That line is from the movie Jaws, where an incredulous Richard Dreyfus surveys the peculiar wreckage of a shattered boat and announces, “This was no boating accident.” And in a sense this could apply to Terry Castle’s review of Siri Hustvedt’s novel The Blazing World. That is, at first glance the decimated boat looks just like any other wreck, but upon closer inspection Dreyfus observes the imprints of shark teeth and the telltale splinters and concludes otherwise. Similarly, at first glance, Castle’s well formatted review looks just like any other review, but upon closer inspection, we see the imprints of snark teeth and the telltale heart of the reviewer and I conclude: “This is no book review.” It’s something much more interesting than that and I was on to it early – I could smell the blood in the water.
Where’s Omniscience When You Need It?
On rare occasions (less frequently than a lo-fat Paula Deen recipe, but more frequently than the Cubs winning a World Series) I’m able to see things so clearly, I wonder why I’m not consulted on everything, all the time. I’m experiencing that kind of single-minded clarity right now as I read in The New York Review of Books Terry Castle’s brilliant and acerbic review of Siri Hustvedt’s new book The Blazing World. I wish this kind of epiphanic lucidity happened to me when it could do more good; like when I’m deep in meditation or picking stocks. But at this stage of my life, I’ll take clarity when I can get it. Or Claritin when I’m stuffy. Either way my mind or my nose gets blown.
In this review of a book review I’ll make the case that although Ms. Castle wields a trenchant and damning pen, all she really wants to do is cuddle with Ms. Hustvedt till her jaw is numb. She wants to engage in acts of sexual congress that promote sweet, sweet gridlock. Is this puerile speculation on my part? Yes. But is it the truth? Probably. As a hired gun by The New York Review of Books, Ms. Castle is expected to take pot shots at her fellow authoress (interesting contradiction in terms). And yet behind the friendly fire she sprays with entertaining accuracy, one senses Ms. Castle’s real aim is to leverage her prowling literary passion to gently “spoon” with every contour of Ms. Hustvedt and her story. So while this incredibly cogent review purports to be literary criticism, it’s really just a veiled come on to share in Ms. Hustvedt’s charms. Throughout the review we witness Ms. Castle strutting her considerable literary plumage to implicitly entice and seduce the uninitiated Ms. Hustvedt.
Ms. Castle may not consciously realize she’s doing any of this, but I do (see reasoning in 2nd paragraph). The subtext is obvious to me. Its clues punctuate the review in myriad ways as Ms. Castle’s refracted commentary is filtered through a lesbian prism of militant feminism and lesbianism’s unspoken bête noir; not having a penis. Then again maybe she’s just doing her job and is able to toggle her militancy on and off like a light switch. I’d like to believe the former (about the militant feminism lesbian angle) because I have a whole lot more to say on the matter and what am I going to push against? – this nice, smart professor who is reviewing a book for a payday? No. That’s no fun. There has to be something sinister or sexy or exalted at play and I’m the one to mine it.
Well I recognize I’ve overstated my case and given offense to many. But I’ll press on and leave my indelicate fingerprints all over this mofo. Some bookkeeping before we begin: Although the pedigreed and degreed Ms. Terry Castle is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University (I’ll refer to this a lot as a marker for validating Ms. Castle’s bona fides), I’m going to simply call her Terry. In this way there’s no space between us. Her parents and friends call her Terry, and I’ll not succumb to titular aggrandizement. Concomitantly, Ms. Hustvedt was born Siri and I’ll call her Siri even though whenever I do, my iPhone says, “What can I help you with David?” This nomenclature has the added advantage to the reader of not having to skip over or mentally mispronounce Hustvedt every time they read it. I want to collapse all the spaces among Terry, Siri and myself so we may have an easy three-way conversation amongst peers – of course a three-way conversation consisting of one voice (mine) and two literary lionesses (them).
