Artists can be fascinating creatures: stubborn, arrogant, passionate, yet so fragile. How do we accommodate or even tolerate these strange birds, so obsessive and tenacious when it comes to their craft, so distracted and self-involved even when they’re not working, so fixated, no matter how successful they are, on the question of their own brilliance (or lack thereof)? And how do artists navigate a world that’s largely indifferent (if not hostile) to their species?
Harry, the poet narrator of Kate Christensen’s latest novel, The Astral, embodies the finest qualities and most lamentable flaws of an artist, or at least a certain type of artist: He is thoughtful yet blind to himself, original yet horribly familiar, pompous yet plagued by self-doubt, charming yet self-indulgent. We find Harry in the throes of a major life crisis, one that leaves him reeling, drinking too much, and turning to anyone who’ll listen for advice he doesn’t seem remotely interested in (or capable of) taking. Harry’s wife, Luz, has just discovered his latest work, a series of sonnets about going to bed with a beautiful woman. Suspecting that Harry must be having an affair with his longtime friend Marion, Luz throws Harry’s laptop out of the top-floor window of the Astral, their apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. With his work destroyed and his wife, who’s supported him for years, intent on a divorce, Harry finds himself utterly lost and distraught. He loves Luz and wants his old life back, but he can’t figure out how to convince her he’s not having an affair, because she “was impossible to convince of anything she had decided was untrue.”
Strangely, even at this low moment, Harry has no trouble coldly analyzing the intricacies of his marriage. Within a few dozen pages—before we have a chance to meet Luz or get some feeling about their dynamic together—Harry is laying out a precise evaluation of their interpersonal pact and its benefits:
I needed my muse, my wife, to withhold her deepest self from me, to judge me and find me wanting, so I could excoriate myself and win her and convince us both of my worth by writing these insanely disciplined, convolutedly accomplished poems. This allowed me the freedom, or so I had thought, to invent, and write love sonnets to, imaginary women. The whole system had been carefully calibrated and cantilevered, and self-perpetuating. And I wanted it back.
One of the greatest flaws of artists, of course, is that they often assume we care about their artistic process. Sometimes we’d prefer to gather clues and make guesses, to examine the work itself, to observe the artist in action, rather than have it all neatly laid out for us. But Harry seems to go into every situation with his eyes wide open, whether it’s a visit to the religious cult where his son, Hector, is hiding out, a sudden trip to see Luz’s untrustworthy therapist, or just a jaunt to a local bar. In recounting his early days with his wife, Harry explains, “We both knew exactly what we were getting into, what the deal was. Luz would inspire and control me, and, when she had to, support me and our kids.” For a wildly romantic, often drunk lover of poetry, Harry certainly is pragmatic.
Not surprisingly, though, there’s not much to add to the picture of Harry’s marriage over the course of the novel. And that would be fine, if Harry weren’t so fixated on the matter himself. He finds a job and then loses it; seeks solace in his friend Marion, then loses touch with her; secures lodging with a kind woman, then gets thrown out for responding a little too enthusiastically to her daughter’s company. And all the while, he bemoans the loss of his (apparently rigid, punishing) wife. Harry seems to view his former life as necessary to his comfort, crucial to his art, essential to his identity, even as he admits the limits of their emotional connection, and how inextricably linked to his basic needs that connection has become. “She threw me out on the street like a dog,” he writes of Luz in a sonnet. “Unfed and unloved. Threw me out with the remains / Of last night’s dinner, sloughed off somewhere to rot.” Spending time with Harry can feel like helping a repetitive friend get over a traumatic breakup—temperamental outbursts, bad poetry, and all.
Christensen has savored the off-kilter terrain of an artist’s soul before, most notably in her riveting and beautifully written novels The Great Man (2007) and The Epicure’s Lament (2004). Like Oscar and Maxine Feldman of The Great Man, and Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament, Harry faces the question of how to continue to create and enjoy your creations, even as you grow older and face marriage troubles, career disappointments, fracturing friendships, and the specter of your own irrelevance. What does it mean to create for the sake of leaving your mark on the world? Sometimes, maybe, it’s just an excuse to live in your own fantastic bubble, inadequately grateful for the support structure that makes your whimsical life possible.
But where The Great Man wisely explores a renowned painter through the lens of the women in his life—women who quickly become a far richer and more layered subject for the author’s investigations—The Astral, like The Epicure’s Lament, zooms in on the artist himself. Unfortunately, not only is Harry no match for the mercurial, ruthless Hugo, but after a few dozen pages, we long to see Harry eviscerated by Hugo’s unrelenting nastiness and wit. While it’s a thrill to view the world through Hugo’s detestable eyes, Harry’s thoughts and compulsions are utterly lackluster. And even if he were unique on some level, we’re never offered a chance to crawl inside his skin: His poetry, his conversations, his private thoughts—none of it feels remotely intimate, fresh, or provocative.
That wouldn’t be all that surprising if Christensen weren’t a writer of such formidable talents. In The Epicure’s Lament, the author besieges us with the full brunt of Hugo’s contempt, self-loathing, and regrets, forcing us to encounter the world through his alternately predatory and amused eyes. As world-weary a narrator as he is, Hugo has an amplified reaction to everyone in his sphere, from his stoic wife to the naive teenage clerk at the local store, transforming regular, everyday characters into fascinating persons of interest. In contrast, Harry’s associates feel as flat and incomplete as he does, from the opinionated but otherwise forgettable Marion to his idealistic daughter, Karina, whose entire life feels as if it were pulled from a magazine article about environmentalist freegans who scavenge discarded possessions to meet their basic needs. Marion and Karina both play the foil to Harry, challenging him only inasmuch as is required to sustain the steady flow of dialogue, and adding to the story little flair or emotional weight of their own. Even when Marion and Harry finally discuss whatever sexual tension might have existed between them, they do it with the expository manner of talk-show hosts, enunciating carefully for some imaginary studio audience: “Luz is crazy, yes, because we have never once breached her trust,” Marion tells Harry, “but I think she’s put her finger on something that’s always been there, and it wouldn’t kill us, or our famously platonic multidecade friendship, to pick it up and look at it, just once. . . . Why did we not marry each other?”
“We’ll never know,” Harry answers. “We might have made each other miserable.” The pair go on to describe the pros and cons of their theoretical pairing with the detachment of two scientists peering into a petri dish together. The scene neatly encapsulates the flaws of The Astral: Everything is explained, delineated, analyzed, sliced, diced, pickled, and finally shelved, only to be retrieved, rewarmed, reexplained, and reexamined a few chapters later, with no significant increase in understanding or shift in perspective along the way. Not only does Christensen tell more than she shows, she tells and tells and tells the same thing over and over again, until Harry and his cohorts become as uninspired and redundant as guests on Dr. Phil who keep coming back to hash out the same marital woes week after week. We are forced to abide Harry’s recursive thoughts, his awkward conversations, his bad poetry, and his painfully obvious explanations of his bad poetry, and the sum is weaker than its parts. In short, Harry makes artists look like intolerable bores. While the seventy-something women of The Great Man and the self-hating oven at the heart of The Epicure’s Lament epitomize the sorts of vibrant, dynamic characters who loom in the reader’s mind for years after the novels are finished, The Astral may be best summed up by Marion herself: “What a lot of silly melodrama. We’re all just a bunch of aging bohemians.”
Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).