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June 26, 2009

Trouble by Kate Christensen

Kate Christensen writes like a man, which has caused misunderstandings in the past because she also writes like a woman, this misunderstanding compounded when she writes about women (as in her debut novel In The Drink, which, as I’ve written before, failed as the chick lit it wasn’t). All of by which I mean that Christensen’s writing voice lacks a gender, this bringing forth interesting results in her challenges of feminine and masculine notions.

In her latest novel Trouble, Christensen assigns the familiar bottoming-out-down-in-Mexico role (as in Under the Volcano) to a woman, or in fact to two of them. Strait-lacey psychiatrist Josephine has flown down at the last minute to comfort her friend, aging rock star Raquel Dominguez, whose reputation has endured a massive assault via celebrity gossip blogs. Josephine is not in much of a position to comfort, however, having just decided that her marriage is over and determined to immerse herself in the hedonism Mexico seems to offer. Both women have behaved badly, and are not at all concerned with seeking redemption.

‘”All I can say,” said Raquel, “is that it is not fun to be a woman and to fuck up…”
“Maybe women are expected to behave better than men,” [Josie] said, “because we are better than men. The world without women is Lord of the Flies. The world without men is Little Women.”

In Trouble, Christensen subverts any idea of betterness, Josie’s own perspective being rather limited (as Christensen herself has pointed out). For a psychiatrist, her assessment of everybody is remarkably wrong, and it turns out she knows herself just about as badly. She’s not better than anyone, including her troubled friend and the men in their lives, but she manages to remain immune from any real “trouble” by regarding her Mexican experience as an “experiment”. Raquel, however, is more troubled than Josie suspects, and an act of negligence/indulgence on Josie’s part leads to tragedy.

This is a novel that begins mid-conversation, and follows its characters over a very short period of time. The result of this is distance from the characters and the story, Josephine’s first-person narration in particular making no dramatic gestures to draw us closer. As readers, we are given copious description, mundane dialogue, small-talk and gratuitous sex, and it’s hard to find Christensen’s over-arching thesis. I’d posit this is because there isn’t one, or rather because there are several. Numerous literary allusions underline this, to Under the Volcano, to Joan Didion’s work, and to A Passage to India, which I’ve not yet read, but must now, because the end of Trouble suggests it might be the key what Christensen is up to.

As in her first novel, however, it’s clear that one major intention is to play out familiar literary tropes (the bottoming-out character, “in the drink”, plenty of scenes taken up by descriptions of bullfights) with a female cast in the starring role. Moreover, a somewhat-unlikeable female character, which is rare in fiction, and hard for some critics to stomach or understand. That us liking Josephine was never Christensen’s point, and that identifying with her is something you’d only do if you were frightful (or unbearably honest). These are demands not often made of male lead characters, and Christensen plays with this twist to do novel things with her fiction, to tell a story that’s not often told.

Trouble is not her very best work. As Josephine’s perspective is limited, so is the entire book’s, and the story’s shape is too fragmented to be wholly satisfying. Perhaps it’s the nature of Josephine’s solipsism, but the secondary characters she describes remain unrealized, and unreal. But by being a Kate Christensen novel, this book is worthwhile, and probably more worth reading than most of its peers on the shelf. For Christensen writes well and fearlessly, with a dirty sense of humour, and any novel by her is an event nevertheless.

One thought on “Trouble by Kate Christensen”

  1. starrlife says:

    "Maybe women are expected to behave better than men," [Josie] said, "because we are better than men. The world without women is Lord of the Flies. The world without men is Little Women."
    I love that line- dirty sense of humor it is.

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