Truth Be Told-ish
I’ll admit I’m drawn to esoterica (the concept and not the hand cream). And how one arcane book and one magnificent review can so tickle my cerebral fancy and make me as giddy as a lottery winner is a mystery to me. Additionally, how an author (Siri) possesses both the chutzpah and intellectual heft to write an impenetrable novel and how a supra-adept critic (Terry) can dissect and explode that novel so it makes sense to me, are both feats of exquisite accomplishment and worthy of exploration – 10 pages of exploration. These ladies are literary warriors, employing their pens as weapons. And I would imagine that living in such a highfalutin world while still having to grade papers must cause enough cognitive dissonance to knock their Keurigs off the counter each morning.
Their literary gymnastics are contagious and inspirational. And to think I’m writing this entire piece without any make-up on. Alright a touch of rouge on the cheek maybe, but just for color. It’s me unadorned and unplugged. Although I’ll have to plug myself in shortly – these kidneys won’t filter themselves. How Terry dissects, exposes and explains Siri’s unfathomable novel is beyond me. Then again I’m amazed at how they interlace Kleenex so it magically pops up one after another. To me that’s genius too.
Terry won’t be so much demonized as she will be militantly lesbianized as it suits my narrative. Satisfying traction for both the reader and the writer is to be found in bridging the gap between Terry’s lesbian-tinged, diabolically cogent review and my hetero-tinged, Pollyannaish observations on her puissant commentary. Put another way, in the movie Victor/Victoria, club owner Robert Preston instructed a group of female impersonators on the flamboyant manner in which they were to dance, advising them to, “Use lots of shoulder, accentuate your movements, the grand gesture people.” Put one more way, as Duke Ellington so plainly said, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”
My The Sis. I mean My Thesis
To reiterate: I believe Terry is yearning to coil her waning kittenish charm around her babe-in-the-woods Siri and engage in some very serious mentoring while nursing her little-girl-lost back to literary health. And while it’s true, as Freud so famously said, that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, in this case Terry’s review is just a lesbianic plea for a cougar-cub dalliance. And even though there’s only a few years difference between the two, be it far from me to let facts get in the way of a good story.
More on the Name Game
In order to be successful in the literary world you have to start with a pretentious name – like Siri Hustvedt. Siri? Seriously? As in Apple’s Siri. I believe she chose her name in utero. After all, she was an extremely precocious child. Then you fold in excessive education, Aryan good looks and the requisite accomplished author/husband (Paul Auster) and you’ve got a recipe for mental masturbation on the grand scale of Susan Sontag or Edna St. Vincent Millay (really? 4 names) or Craven Hedwig (I made that one up, but what’s the difference?). We see all the signs of Siri’s precocity. A 9 year old sitting in on dad’s graduate level classes at St. Olaf’s. Playing French Scrabble with the Diplomatic Corps. Being voted most likely to “cause a stir” at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. My God, Siri’s smartness seems preordained. As if on the 6049th day God created Siri Hustvedt and said, “And thou shalt go forth and be brainy and write great stories about things that are soon forgotten.”
Terry Castle’s generic name is wholly unexpected and very poorly planned. Especially for a lesbian (we do expect more precisely because they are so special). How can the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, be named Terry Castle? It might as well be Shirley Kronk or Pam Lengvarsky. There is no mystique here. No whiff of a “Continental” education. Poor planning on Terry’s part i.e., like Siri, she should’ve chosen her name in utero. In my world (which courtesy of this piece you’re all now privy to) Terry’s name would be Dominique St. du Bovary-Catafalque. Now there’s a pretentious name you can shake your head at and gush, “My God. She must be a genius, plus she’s the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University.”
And I look at all this university psychobabble and I wonder, “Who’s paying for all this ivory tower bloviation? And then I remember – Student Loans. The weakest members of academia supporting the strongest. This is as screwy as Social Security’s Ponzi scheme.
Literary Critique? Hardly (“This was no boating accident.”).
