Sunday, July 17, 2011

Kate Christensen on a Marital Downward Spiral in "The Astral"

In her sublime and devastatingly witty new novel The Astral(Doubleday, $25.95), Kate Christensen follows the story of Harry Quirk, a poet who is thrown out of his apartment by his paranoid and controlling wife for an imagined adultery with his best woman friend.

Harry is a middle-aged minor poet, a kind and spineless man. Drinking too much and living two steps from homelessness on the cold streets of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Harry tries to put his life back together while obsessing on ways to win his furious wife Luz back. Meanwhile, one of Harry’s adult children is a Dumpster diver and the other is in a cult. Christensen’s biting and comic satire addresses what it means to be an artist and how marriages unravel for good.

Christensen, 47, is the author of six novels, including the acclaimed “In the Drink” and “The Great Man.” She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Q. What made you write about Harry Quirk?

A. Harry came from Greenpoint and my observations of solitary men in their fifties walking around. I became obsessed with the Astral, a large apartment building near my old house. Harry would be someone who lived their, raised children there and was kicked out. He views it as his lost Eden.

I conceived of the book before my own marriage ended. I felt like Harry was me. In the aftermath of a marriage, you feel helpless and hapless. I think Harry is a fool and an everyman. I definitely felt very human, very flawed and very sad.

Q. In your book, adulteries real and imagined play an important part. Why?

A. I’ve always written about adultery, because it raises the question of transgression and trouble. There is a kind of drama inherent to adultery, and it’s also an external manifestation of a marriage, like a scab or a rash.

Q. Do you see this novel as satire?

A. I never see myself as writing satire. I think I write about people as they really are, without make them better or worse.

Q. By losing his breadwinning wife, Harry is tossed out of the middle class. What interested you about his struggle?

A. With my friends in Brooklyn, many of them started out as artists. I saw many of these friends move into late middle age, still struggling without health insurance or a cushion. I saw people who had given up being artists. Being an artist necessitates a compromise or living on the edge.

Q. Pushing 58, Harry has the devastating line that time determined that he wasn’t as great as his ego thought he was. What were you addressing?

A. It was one of the key ideas in the book. Harry can’t lie to himself anymore. It’s like an alcoholic hitting bottom. His wife destroyed his last book and that wakes him up. I think my book is tragicomic. When you are 22, you say and think what you are going to do. Time has a way of revealing the truth. When you are 57, it’s an age of reckoning. What you are at 57 is what you are.

Q. In one devastating scene, Harry and his friend James stab each other with verbal knives, mixing real and fake compassion. How did you capture men with such unflinching comic accuracy?

A. That comes from years of watching men. Women are much more subterranean. They mask their manipulations and blows with smiles. I think women are scary. I like they way men have that surface competitiveness, know where the lines are and whether they will punch the other person in the solar plexus or not. I am one of five girls. I was the boy in the family. I have an inner guy, though I am straight and to all appearances female. Harry is an alter ego to me.

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