THE BLAZING WORLD, by Siri Hustvedt. Simon & Schuster, 357 pp., $26.
"An original thing would be so foreign, we wouldn't be able to recognize it, would we?" muses a character in Siri Hustvedt's new novel. But she's wrong. "The Blazing World" is unique and recognizably so, a bracing examination of the act of creation, of fame and identity, gender bias and feminism, love and desire, psychology and philosophy and -- yes -- a lot of other stuff. It's also a compelling story, with richly drawn characters, set in the New York art world, which Hustvedt knows intimately.
"The Blazing World" is the story of Harriet Burden -- Harry to her friends -- an artist in her 60s who's unhappy with the cool reception to her work. The wife of an influential dealer, the fiery Harry is sure her gender is blinding critics and the public. "I suspect if I had come in another package my work might have been embraced or, at least, approached with greater seriousness," she writes in her journal. "Not to my face: That's Felix Lord's wife. She makes dollhouses. Titters. To my face: I heard that Jonathan took your work because he's a friend of Felix. Plus they needed a woman in the stable."
After her husband's death, Harry hits on an idea: She will stage installations under three male identities, one with a young up-and-comer, the second with a gay performance artist friend, the third with a highly acclaimed but enigmatic artist. The accolades will roll in, then she will reveal herself as the creator, finally gaining the respect she craves.
But fame, timing and critical approval are fickle, and the collaborations don't go precisely as planned -- especially the third installation, conducted with the mysterious artist Rune. Some critics doubt Harry's claim to Rune's work; they don't doubt that the two were involved in some sort of dangerous psychological game that ended with his death.
"The Blazing World" is presented as an editor's collection of articles, Harry's journal entries and interviews with her friends, family and art world figures. Hustvedt wraps literary allusions into this extraordinary puzzle -- there are echoes of "Pygmalion" in Harry's relationship with young Anton Tish, the first of her artistic alter egos. "I am Caliban to his Ariel," laments Harry of her relationship with Rune, whose cool, handsome exterior generates more interest than her bulky, hulky self. But "The Blazing World" is all Harry's, as moving and beautiful and as fierce as the artist herself.