As I’ve ham-handedly stated at least 3 times now, the subtext of Terry’s review is more obvious than the review itself: Terry just wants to sleep with Siri. In reducing this review to its most elemental form I achieved what Garry Marshall achieved in the short-lived TV series Joanie Loves Chachi. That is, a clear emphatic statement of truth derived from direct observation. Joanie did love Chachi even if at first she didn’t realize it. Well Terry does love Siri even though it’s masked behind a thicket of words. So let’s examine this review with our sunglasses on to avoid being blinded by its gleaming erudition. Then again maybe Terry’s review ain’t so hot and I’m just easily impressed. Either way this kind of literary blood sport cum cryptic personal ad keeps me up at night. And I know this much: I will not sleep until I find a cure for insomnia.
To my ear Terry’s 5000+ word review is really just a personal ad that might as well read: Heartsick 50-ish dyke seeks company of febrile, coltish beauty in need of instruction. Will reign in my massive intellect for generous dollops of Sapphic succor. You’ll look impressive mounted on my shelf with all my other worldly accomplishments. Or, if you’d prefer, I can mount you elsewhere.
Pretentious names aside, even as plain-as-day Terry, she sure sounds brilliant enough based in this singular sentence excerpted from her review of Siri’s The Blazing World:
Never having met Hustvedt – she’s from Minnesota and went to St. Olaf’s, where her father was a celebrated professor of Norwegian – I imagine her as a sort of sturdy lady-Viking crossed with George Eliot: deeply cultured, an unabashed exponent of the higher seriousness, but one whose bluestocking worldview has also been shaped by a practical, down-to-earth, Joan Mondale-meets-Pippi Longstocking female advocacy.
I laugh like a hyena every time I read it. How did the world become so complex that these rat-a-tat-tat references actually pertain to something. But they do. We’re a long way from hunting and gathering. That singular sentence is not a mouthful it’s a galaxy-ful. Jesus Christ, Terry. She slams her foot on the verbal accelerator and doesn’t let up till she careens out of the known literary universe and into a multiverse of jarringly apposite references. I feel like I’ve just finished the ALS ice bucket challenge. Terry’s descriptions are eminently bracing and marvelously recondite – conjuring up a multitude of sensations. And that’s just one sentence. When Terry sleeps, her brain hums and produces enough energy to power 15 single family homes in Palo Alto.
The Game is a Foot. I mean, The Game is Afoot.
Terry is at her penetrating and eviscerating best in this review of Siri’s 357 pp. The Blazing World. She grants Siri all the customary hallmarks of literary competency, only to prop her up so she can shoot her down with friendly fire. Initially the barbed commentary is muted and sporadic, but as her lengthy critique goes on and on one begins to wonders what Terry and The New York Review of Books contracted for. The review runs some 5000+ words. Towards the end Terry runs out of nuanced patience and the judgments become more pointed. Terry draws from a redoubtable arsenal of words – alterity, wodge and phalloi appear in the review and, besides the wow factor, these words had me running for my dictionary.com. Although I must admit, I was correct in my suspicion of what phalloi referred to. Terry also invokes the names of innumerable female artists no one outside the 3 molecule-wide field of feminist art has ever heard of. One has the preposterous name of Judy Chicago. Judy Chicago really? I know this much; if she’s a feminist (lesbian) artist and from Chicago, I’ll bet she has broad shoulders.
In assaying Siri’s work, Terry casually tosses off words like virago, coup de theater and gingivitis like so much verbal confetti. Her review is also populated with the words drawn from the usual reservoir of lesbian tropes: phallocentric, ambisexual, castrated and Yayoi Kusama. Alright Yayoi Kusama is not a word, but the name of a feminist avant garde artist who makes Yoko Ono look like Grant Wood. In any event, how else would one expect Terry to write? She is a brilliant personage fully engaged in the field of literature (amongst other fields she excels in). That she seems to be a happy old dyke should be celebrated – and probably is by other old dykes.
