Was That Really Me? A Novelist Discovers Her Younger Self
MEMORIES OF THE FUTURE
By Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt is known, rightly, as a novelist of ideas, so it’s not surprising to come across a concept in her new novel, “Memories of the Future,” that’s so hard to wrap your mind around you could look it up and still not understand it, unless you happen to be particularly good at math. It’s Minkowski spacetime, a geometric model of special relativity that unites space and time in four dimensions (three of space, one of time). I should state for the record that spacetime comes up only once and is discussed for less than a page. But I would argue that it’s an important page.
To back up: “Memories of the Future” is lightly fictionalized memoir or, in the term of the moment, autofiction. In it, Hustvedt tells two tales. The first is about SH, a 23-year-old Minnesotan of Norwegian extraction who comes to New York City in 1978 to try her hand at a novel. Note the initials: Hustvedt is also from Minnesota, also of Norwegian descent, also came to New York in 1978 and so on. It’s “a portrait of the artist as a young woman,” in Hustvedt’s words. The second is the story of how the first one came to be told. Almost 40 years later — that is, in 2016 — SH discovers a journal from 1978 that she thought she had lost. She and her sister are moving their 92-year-old mother from the independent-living wing of a retirement complex to the assisted-living wing, and there it is, a black-and-white Mead composition book entitled “My New Life” in a box of old stuff her mother had saved. “I greeted it as if it were a beloved relative I had given up for dead,” SH says. Inside lie fragments that allow her to resurrect her younger self: a diary whose entries often begin “Dear Page,” passages of the novel she’s trying to write, doodles and drawings. And off we go.
The young SH is a charmer. If you came to New York in the late ’70s, as I did, to experience the beauty and terrors of the city in its ruins and its glory days, she will make you nostalgic. She certainly has that effect on the older SH. The young woman is the kind of enthusiast who hops on the creaky floorboards upon taking possession of a dank one-bedroom apartment in a dubious building. Freedom! Possibility! Also a neighbor who moans loudly at night, over and over again, what sounds like “amsah.”
Young SH takes stabs at her novel, a mystery with the cheerful unreality of not-very-good young-adult fiction. She reads Wittgenstein and Bergson and roams the streets and rides the subway. The older SH makes wistful lists of the city’s now-vanished detritus: “faded signs, tattered awnings, peeling posters and filthy bricks” on the old Upper West Side, and the peep shows and “silhouettes of naked women with jutting breasts and long legs” in the old Times Square. There are bookstores: the Coliseum, Gotham Book Mart, Books and Company, the Eighth Street Bookshop.
Eventually, the young SH makes friends, goes to poetry readings and clubs and becomes obsessed with figuring out what’s going on with her moaning neighbor. Pressing a stethoscope to the wall, SH eavesdrops and takes notes. “Amsah” turns out to be “I’m sad.” As the woman progresses from lamentation to self-argument in growls and higher-pitched replies to some sort of cultlike ritual, it becomes clear that the neighbor’s story is the stuff of a novel that the young SH is too inexperienced to realize is writing itself next door.
But the neighbor is a MacGuffin, a distraction from what strikes me as the real substance of the book: the narrator’s ruminations on the nature of memory and time. After a while, I was finding it helpful to think of “Memories of the Future” as an essay rather than a novel. The best essays record the tacks and turns of an interesting mind, and Hustvedt — also an accomplished art critic and essayist — is never not interesting. Her acts of mind are more bracing than the story of SH, which feels thin and sepia-toned, like a photograph put through one of those antiquing apps.
“I am interested in understanding how she and I are relatives,” the narrator says in one of her better digressions, and one answer she contemplates is: in Minkowski spacetime. I asked a physicist friend to help me visualize this, and he said, “Think of sliced bread.” “Imagine all of space at one moment of time is like a giant slice of bread (perhaps an infinitely large slice of bread),” he emailed. “A loaf of such slices, with a peculiar way of laying out distances, would be akin to Minkowski spacetime: Each slice represents space at one moment of time, and by putting all the slices together in temporal order, you get spacetime.” In other words, in spacetime what’s past is also present and future. Or, as Hustvedt puts it, “Over there in Minkowski spacetime, the still girlish ‘I’ and the much older ‘I’ coexist, and in that startling 4D reality, the two of us can theoretically find each other and shake hands or converse together.”
This time-defying preservation of selves, this dream of plenitude without loss, is like a snow globe from heaven, a vision of Eden before the expulsion. Mathematically demonstrable but emotionally impossible, it’s dangled just in front of us like a bauble we can’t have but can’t stop reaching for. Except that Hustvedt finds a way to give it to us. I won’t tell you how, but I will say that the ending manages to be quite moving and unconvincing at the same time, a recapitulation of the tonal contradiction that pervades this sometimes incisive, sometimes sentimental novel, or memoir, or whatever we decide to call it.
Judith Shulevitz is the author of “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.”
MEMORIES OF THE FUTURE
By Siri Hustvedt
Illustrated. 318 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27.