Tracking down the details of that event -- a tragedy? a crime? -- becomes a low-level crusade for Erik and his sister when they return to Brooklyn. Their father's mystery, however, is quickly subsumed by other complications. In a frenzy of intellectual insight, Inga begins a new book about the history of philosophical breakthroughs, but she's being harassed by a seedy journalist who reveals lurid details about her late husband, a prominent writer and filmmaker. "I've suddenly discovered that I've lived another life," she tells Erik. "I mean, now I have to rewrite my own story, redo it from the bottom up." The challenge is how to do that while protecting her teenage daughter, who's still haunted by the horrors she witnessed on Sept. 11.
Erik is determined to help his sister and niece, but crushing loneliness threatens to disrupt his practice, which is shown in a series of fascinating sessions with his patients -- more people desperate to rewrite their life stories. "My solitude had gradually begun to alter me," he tells us, "to turn me into a man I had not expected, a person far more peculiar than I had ever imagined." On top of all this, he's falling in love with a single mother named Miranda who rents his first-floor apartment. She doesn't return his affection, but she needs him: Her deranged ex-husband is leaving stacks of defaced photos at the door -- images that document her life and eventually include Erik, too, in private, unguarded moments.
All these complications sprawl out in ominous, often exciting ways. Hustvedt seems unwilling to turn away any tangential character; she practices a kind of authorial hospitality that gives the book an ever-growing list of side stories. Not the least of these is told in arresting excerpts from the memoir by Erik's father that describes his childhood during the Depression and his experiences as a soldier in World War II. Erik studies this manuscript with rapt attention, knowing it contains the best chance of understanding his heritage and perhaps his own troubled soul as well.
Hustvedt reveals in the acknowledgments that these stirring passages from the senior Davidsen's memoir were, in fact, taken almost verbatim from her own late father's memoir, making The Sorrows of an American a striking demonstration of its own theme: the blending of fiction and nonfiction that gives coherence to our lives. "Telling always binds one thing to another," Erik thinks. "We want a coherent world, not one in bits and pieces."
This, of course, is what Erik's father was trying to find -- or create. "By becoming a historian of his own immigrant past," Erik explains, "he had found a way to return home again and again. Like countless neurologists, psychiatrists, and analysts I know who suffer from the very ailments they hope to cure in others, my father had relieved the raw sore inside him through the work he had chosen. He had archived innumerable diaries, letters, newspaper articles, books, recipes, drawings, notebooks, and photographs of a dying world. . . . His was an illness that besets the intellectual: the indefatigable will to mastery. Chronic and incurable, it afflicts those who lust after a world that makes sense."