And all this cerebral saber-rattling is no accident. How else do you become the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University? If she did nothing else but rest on her considerable laurels, she’d still tower over us, just high enough so we could look up her pant suit leg. In her lines of business (academia, criticism, art maven etc.) Terry is continuously exposed to an avalanche of words, a farrago of ideas and a rasher of bacon (usually when she breakfasts at The Campus Bagel). I freely grant Terry the trenchant verbal ordnance she so strategically deploys from her considerable quiver (Yes, I’m a bit of an apologist for the minimally contemptible Terry (minimally contemptible in the sense of her review only and not her as an individual (no ad hominem attack here (sorry about the quadruple parentheses. They’re my favorite brackets.)))).
Try this show stopping sentence of Terry’s on for size. But the awkward news is that in spite of the author’s very palpable skills, ambition and intelligence, not to mention the critical raves she inspires, The Blazing World comes across more as straitened feminist concept piece than satisfactory storytelling.
That’s the review right there and somehow Terry manages to entertainingly embroider it for another 5000+ words. If this review were a wine tasting I’d say I detect notes of jealousy, envy and ostracism. It’s as if Terry is saying feminism is my province and certainly not yours. I say Bravo! Magnifique! Gingivitis! Gingivitis? I’m losing it here. Now I realize it was me who casually tossed off the word gingivitis and not Terry. As penance for my gingivitis sin I’ll gargle 3 Hail Mary’s and buy a work of feminist art from Judy Chicago. Judy Chicago, sheesh.
It’s Never What You Think
When Terry writes in reference to Siri’s incoherent plot point: “A lesbian-friendly reader keeps waiting for the other Doc Marten to drop,” I’m bursting with joyous admiration for her clever and esoteric turn of phrase. And I, like most of you, don’t even know who Doc Marten is (probably because it’s a boot preferred by lesbians and not a person). And now I’m having a second epiphany. One that dares not speak its name. I’m embarrassed to even mention it. Maybe I’m the one whose words are masking a cauldron of feelings. And maybe I should just face facts. I’ve got a huge man crush on this old dyke. There I said it. Can that even be done? What form would it take? A hetero-friendly reader keeps waiting for the other testicle to drop.
Terry and I aren’t really so different. We both like writing and we both like girls. My hardwired predilection is of the more socially recognized variety and her predilection, while equally as valid, is packaged a bit differently. And this whole business of critiquing books is certainly preferable to say, waiting in line in a refugee camp for a handful of UN rice, or walking 3 miles with a gourd on your head to receive your headful of UN water. Any consternation arising from book reviews is just First World problems and counts for very little when compared to selling a kidney to feed your family. Reviews are easy, organ sales are hard.
On Our Backs
Terry is rather dismissive of Siri’s bourgeois heterosexuality and feminist pretensions. As if you can’t have true feminist insight unless you’re a lesbian. To quote from her review: “One used to hear it proclaimed – back in the bad old radical lesbian-separatist days of the 1970s – that ‘feminism is the theory and lesbianism is the practice’.” Hustvedt obviously never got the memo.”
Allow me to put more words in Terry’s mouth in this imagined harangue of callow Siri. “Feminism is my province you damn breeder, and until you’ve approached it from my boots-on-the-ground perspective (one assumes Doc Martens) and not just dabbled in it, you’re not only late to the party, but you’re at the wrong address. But do proceed in brandishing your sanitized pseudo-feminism with the carelessness of a drunken pole dancer.”
Turning the Tables on Myself
I can only fantasize about what Terry might say about me if she were a hired gun training her sites on this piece:
Never having met Hardiman – he’s from Syracuse NY and attended something called SUNY New Paltz, his father was a celebrated glazier (celebrated by whom one wonders) – I imagine him as a sort of elongated man-Pygmy crossed with Alec Baldwin: nearly cultured, an unabashed exponent of the Cosmic Joke, but one whose Upstate New York worldview has also been shaped by an irreconcilably diverse Frank Sinatra-meets-Ram Dass male bravura.
