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‘The Astral’: A Tedious Ode To Breaking Up

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 9, 2011

Kate Christensen’s sixth novel, The Astral, charts the long and whining road toward a new life for Harry Quirk, a down-and-out poet whose fierce, staunchly Catholic wife of 30 years has thrown him out of their home in the legendary Astral apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Convinced that Harry has been cheating on her with his recently widowed best friend, Luz has gone ballistic. She destroyed his laptop and the notebooks containing his latest poems, a cycle of sonnets about imaginary lovers she’s convinced are real.

The Astral charts Harry’s initially wretched adventures in his forced new singledom, as he wanders through the streets and bars of his rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, landing in a series of dicey situations, bleak rentals and comfortingly repetitive jobs. His family and friends provide little solace. His son has been sucked into a fundamentalist cult on Long Island that has named him their messiah. His daughter, a bleeding-heart Freegan, thinks she can solve the world’s troubles, including those of her family. A rich friend is generous with advice and employment, provided Harry feeds his “emotionally vampiric nature” with piteous bloodletting.

Although he insists that he’s innocent, everyone but Harry recognizes that innocence is besides the point. The point — which analytic Harry articulates often in his saga of being forced to start over at 57 — is that Harry “needed to be propped up” in both his poetry and his life. “Perhaps I needed someone else’s external, imposed will, because internally, I had none,” he comments. In his writing, Harry says, “I shackled myself to the most ironclad poetic forms.” In his life, he willingly bound himself to Luz, a Mexican-American nurse with a nonnegotiable nature. Long the family’s principal breadwinner, Luz has withdrawn her support because she wasn’t getting what she wanted in return — Harry’s unwavering devotion.

If that seems a simplistic reduction of a complex marital dynamic, it’s one that Harry makes himself — repeatedly. As anyone who has gone through a painful breakup knows, obsessive dissection is a primary byproduct. Unfortunately, it’s no more fun to read about than to experience, and Christensen, such a sharp writer in novels that include Trouble (2009) and The Epicure’s Lament (2004), does little to alleviate the tedium of Harry’s doldrums. Even Harry comments, “Here I was, going around in these same circles again with no way out.” When we finally get to his showdown with Luz, it is woefully anticlimactic because we’ve already heard it all multiple times.

Christensen has written about artists before. The Great Man (2007), which won the PEN/Faulkner award, featured a vibrant portrait of three women in their 70s and 80s who were liberated by the death of “the great man” who had overshadowed them in his life — a painter who resisted 20th-century abstraction the way Harry resists free-form verse. But Christensen fails to give us a convincing sense of Harry’s talent, and when he confesses that he has “lost the egomaniacal steam that powered the whole enterprise,” we’re as indifferent as he seems to be.

Like his late-lamented, tightly constructed sonnets, Harry’s tale begins and ends in the same place, with him staring into the toxic waters of Newtown Creek. Although Harry makes some emotional headway over the course of the novel, The Astral, like this sadly polluted estuary, feels dismayingly stagnant. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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