Siri Hustvedt’s writing is often a tricky mixture of fiction and autobiography. Memories of the Future is marketed as a novel, but with a narrator named S H, and a similar life trajectory – a brilliant student and obsessive reader who becomes a writer – it is hard to disentangle fact from fiction.
S H is looking back at her life through a writing notebook and diaries she kept when she came to New York for a gap year to write before commencing her doctorate at a prestigious university.
We read passages from some of her abandoned writings of the time: a detective story where I.S and I.F, young school friends, take on the roles of S.H (Sherlock Holmes in this case) and Watson. I.S being the female part of the duo, is allotted the less important role of Watson, a fact that rankles with her more and more as the story progresses. Another story which is not abandoned like the fledgling detective story, is the story of her neighbour, Lucy Brite. S H hears Lucy’s life through the wall, her chanting Amsah, her dialogues with herself about Lindy falling out of the window, the brutality of Ted. She becomes so fascinated with the woman’s ravings, she places a stethoscope against the wall in order not to miss anything and writes down all she hears.
Sometimes Lucy spoke directly to a “you”. He had a name, Ted. He was the one who felt he had the right to treat her badly – “Your bitch to kick” – or sometimes she moaned or gasped out little fragments of her past or what I guessed were childhood stories.
By the end of the book Lucy has come to S H’s aid in a very tricky situation and some kind of friendship grows between them.
S H also reflects on aging, love, sex, writing, friendship and the imbalance between the sexes. There is much to enjoy. With our narrator we attend a reading by John Ashbury (boring) where she meets a friend, Whitney, who changes her life. We also attend a lecture by Paul de Man, before he was revealed as a fraud and anti-semite (also boring).
She is so hard-up at one point she is forced to retrieve half-eaten food out of trash cans. She is deeply shamed when she meets the eye of a woman looking at her with disgust as she dives for a half-eaten sandwich, but she still eats it. Later she is more fortunate and finds three intact slices of pizza.
But she survives, and knows she will survive.
In this time on her own she finds herself as a woman, she has lovers, she has frightening encounters with rage-filled men, she learns what Lucy’s friends tell her is true:
Remember this: the world loves powerful men and hates powerful women.
S H has a father she deeply loves and admires. He is a kind and giving doctor and loved by his community. But when it comes to his daughter, he has his blind spot too:
I am interrupting my father because I have memorized the bones of the body from Gray’s Anatomy. I hold up my rubber skeleton for my father and I recite the bones…and my father smiles. He says, kindly, “Oh, you’ll make a fine nurse.” And I pretend he hasn’t sent a blow to my belly. I am bewildered he doesn’t know I want to be a doctor… I want to be a hero. I am not a hero. I am a girl, and it is bitter.
Sometimes those careless words stay with us for ever.