She would be right I guess. Although, I’m a guy and not a bunch of words. In truth I’m someone who knows his roman à clef from his amuse-bouche, but only after it’s been freshly googled. Then it quickly recedes from memory until I come across it 4 months later and have to google it all over again. I usually like my literature served up historical and non-fictional. Y’know stuff that really happened and the attendant consequences thereof that have rippled through history and affect us today. A Sinatra practicality married to a Ram Dass spirituality. My god. Terry was right in her description of me. Even though it’s only a fantasy review that I wrote. I think I’d better get myself out of this story and refocus on Terry and Siri. I’ve become the third wheel. After all they are the idée fixe or prix fix or some such French nonsense. In any event, a little less me and a little more them is called for.
The Blazing World. It’s Hot!
Siri’s book is unfathomable enough but the review, oh the review is positively inscrutable. Unless of course you speak literati which I dabble in. I speak enough to get a good table at a restaurant or a toupee that fits. But however deficient my education may be I know a great review when I read one and in spite of my feigned outrage (see the bit on pushing against something and finding traction), Terry’s review is a masterpiece of pinpoint criticism superbly expressed. It happily marries the witty and trenchant observations of a perspicacious commentator with the adoring eyes of a susceptible observer to produce a profusion of reader satisfaction. Yup. It does all that.
Terry has an uncanny knack for striking reductionist writing. She deconstructs Siri’s novel with copious éclat. Like one of those pressurized toy water rockets, Terry pumps her review full of withering criticisms and exhilarating analogies, and then launches the whole apparatus skyward while the reader bears witness to its unerring trajectory as it stylishly detonates all over its target. Of course this is me describing her descriptions and again this is me reviewing her review. Will I ever get out from under her skirt. Oops. I forgot. She’s wearing a pant suit. Something from the Rosalind Russell Collection no doubt. Well I’ve wandered far afield again and I want to return to the review and present Terry’s supremely abstruse yet understandable description of The Blazing World’s setting:
It’s set in the ever-outrageous New York art world: a ghoulish Vanity Fair of billionaire collectors, preening, Proenza Schouler-clad gallerists, greed and careerism disguised as hipster chic, intellectual jargon and pseudotheoretical pretension and – irradiating everything like nuclear fallout – those staggering, shameful, ever-escalating sums of money being dropped on so-called “art” old and new.
That’s one sentence mind you, and it’s all written with a straight face (one presumes). I thrill to read it out loud like it really amounts to a hill of beans. In truth, who needs to invest 19 long hours reading this convoluted book when you can fritter away 30 satisfying minutes reading its lively and entertaining review? This is also the same reason why many men don’t get married when they’re having sex regularly.
Words with Benefits?
Whereas professional athletes exercise their bodies, professional aesthetes exercise their minds and Terry has developed a penetrating and muscular intellect suitable for representing the United States in the Olympics if such a sport as the Literary Biathlon existed. With the advent of performance boosting drugs, athletes are tested for illicit substances to ensure a level playing field for all. One wonders if in the imagined Literary Biathlon competition aesthetes would be tested for performance enhancing drugs such as ProseAct, Cleverify and Mypenzasword. These Wordaceuticals have wreaked havoc in the literary world ever since their accidental discovery by medieval alchemists working for Duncan Shakespeare – William’s envious and less successful brother. Prose-doping, as its fast become known has generated reams of buff literature that’s great to look at, but upon closer examination is found to be filled with synthetic meaning and surrogate ideas. Terry needs no such enhancements to buttress her bookish multiverse because nothing escapes her literary event horizon.
