HOW'S THIS FOR storybook romance: Lily Dahl is a shapely 19-year old waitron with two fixations: Marilyn Monroe, and, closer to home, painter Edward Shapiro (a.k.a. "Mr. Tall, Dark, and Mysterious"), a New Yorker visiting the local college in Webster, Minnesota. Their first close encounter takes place while Lily's on the job at the Ideal Cafe: "Just as she turned to look at him and saw him sitting at the counter, she felt a slow warm sensation between her legs and knew it was blood." The following night, she opens her apartment window across the street from Shapiro's boarding house and sheds her clothing, piece by piece. He stands at his window transfixed, like a statue, then responds with an aria from Don Giovanni at top volume. All the while she wears a dead woman's soiled white shoes. Oh mercy.
So begins Siri Hustvedt's superb second novel, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl. Hustvedt's 1992 debut, The Blindfold, told of another creepy enchantment, in which a Columbia graduate student named Iris Vegan becomes an androgynous, alcoholic nighthawk. While that book suffered from a metafictional preciousness--as in her author-husband Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, Hustvedt inserted herself as a character (Iris=Siri), and devoted the first third of the book to a contrived riddle--it also suggested that the road to a secure sexual identity contains many deviant and sordid cul-de-sacs. The Enchantment of Lily Dahl transcribes similar themes to the dark underside of small-town life, while submerging some of the self-satisfied artifice.
Lily Dahl may start her days at 5 a.m. serving hashbrowns, but at night she stars in a community theater production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As that play contains a reflexive skit by its rude mechanics, Hustvedt's novel roughly mirrors the plot of its Shakespearean referent. At the book's start, Dahl is pre-engaged to Hank, a football star and university student spending the summer as a police dispatcher. But when the figurative fairy dust starts flying, the dancers change partners. Dahl and Shapiro couple, and she witnesses his current painting project, a series of large portraits of Webster's outcasts: Dolores Wachobski, the corpulent prostitute; Tex, the drunk; Stanley Blom, the timid hunchback.
These are but a few of the members of Hustvedt's strange cast; the real oddballs live on the outskirts of Webster (a fictional take on the author's hometown of Northfield, Minnesota). There's Martin Petersen, the stuttering repairman whose father shot his dog, and Martin's second cousins, the perennially dirty Bodler brothers, who recall the incestuous family from the documentary Brother's Keeper. Though the standard comparison for such an unflattering small town portrait may be Sherwood Anderson's Winesberg, Ohio, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl also resembles David Lynch's Twin Peaks. After Dolores begins seeing nightly apparitions of Jesse James and Martin shifts from weirdo to psycho, Lily and the Bodlers enter into a loose compact at the edges of Webster's public consciousness.
In the abstract, a narrative stream of Women-In-Danger and erotic awakening might sound plain fallacious--
as soiled as the Love Canal. Yet Bill Buford jested in a recent issue of The New Yorker that really bad sex has of late become a literary trope unto itself. Boys have been largely to blame (Bret Easton Ellis might yet enter the vernacular as a synonym for chickenshit), but recently, the sisters have been doing it dysfunctionally for themselves. Susanna Moore's In the Cut and A.M. Homes's The End of Alice both received press attention grossly unmatched to their merit: One tried to tart up Thomas Harris with linguistics; the other began with the foolhardy premise of updating Nabokov's Lolita and went downhill from there. A slew of like-minded, lurid slasher titles have left me wondering whether dangerous sex has become to women's fiction what the shower scene is to the actress--required fare at the industry's port-of-entry. Writing like this implicates the reader in its perversion: the book was deviant and senseless and you read every page.
One of the things that differentiates Hustvedt's fiction is its refusal to titillate. Stylistically, this plainspoken novel is distinguished by its sensitivity to sensuous detail. Lily's experiences are rooted in mood and smell and tactile impressions. Dolores's children are "streaked with tears, snot, and Oreos." The Bodler's barn contains the "odor of mildew and cold, damp earth, two smells [Lily] liked." Sitting at the Ideal Cafe, she "look[s] at her fingers through the glass... mov[ing] them to examine the distortion behind the dark liquid." Hustvedt's novel switches masterfully from the public self to this distortion behind the glass. Where lesser writers binge on the excess of the flesh, Hustvedt conjures a Dostoevskian sickness of the soul.
Siri Hustvedt reads at Hungry Mind Bookstore on Thursday at 8 p.m.; see A-List, p. 33 for details.