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Pickle Me This

July 28, 2011

The Astral by Kate Christensen

Kate Christensen’s Trouble was the first novel I reviewed on my blog after Harriet was born, and the novel was disappointing. (Less disappointing was the review I wrote–I can’t quite believe how lucid it reads. Perhaps I secretly paid someone to write it while I was busy lying on the carpet sobbing.) Being a novel by Kate Christensen, however, Trouble was still well worth the read and better than most of the other books out there. So you can imagine how much it thrills me to declare that Christensen’s latest, The Astral, is her best book yet, and the finest book I’ve read in ages.

The Astral is the story of a man at the end of his marriage: Luz, Harry Quirk’s wife of thirty years, has just thrown them out of their home in The Astral, an apartment (which actually exists!) in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighbourhood. She’s come across his latest manuscript of poems, love sonnets, and she’s convinced he’s written them for another woman. Refusing to indulge his insistance that the poems are the product of his imagination only, she destroys the manuscript and banishes Harry from their marital home. Harry finds refuge with his good friend Marion, a recent widow, which only serves to anger Luz further because she’s convinced he’s been sleeping with Marion for years. Though he hasn’t been, not for years or for ever. Harry had had one indiscretion twelve years ago, but other than that, he’s been an pointedly loyal husband.

The Astral follows the months after Harry’s banishment, its effect on his children, and he and Luz’s wider group of friends. As with most of Christensen’s work, the narrative is fixed solidly within the perspective of an unlikeable protagonist, though she invests Harry with a certain charm– I think she tends to go easier on her men than her women. Charm meaning that he’s convincing though, almost, but there are certain moments when it becomes clear that he’s wholely devoid of self-knowledge. A line like, “I’d never had a drivers’ license myself, but I knew bad driving when I see it.” But he brings you around, Harry, and it’s not such a bad place, being in his head. Everything he does is usually justifiable, he knows everybody else’s problems. and then there’s the incredible scene when he storms his wife’s therapist’s office and threatens to maim her, then she proceeds to reduce him to a psychological pulp using his own tricks (but better). Suddenly, it’s not clear what is what anymore.

And what is what is never quite resolved. Like Lionel Shriver at her best, Christensen writes a veritable keleidoscope of relative perspectives, and the effect is as unsure and perilous as reality. Like Shriver too, Christensen is hilarious, though her caustic is far less caustic and her work is more palatable. The two writers are similar also in that their novels are driven more by ideas than characters (or even plot) so that we can see the seams sometimes, the work of an author trying too hard to make her people go where she wants them to go. We also get some woodenness, some terrible dialogue– Harry answers a question regarding his son’s wellbeing with, “Karina and I were just out there. He’s immersed in this cult, he’s marrying the leader, and they think he’s the Messiah.” But there is a self-awareness there, one gets the sense that Christensen is winking. At one point during a too-earnest conversation, somebody asks, “Who’s writing this dialogue?”

And the answer is Kate Christensen, who clings to metaphor as much her protagonist does. Marriage is poetry: “I believe in rhyme and rhythm. But my adherence to form is loony. I make it much harder for myself than it has to be. I follow arcane rules that went out of business a hundred years ago.” Marriage is also a kind of cult like the one that has sucked in Harry’s son, and though this plotline has the air of the ridiculous, it’s never exploited and works within the bigger picture. Everything in the book is really working for a higher purpose, which makes the pay-off worthwhile because you get this book in the end. A story of the disparate selves within one man and within one marriage, and the reconciliation of the former that comes when the marriage is finally dissolved.

(If you’re thinking you might be interested in this book, read Kate Christensen’s Book Notes at Largehearted Boy, and then there will be no doubt left in your mind.)

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