Inside the maze, the walls are glass, translucent but milky. Through them, figures glimpsed on the other side are no more than passing shadows, distinct but impossible to bring into focus. Windows appear, framing views that are not what they first seem to be.
A thrilling sense of disorientation sets in, along with an energizing determination to solve the puzzle by paying close attention, hunting for clues.
The maze is an art installation in Siri Hustvedt’s incandescent sixth novel, “The Blazing World,” and the book has a similar effect. Teasing and flattering, the book is a hyperaware intellectual and psychological game that seduces through intrigue: What, really, is going on here?
A furious, funny, wounded New York artist named Harriet Burden — Harry for short — is at the center of the mystery. She’s set much of it in motion herself, plotting vengeance on an art world that’s long relegated her and other female artists to the margins.
“No one rejoices more in revenge than women, wrote Juvenal,” Harry observes drily. “Women do most delight in revenge, wrote Sir Thomas Browne. Sweet is revenge, especially to women, wrote Lord Byron. And I say, I wonder why, boys. I wonder why.”
Harry is past 50, the unbeautiful, wealthy widow of a prominent art dealer, when she leaves Park Avenue for Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the 1990s. Ferociously intelligent, breathtakingly well-read, she sets up a home, a studio, and a little artists’ colony, and hatches a multiyear plan with philosophical underpinnings.
She will unleash a trilogy of solo gallery shows of her own work, each exhibited under the name of a different male artist. She calls the project “Maskings.” The men are her masks, each recruited to collude with her, to play the public role.
Harry is manipulating perception, convinced that attaching a male persona to a work of art gives it an automatic advantage: It is noticed and taken seriously, as is the artist, no matter how dim a bulb he may truly be.
“How quick they are to embrace and anoint the smiling young male artist with innocent air; look how knowledgeable, how sophisticated, how clever he is,” she writes.
After the last show, Harry will reveal herself as the trilogy’s creator, laying bare the biases and blindnesses that keep women from being seen. Or so the scheme would have it. But Harry’s conspirator on the final piece, an already famous artist named Rune, claims credit and is believed.
The book unfolds as a scholar’s retrospective examination of “Maskings” through Harry’s own writings and the voices of numerous others, including her grown children, documentarian Maisie and oddball author Ethan; her gallumphing poet of a boyfriend, Bruno; performance artist Phinny, mask for the second show; odious journalist Oswald Case, peddling what he assumes are facts; and assorted critics in all their turgid pomposity.
Hustvedt, too, is manipulating perception, prodding us to consider the nature and boundaries of self, gender, art, truth, life. Each voice we hear in the novel makes us reconsider what we thought we knew. Interpreting the story becomes a constant act of revision for us, just as it does for the characters.
“It should not be forgotten that Harry had been rewriting her own life in psychoanalysis for years,” her oldest friend, Rachel, points out.
Riddles and red herrings abound; so do references to the philosophical and scientific literature. Hustvedt, who is also an essayist, even gives herself a Hitchcock-style cameo — fitting in these vertiginous circumstances.
From the start of “The Burning World,” we’re not sure where solid ground lies, or even who among the players is actually dead. Harry is, we’re told. So is Rune. And, yes, do examine those names for significance.
And who is I.V. Hess, author of the scholarly introduction and the book’s scattered footnotes? Merriam-Webster defines a Hess image as “a third positive afterimage in a succession of visual afterimages resulting from a brief light stimulus.” Is this Hess a mask, too?
Hustvedt has located her many-layered novel in the visual art world, which she parodies with delicious precision. But she might as easily have chosen another artistic milieu: film, television, publishing, music, drama, dance, design. In all of them, men dominate in status and wealth.
“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,” Case sniffs.
No wonder Harry gets angry. No wonder she goes stealth.
But Hustvedt’s greatest triumph here is not the feminist argument she makes. It’s that we ache for her characters. This is a muscular book, and just enough of that muscle is heart.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.