Novelist Hustvedt (The Sorrows of an American, 2008, etc.) investigates the reason(s) she suddenly began shuddering violently while delivering a memorial talk about her father, more than two years after his death.
The author pursues her symptoms with Javertian devotion; her husband, writer Paul Auster, said she was moving beyond devotion into obsession. She read voraciously, attended lectures on brain science, visited a variety of medical and psychological specialists, underwent examinations and MRIs and took drugs. She also ruminated excessively. The result is a narrative that is alternately transparent and scientifically dense, frustrating and satisfying, conclusive and vague. She begins at the bedside of her dying father in 2004 in her hometown of Northfield, Minn., leaps ahead to her first shuddering episode (more followed) and presents her exhaustive research and its exhausting exegesis. She consulted texts from the ancient world, Freud and William James, and myriad contemporary thinkers, from the widely known (Steven Pinker) to the relatively obscure (Imants Baruss, a professor at King’s University College in Ontario). As Hustvedt tries to remember pivotal medical and psychological moments in her life—she heard voices as a child, as did a couple of her sisters, had an early quaking fever, suffered from fierce migraines, tried various drugs—she segues smoothly into a wonderful section about the nature of memory. She also considers dream research and moves steadily toward an integrative theory of personality, concluding that she and her symptoms are not separate. “Ambiguity does not obey logic,” she states plainly.
Self-absorption can be grating in memoirs by lesser writers; in Hustvedt’s capable hands, it opens a door to revelation.