You Had Me at “The”
At one level this review is just a pay day for Terry who, if you didn’t know by now, is also the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. She knows that everyone appreciates gladiatorial conflict when it’s observed from the safety of an easy chair. And these New York Review of Books’ critiques seem nothing more than blood sport for intellectuals who enjoy observing verbal jousting and its attendant (but non-corporeal) injury. After all sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. Now I have to believe that at the end of the day (whenever that is), if Terry were ever met Siri I’m sure the first thing the predator would want to say to her prey (though she’d probably never admit it) is: “I’d take back every word I wrote if I could just have one night pillowing with you. I know I’m brilliant, but I also know what’s nourishing. So please forgive me. Let me be your muse, your companion, your washcloth.”
I think Terry loves Siri and only wants to pet her. Maybe love is too strong a word. Let’s just say she has a profound interest in the health of Siri’s orifices. One can almost imagine the two purring literary lionesses curled up in their feathery lair exchanging bon mots underneath the sheets or maybe even chocolate-covered bon mots. And now that I think of it, I wouldn’t mind being the videographer of this collaboration (remind me to strike these last two paragraphs before we go to print).
What Terry didn’t know, and what I think would have had a moderating effect on her criticisms, is that originally The Blazing World was proposed as a Christmas cookbook entitled The Blazing Fondue, but then Siri got into the egg nog, and in an ill-advised attempt to impress her author/husband Paul Auster, produced this beautifully written and well received novel. Napoleon did something similar in 1797 when he invaded Egypt to impress his Josephine; and as such it wasn’t so much a land grab as it was an ass grab.
The hubbub surrounding this review has occurred in the cloistered world of academia and literature and amounts to very little unless you’re one of the few who draw oxygen from these realms. Terry, as you must be well aware, is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. Which should really read Terry Castle, the Walter A. Haas Professor in Advanced Lesbianism and AstroSapphics at Stanford University. That the New York Review of Books arranged such an encounter is no mistake. They have a readership too. So they promote these cerebral cage matches so Mensans and Womensans can watch the intellectual fur fly: Fight, Fight. A writer and a dyke. Nasty stuff if you take it too seriously. Fun and exciting stuff if viewed as a pleasurable art form that can elevate one to a new level. I favor the ladder.
Day Knew Ma. I mean Dénouement
Terry ends the critique of Siri’s The Blazing World with this stinging fillip: The result is a feminist fantasy at once insulated, self-contradicting and strangely stagnant.
Boffo! Astringently cogent. Disarmingly bellicose. Stridently apposite. Terry’s review is all that and then some. To the uninitiated she’s overblown, overeducated and makes many grandiose points about a book whose merits and impact are fairly inconsequential (though certainly of greater impact than anything I ever wrote – so far). Terry writes with dash and aplomb while capturing the zeitgeist of modern literary criticism. It’s all essentially a tempest in a teapot whose consequentiality in the scheme of things is as long as an eyelash. However, as a learned person in 19th century England might say, “It may be a tempest in a teapot dear boy, but I find this whole affair entirely delicious.” And so does this 21st century, state university-educated dilettante.
Terry Castle and Siri Hushtedvedttvedt (or however the hell she spells her name) respond to Mr. Hardiman’s screed:
Ms. Castle: Mr. Hardiman’s Psychiatric Nurse says she doesn’t know how he got out of the straightjacket and gained access to the computer. He’s obviously a man of many words – some of them are even in order. And while his premise (that I’m pining for Ms. Hustvedt,) is essentially meritless, I must admit, his story is a pretty good read. In fact I’m now willing to speak in the affirmative at his next probation hearing. Meanwhile as a fitting punishment I continue to wish him upon himself. And my only advice to David (and I call him David to collapse the space between myself and Mr. Hardiman) is to discontinue his regimen of Performance Inhibiting Drugs.
Ms. Hustvedt: Mr. Hardiman is clearly suffering from Pre Traumatic Stress Disorder and as such I’ll write slowly, so he understands me when I say we are all rooting for you David. Listen to your doctors so you can snap out of this thing.
Mr. Hardiman: I’m crazy go nuts for Terry Castle’s abilities as a reviewer and I guess the only question remaining is: How do you become The Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University?