Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Astral, by Kate Christensen

Harry Quirk is a poet--one who cleaves to traditional notions of rhyme and meter--translated from his native Iowa to New York City. For more than 30 years, he has been married to Luz, a Mexican-American nurse whose work has supported him in his poetic efforts. In the apartment building known as The Astral, they raised two children, both of whom have taken unusual paths as adults: Karina is a lesbian freegan, who forages for food and consumer goods to give to the poor people she lives among, while Hector has joined a cult on Long Island, where he is being groomed as the Second Coming.

As the book opens, Luz has thrown Harry out because she found(and destroyed) his latest book--a collection of sonnets she believes Harry wrote to his long-time friend Marion. Although Harry denies that he ever slept with Marion, he did have an affair 12 years earlier, an affair Luz has never forgiven him for. Harry is desperate to get back together with Luz--despite the fact that he and others often refer to her as "crazy"--and thinks and worries the problem while he walks and, later, bikes around Brooklyn. He lodges in five different places over the course of the few weeks in which the book takes place, drinks in at least as many local dives, has endless conversations about marriage in general and his marriage in particular (sometimes internal dialogues, sometimes engaged in with other people), and manages to get two friends to give him jobs (having spent most of his life writing poetry, his work experience is extremely limited).

With a couple of exceptions (Harry and Marion's friendship, his relationship with Karina), marriage, family relationships, therapeutic relationships, and friendship all come off badly in The Astral. People are either untrusting or untrustworthy, they gossip and take sides, they betray and take advantage of one another. In many of the relationships depicted, women are portrayed as manipulating bitches, men as pawns who allow themselves to be manipulated to meet other needs. Very little happens in the book--perhaps because Christensen sees people as doing very little that is proactive, including Harry and other artists among his friends, who are not producing very much art. (The exceptions are Karina and her freegan friends.) It's a depressing depiction and not one that I felt added to my understanding of the human condition.

While I give Christensen kudos for creating a middle-aged male character who seems (to this slightly-past-middle-aged woman) authentic, I have to admit that, were the author of this book a man, I'd probably be calling him misogynistic. I had read several positive reviews of The Astral, but I cannot recommend it.

Favorite passage:
Back in the cold, bright day, I made my way to Marion's empty house, where I lay in lordly supine bliss like an emperor on the couch and surfed a fresh wave of hope and joy into a long, restorative nap.

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