The Astral by Kate Christensen

By | on February 22, 2011 | 15 Comments

DH: It raises you up, it inspires, when you discover that a master writer is extending herself farther, stepping onto a larger stage than they have attempted to command before. Such is the case with Kate Christensen’s resplendent forthcoming novel, The Astral. And I guess I am giving the publisher a seizure by discussing it now and “wasting” all this fine publicity. But what do you expect me to do since I am loving it now, having just read it? Would you prefer that I cooled down first?

I think The Astral is the best Brooklyn novel that I have ever read. So I’d like to say to the 100K of Brooklyn writers, who are expending about a million kilowatts of New York City’s power grid, that you can power down your laptops now. You don’t have bother anymore. Thanks anyway.

It depends on what your priorities in literature are, of course. I think the most important subject in fiction is marriage, and The Astral is about the deconstruction of one. If you don’t feel that way,   I suppose you would attach less importance to The Astral.

KC, as she has in The Great Man and Trouble tends to focus on characters who have reached a maturity in experience if not in wisdom. No one does older people having sex with as much panache as Kate does. Read The Great Man if you don’t believe how well it can be done. But perhaps that’s a barrier to breaking out with a larger audience who would prefer to see lovers in their physical prime even if it means that they may be at their mental nadir.

Oh, the neighborhoods, wow! The Astral moves majestically from Greenpoint to Crown Heights to Red Hook. The mucky smells, the coffee shops, flophouses, brownstones, monolithic apartment blocks, industrial parks and bars along the way have never been raised up before you better. And as for Newtown Creek, “sweet Thames flow softly till I’ve sung my song.” Look forward to The Astral tourist bus now.

It seems like a stretch to me and a very interesting one that KC”s principal character in The Astral is a man. Trouble, the last novel, was chiefly about the friendship between two women and how much or how little you can do for a best girl friend in need. Even The Great Man, so-named, was about how women and their extended families coped with the death of a de Kooning-like artist. It was fascinating how much the deceased genius haunted the action. He functioned as a mirror off which “his women” reflected.

Harry is front and center on almost every page of The Astral. He’s a poet, in print until his publisher moved to London. Harry writes sonnet sequences, of all things, the strictest and most traditional of poetic forms and he has an cult following. His latest masterwork was to be a series of “crown sonnets” where the the last line of the preceding sonnet becomes the first line of the next one. And since I love Philip Sidney, the most celebrated writer of a sonnet sequence in English after Shakespeare, I presume Kate has given a bow to him since his great sequence is called “Astrophel and Stella”. Hence, at least one reason to call this novel The Astral. Will anyone else notice this? Does anyone actually read anymore, I mean aside from what was written last week? Do you have to be a prof to love our ancient arts?

It’s wonderfully wild that Christensen has included some of Harry’s sonnets within the text of The Astral. They’re not very good but I suppose it’s a wonder that Christensen can write them at all. I think Thomas Mann did better in his Doctor Faustus where his lead character is a composer. There are meticulous descriptions of Adrian Leverkuhn’s masterworks in Doctor Faustus but Mann doesn’t actually have to write the scores. That’s a better strategy.

You won’t find many sonnets in the text, however, because Harry’s wife, Luz, has destroyed his new masterwork and thrown his laptop out the window of their apartment on the top floor of the Astral. It didn’t help Harry that when Luz read the sonnets, she discovered that they were about the poet being in bed with a beautiful woman and it wasn’t her. Harry explains that the woman in his sonnets is just a poetic construction, not a real woman. That might not convince you either since the eroticism in the sonnets can be pretty lush. Maybe those sonnets are not so bad after all. Is a writer allowed, say, to write a novel, and fall in love with the woman in the novel who is not his wife? That’s just an extension of the burning question of whether a husband is allowed to notice another beautiful woman.

