acknowledgments, which would account for the textbook flavour of some passages. Hustvedt struggles to make the material relevant by linking old-fashioned hysteria (fainting fits and so on) to personality disorders like Mark's. Not a very viable idea.

Leo, on the other hand, has a disarming gift for stating the obvious. He observes that "knowing everybody" in fact means knowing a select few. That your body tends to shrink in old age. That marriage is like a "long conversation". That we all arrange our memories into "imaginary stories we tell ourselves about our lives". What I Loved is mostly a gripping intellectual read, but every so often you catch a faint whiff of banality.

This article first appeared in the 13 January 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Gambling with our future