(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

What I Loved is divided into three parts, suggesting the fragmentation of relationships that is the novel’s major topic. Presented as a memoir by the now-elderly art historian Leo Hertzberg, the narrative explores his twenty-five-year friendship with the brooding experimental artist Bill Wechsler as they cope with the inexplicable unraveling of their marriages and families. It is Leo whose consciousness holds together this novel, which otherwise might easily disperse into a series of confusing and contradictory fragments. It is he who represents the spirit of investigation and who is a source of stability for the reader, even when he struggles with the material about which he is writing.

Even with the presence of Leo’s integrative consciousness, there are still unresolved strands, questions left over and unanswered, so that the narrative never allows the reader the flat satisfaction of a single, simple explanation. Instead, Leo’s struggle with his writing creates a rich mix that includes an exploration of personal relations, the inner world of the artist, philosophical ideas, and social criticism.

One topic Leo explores is the increasingly consumer-oriented and deliberately shocking art world of the 1980’s and 1990’s, intertwined with a disturbing teenage subculture that developed coterminously in a number of Manhattan night clubs. Leo’s narrative is also a study of marriage and child-rearing in that same period, especially the marriages of those whose identities were formed in the rebellious era of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In contradistinction to the youthful hopes and dreams of that decade, Leo depicts subsequent years of death, sickness, accident, and even murder, in which the dominant theme is not that of promise or fulfillment but loss, abandonment, estrangement, mourning.

Although the novel pulls itself in diverse directions, the heart of the narrative is the divorce in the 1970’s of the introspective artist Bill Wechsler and his wife, Lucille, a poet, and its effect on their son, Mark. The influence of Lucille is suggested at the outset by one of Bill’s early paintings, which depicts her as a disappearing figure who becomes increasingly unavailable, inscrutable, and cold. Lucille’s mysterious emotional disappearance becomes one possible explanation for the personality disorder her son, Mark, develops as he grows into young adulthood. Additionally, Bill blames himself for abandoning Mark when he was a child, suggesting that his absence deprived Mark of the ability to construct a healthy identity.

While Leo and Bill maintain their friendship, their family lives become seriously strained by Bill’s divorce and by fates of both their children. Things gets significantly worse when Leo’s son, the artistic Matthew, drowns in a boating crash and, torn apart by the death of their child, the marriage between Erica and Leo dissolves. Leo’s consciousness, however, is gradually raised so that he begins to see the big picture, namely a generation of lost or endangered children.

Leo’s growing blindness as he ages, ironically, indicates his developing insight, his ability to see things to which he had previously been blind—particularly with regard to the antisocial personality developing in Bill’s son, Mark. Mark does not literally die but begins to transform so dramatically as to seem a stranger to all who knew him when he was a child. This radical and unpredictable change is what leads Leo to ask himself deep questions about life and about human identity. Aided by Bill’s sensitive and supportive second wife, Violet, Leo begins to explore a number of different explanations for the development of Mark’s narcissistic personality.

A cultural historian, Violet suggests that there are intimate ties between individual personality and the influential wider culture that drives people, with or without their consent. Reinforced by her historical research, Violet posits the development of a mysteriously evil temper of the times that permeates, or even infects, each individual. She points to the corrupting influence of the young avant-garde artist Teddy Giles, who has become the leader of a group of Manhattan teenagers, introducing them to a subculture of theft, drug taking, cross-dressing, and violence.

The last half of this novel takes an unexpected turn with the new and insidious presence of Giles, whose influence had remained largely undetected by the adults. Mark, whose pleasant facade covers a deliberate pattern of...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)