You’ll find Christensen’s best take ever on the human heart in The Astral. Kate Christensen is all but clairvoyant, she’s our seer. What’s really destroying Harry’s marriage to Luz? Luz is obsessed with the idea that Harry is sleeping with his best friend, Marion. It’s a friendship of years’ standing that Luz has consented to tolerate, the way spouses have always put up with the close friends of their partners that they don’t really like.

Marion is Harry’s best friend and it’s an open secret that he likes Marion as a friend better than he likes his wife as a friend. He comes home from seeing Marion, with whom he is really more compatible, and sits down at the kitchen table glowing. He doesn’t give off that aura with Luz and she has noticed. Are you allowed to have a best friend who is not your spouse? I say you can’t. But I’m such a conservative about marriage that it’s unbelievable.

This is a leitmotif of Christensen’s fiction: the platonic best friendship that mimics an erotic attachment but isn’t sexual. Harry doesn’t love Marion, he loves Luz but he likes Marion better. This is made clear again and again in the text. I don’t know why KC is so hung up with this idea. If I ever get the chance, I’ll ask her. But it’s fascinating. KC is one of the few novelists I know who takes friendship seriously.

That’s enough for one post on The Astral. There will be two more later. But I won’t call them “part two” and “part three” because if I do that then you won’t read them. I’ll just do three reviews on The Astral. Dear publisher, please remain calm.


15 Responses to “The Astral by Kate Christensen”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by maura johnston and Vintage & Anchor, Michele Filgate. Michele Filgate said: I can't WAIT to get an ARC of this book. Kate Christensen is one of my favorite writers. (via @TobiasCarroll) […]

  2. […] Three Guys One Book discuss The Astral by Kate Christensen […]

  3. February 22, 2011

    Ghoward Reply

    The publisher is perfectly okey-doke with this.

    Gerald Howard, Doubleday

  4. February 22, 2011

    Jasonaustinrice Reply

    Thank you Mr. Howard.

  5. February 22, 2011

    Rdboo Reply

    and because of this review it is now on list of books to read when they come out. I think the timing of these reviews work on all levels.

  6. February 22, 2011

    Gerald Howard Reply

    I do want to make a case, however, for Betty Smith’s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN as at least the greatest Brooklyn novel published before Kate Christensen took up the borough as a subject. My parents, native Brooklynites of the mostly Hibernian persuasion, loved that book and took it as an accurate reflection of their own lives.

    • February 23, 2011

      Tory Reply

      Just recently read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn again–BEAUTIFUL.

  7. February 22, 2011

    Jason Chambers Reply

    Should we go back and see what DH said about Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, just to make sure he’s not pulling a fast one?

  8. February 23, 2011

    Zvila Reply

    I love that you make the Spenser/Astrophel/Astral connection. Would anyone else have dared speculate on this? Kudos. I love Kate as a person as well as a writer. I love how seriously she takes friendship, and that she writes about it so much. And did you know that KC also plays the viola and sings like an angel?

  9. February 23, 2011

    Dennis Haritou Reply

    I never want to visit Toibin’s Brooklyn again. I liked it, but once is enough. You’re so infernally mischievous, JC, but that’s why I like you.

  10. February 23, 2011

    Gerald Howard Reply

    KC cooks good too.

  11. […] ‘Orientation: and other stories’Jennifer Tyler: A Conversation With Victoria PattersonThe Astral by Kate ChristensenSo You Want To Write A NovelThe Late American Novel: Writers On The Future of BooksWhat Blogs Can […]

  12. […] the years. In fact, you can read her interview with Dennis today. If you look around you can find reviews of The Astral and Trouble, and the Three Guys treatment of The Great ManElliot AllagashSimon […]

  13. […] point. It’s about the end of youth.DH’s reviews of Kate Christensen’s The Astral:Part 1Part2 Part 3June 14th, 2011 | Category: Interviews/**/var […]

  14. July 17, 2011

    tentativelyfrank Reply

    I just finished the novel and I loved it almost despite myself. The blurb does make it sound pretentious, but it’s very beautifully written and even surprising in places.

    I wrote a full review here:

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