Few contemporary writers are as satisfying and stimulating to read as Siri Hustvedt. Her sentences dance with the elation of a brilliant intellect romping through a playground of ideas, and her prose is just as lively when engaged in the development of characters and story. Her wonderful new novel, “Memories of the Future,” is, among other things, a meditation on memory, selfhood and aging, but the plot is driven by the encounters of a present-day narrator with the young woman she was when she moved to New York City in August 1978. The drama that arises from these encounters is a reckoning between male privilege and female rage as timeless as “Medea” and as contemporary as #MeToo.
“S.H.,” a recent college graduate from Minnesota, has come to Manhattan to write a novel. But it’s hard to concentrate in her run-down apartment on West 109th Street; the walls are thin, and she can hear her neighbor intoning, “Lucy’s sad, she’s sad, I’m sad.” S.H. works fitfully on her novel, distracted by the angry conversations and mysterious sessions of chanting and drumming taking place next door. She speculates about them with her “gang of five,” a group of young, ambitious intellectuals who become lifelong friends. With them, she ventures from poetry readings to “midnight forays into urban decadence” at Studio 54 and the Mudd Club. One of these late-night excursions exposes S.H. to an act of male violence that still unnerves the narrator 38 years later. “The memory hurts me — hurts me now,” she writes. “And that is how the past stays alive.”
The narrator reconstructs her past with the help of a 1978-1979 journal she discovered while helping her elderly mother move into assisted living. Excerpts from the journal, which includes S.H.’s unfinished novel, are layered into an intricate, multiform text similar in its freewheeling, postmodern structure to Hustvedt’s previous masterpiece, “The Blazing World.” But the earlier work is deliberately polyphonic, clamorous with competing points of view. “Memories of the Future” is unified by the voice of the narrator, a woman in her 60s musing over a fraught year in her youth during the equally fraught 14 months of Donald Trump’s ascension and early presidency.
Although S.H. and the narrator bear obvious similarities to their creator, how much of this is autobiographical doesn’t matter. Any material drawn from the writer’s life has been triumphantly transmuted into fiction that skillfully weaves disparate narrative strands into a vast tapestry encompassing personal, political and cultural struggle.
S.H.’s journal shows a young woman beset by overbearing men who talk endlessly and listen never, blithely assuming that their stories are more important than hers. There’s sardonic humor in some scenes: as an anthropology grad student pontificates about his thesis, she notices, “He cannot keep his eyes on my face. . . . Aaron is adamant my breasts should know about this.” Other men are more threatening; the worst of them leaves S.H. so fearful that a friend gives her a knife for protection. She names it after the Dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven: “the bad Baroness” who “wrote poems like howls,” one of many female artists marginalized in a male-dominated culture.
Reading the journal stirs up bitter childhood memories for the narrator: her physician father, hearing her recite from memory all the bones in the human body, saying indulgently, “you’ll make a fine nurse”; a high school teacher handing back her paper with the cold comment, “I don’t believe you wrote this.” Memories of her mother elaborate a family tradition of women reminded of their place: Served coffee in a cracked cup, her father told his wife, “You should have taken this one.”
Hustvedt is too warm and intelligent an artist to write a simplistic tale of Good Girls and Bad Boys. The narrator paints affectionate portraits of the men in her gang of five and provides a sweet, sexy reminiscence about “doing the heavenly bounce” with her husband Walter in the early years of their marriage. But she also recalls Walter characterizing an assertive woman as “arrogant.” (“In us women, confidence is often mistaken for arrogance,” she notes.) She hasn’t forgotten her friend Jacob calling her a romancière, the patronizing feminine form of the French noun for novelist. Even in men she loves, she discerns unthinking assumptions that relegate women to a subordinate role. In the novel’s bleakest pages, their words swirl together in a chorus of self-protective entitlement that in the narrator’s mind includes “a powerful man yowling obscenities about Muslims and blacks and immigrants and women to vast crowds of adoring white people.”
This chorus is countered by female voices rejecting “the rules and regulations about narration and authorship and who gets to tell the story and in what way.” In S.H.’s novel, a female sidekick elbows aside the male protagonist and enacts in fiction S.H.’s desire for revenge on a real-life sexual predator. “I didn’t know how angry I was,” writes the narrator. She is still angry — “Memories of the Future” is her testament to anger — but her fury is tempered by the rueful understanding that comes with age: “Life is like that. Things change. I changed.”
Reconsidering her own story is part of a larger effort to reclaim all the forgotten stories of people not deemed worthy of remembrance. Hustvedt’s lovely novel closes by reclaiming one of those people and imagining her soaring over Manhattan, an image of freedom and agency that is always endangered, always to be fought for.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
By Siri Hustvedt
Simon & Schuster.
336 pp. $27