Siri Hustvedt is frustrated sometimes when people ask her how much of her work—in particular, her latest book, Memories of the Future (Simon & Schuster, Mar.)—is based on her life. The book is a novel, and it includes fantastical elements, such as a coven of witches and a character called the Introspective Detective. Yet Memories of the Future, set in New York City in 1978 and featuring an aspiring novelist from Minnesota as its heroine, closely mirrors Hustvedt’s own experiences, and I couldn’t resist the impulse to inquire.
Hustvedt answers me graciously: “I’m playing with my own autobiography, if you will.”
Memories of the Future tells the story of a 23-year-old woman, dubbed Minnesota, who moved to New York with the goal of completing a novel in a year, before beginning a PhD program at Columbia University. The story contains diary entries from that year, describing her struggles with writing and paying rent; the joys of forming new, intense friendships; and an eccentric neighbor’s overheard conversations.
Hustvedt juxtaposes these diary entries with the contents of the novel that Minnesota is writing, as well as with the voice of Minnesota later in life, as she looks back at her younger self and reflects on how her memories have shifted. All of these textual components are enhanced with Hustvedt’s own illustrations, which she tells me are “visual punctuation” for the story.
The form of Memories of the Future took Hustvedt a while to discover. Like Minnesota, she spent a year working on a novel, but she ended up discarding it. “I think I needed to fail at the other book to write this one,” she says. “I think of this book as an origami project. It starts out as a kind of fairly flat narrative, and then it folds itself into itself.”
For instance, at some point in the novel, the diary entries begin to take on the shape of a 19th-century novel. “There’s a lot of playing with the idea of the novel, and the idea of memoir, right inside the book,” Hustvedt says. “As it goes on, the Introspective Detective comes to life inside the book. It’s her imagination. But fiction and imagination, as the book goes on, really start to blend with the so-called reality of the book.”
Like its author, Memories of the Future cannot be easily defined, labeled, or categorized. Hustvedt published her first poem in the Paris Review in 1979, just after moving to New York. She wrote poetry and prose for years, earned her PhD in English literature, and published The Blindfold, her first of six novels, in 1992. Hustvedt also writes essays and other nonfiction, and publishes work in science journals. For years, she has immersed herself in the study of neuroscience, psychiatry, and neurology, lecturing on the subjects and serving as a volunteer work for psychiatric patients at the Payne Whitney Clinic. After experiencing an uncontrollable shaking episode during a memorial speech, Hustvedt wrote her 2010 book The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves––a blend of personal history, philosophy, and neuroscience. Now she lectures on psychiatry at Weill Cornel Medical College.
Hustvedt’s commitment to understanding the nature of memory drives her current work. As she writes in the novel, “I am writing not only to tell. I am writing to discover.” In Memories of the Future, she illustrates how malleable memory is—how we can create false memories and how “there’s amnesia in all of us.”
In choosing a complex structure that includes elements of memoir, Hustvedt demonstrates a commitment to truth. “We are unconsciously editing our memories all the time,” she says. “We don’t know we’re doing it. But the fact is, memory is crucial to many functions, short- and long-term memory, and our lives are shot through with fictional material. A lot of memoirs are works of fiction. These categories blur tremendously. And there have been memoir scandals, too. People have made things up and put it into their memoirs.”
Memories of the Future is also strongly feminist. Hustvedt’s protagonist is an ardently feminist, intelligent woman who dissects the way gender operates, and the structure of the novel strays from the confessional style that some female authors feel boxed in by. The narration is full of hurtful memories from childhood, such as when Minnesota’s doctor father tells her that she will “make a fine nurse.” But when her older self chimes in, it’s with more confidence—with a deeper understanding of how her younger self at times faced barriers because of her gender.
There is also a poignant scene describing what the narrator calls a “near rape.” Hustvedt wrote this before #MeToo but says that it reflects how, for many women of her generation, “there were many humiliations that people simply put up with and didn’t say anything about.” The novel explores the shame that Minnesota experienced and the way it was internalized.
“For me, this book is about getting her out of that stationary pose,” Hustvedt says. “Out of the pose of waiting and into activity—into motion.”
A recurring line in the book—“The world loves powerful men but it hates powerful women”—is just as true today as it was in 1978, Hustvedt notes. “Women who choose not to hide their power, who choose not to apologize for it, are punished,” she adds. Specifically, she says, social psychology research reveals that women who are assertive can be inadvertently punished. “That’s why so many women apologize for themselves before they start speaking. It cushions the blows. I find this ghastly.”
Hustvedt says she has become “more assured in my own authority” with age. “It’s maybe confidence, and also probably that one is more seasoned and somewhat indifferent. You’re not finding yourself quite as much in the eyes of others as one might assume.”
“I think few human beings understand the degree to which they are locked into these very airless perceptual categories,” Hustvedt tells me. “We are so conventional, all of us. So much of what we do is predetermined. So much of what we see is predetermined. Part of my pleasure as a novelist is to explode some of these truly tedious categories—especially about men and women.”
And isn’t that, truly, a reflection of reality?
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Ky., who contributes to JSTOR Daily, Longreads, Undark, Vice, Vox, and other publications.