‘“All intellectual and artistic endeavours, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls.”’
This is the opening to Siri Hustvedt’s latest work, The Blazing World. Presented as a work of research into the life of artist Harriet ‘Harry’ Burden, it is composed of journal entries, interviews, reviews and written statements from her children, lovers and friends. The story revolves around Harry’s belief that misogyny in the New York art world had prevented her from being taken as seriously. She’s seen as either too clever, or perhaps worse, simply as the wife of her more famous art collector husband. She concocts an elaborate hoax, she calls Maskings, whereby she uses three male artists as a front to showing her art, but in their name. She intends to complete the experiment with a big reveal at the end, but it goes horribly wrong, ending tragically for one of the artists and with Harry discredited and disbelieved.
The Blazing World is a highly intelligent, challenging read. At times it feels like you’re reading an academic tome (there are many detailed footnotes in the book explaining Burden’s journal entries and at one point the author herself makes an appearance as ‘an obscure novelist and essayist’) and at others, particularly when reading Harry’s journals, it can feel unbearably voyeuristic. Reading it requires focus and attention to detail and the ability to weave together the differing viewpoints in order to examine who Harry Burden was and what her art and her experiment meant. Harry herself ‘was trying to figure out why people see what they see’ and this book is attempting the same thing, twisting the readers’ viewpoint through the multiplicity of eyes used in an attempt to unmask what really happened. Hustvedt makes this easier for us by creating such distinctive voices, an incredible show of skill considering how many, and different, the narrators are. The book also examines how Harry’s work itself alters as she works with her male artists. By the time Harry uses her third and final mask, the artist known as Rune, the game has changed into something much darker and it’s not altogether clear who is in control and who is being used.
Any Cop?: The Blazing World is a startling book, intelligent, often profound, sometimes creepy and subtly menacing. An amazing achievement.