It doesn’t matter if the story is about 12th-century nuns or lizard-people from the planet Zerlock: During the question-and-answer portion of the author reading at your local bookstore, some loyal fan will stand up and ask, “How much of this novel is autobiographical?”
I like to look closely at authors’ faces when that question comes — and it always comes — to catch the flash of irritation just before they wearily explain that fiction writers actually use their imaginations to create characters and situations, etc., etc.
“Yes,” the loyal fan persists, “but isn’t this narrator you?”
Long after the last climate-change denier is burned to a crisp and the final doubter of Shakespeare’s identity exits stage right, certain readers will still cling to their conviction that writers can’t really make up stories. Deny it all you want: It’s all memoir; it’s all roman a clef.
That’s an accusation Harry Quirk can’t dodge. He’s the jinxed narrator at the center of Kate Christensen’s engaging new novel, “The Astral.” When his wife, Luz, discovers a new collection of love poems in his notebook, she knows he must be having an affair. “She was vengeance incarnate,” Harry thinks, later telling her that she’s “a controlling, closed-off, lethally angry bitch.” She rips up the pages and throws his computer out the window. “It’s poetry,” Harry pleads. “It’s invented. All the women I was writing to are imaginary.” But Luz won’t hear it; she kicks him out of their apartment. And so, for the first time in 30 years, Harry is on the street, an unemployed writer, 57 years old, with no money and no place to live. What’s worse, he can’t remember any of those unpublished sonnets that Luz destroyed in her “toxic rage.”
It’s worth noting that Christensen has somehow — again — created a captivatingly believable male narrator, although she can’t see 60 on the horizon (she’s 48), has not been married to a tempestuous Mexican woman for 30 years or published largely ignored poetry in academic journals. (Her previous novel, “The Great Man,” won the PEN/Faulkner Award.) And yet here she is doing what talented novelists do: creating a voice so rich with the peculiar timbre of lived experience that you feel as though she’s introduced you to a witty, deeply frustrated (and frustrating) new friend.
Harry is a brilliantly realized species of the domesticated male, the product of “years of conditioning by the prevailing social winds.” In the company of other men, he jokes “with a funny kind of pride about how demanding and bossy our wives were, how in thrall we were to the domestic tyranny of children and schedules.” Feeling castrated and spineless, he’s full of appetites that he keeps well tamed: He notices women’s breasts but knows he mustn’t stare; he’s attracted to young women but knows they’re off-limits. He’s full of “inchoate fears, secret woes, and unspoken furies.” Even as a poet, he’s tightly hemmed in, forcing himself to work within the constraints of the traditional sonnet form. No magic for him. “I was not an ecstatic or a mystic,” he says. “I was stuck on the ground, scratching my ass or whatever else itched.”
“The Astral” is largely a rumination on marriage, wise enough to inform anyone who’s been at it a while but maybe too dark for kids just starting off. As Harry rides his bicycle around Brooklyn — wonderfully drawn here — he reflects on what went wrong in his home. He did have an affair 12 years ago, and ever since he’s had “a scarlet P on [his] forehead — for Philanderer, alas, not Pimpernel.” But he always assumed their shared experience was enough to keep Luz — “my fellow grizzled veteran of the same wars — and him together till the end. “Through the decades, things had gotten dirty between us,” he admits, “corrupted by familiarity, the pain we caused each other on purpose and by accident, our blind spots, all the things we couldn’t say or see. By now, I felt so many complicated, ancient, powerful things for and about Luz, a mishmash of memories and associations and anger and irritation and physical knowledge and attachment and blind habit and nostalgia and dependency and intertwined roots, I wasn’t sure it could all be lumped together as love or any other one word.”
Swinging between ribald confession and thoughtful reflection with a hair shirt grafted to his torso, Harry is an endlessly engaging coroner of his relationship with Luz, that “one-woman fascistic government,” but the novel rounds out its exploration of marriage with several other curious couplings. He and his best female friend wonder why they never had that affair that Harry’s wife assumes they’ve been having. His male friends seem locked in cold, competitive marriages, and his own adult children aren’t at all interested in the matrimonial model their parents pursued: His daughter, a lesbian freegan, seems too serious for romance, while his wastrel son is caught up in a religious cult that uses love as a con.
Those side stories dress up the plot, but the heart of the novel remains Harry working out his own salvation, trying to figure out in late middle age what it means to be a man, a married man, a selfish man, a thoughtful, good man — roles that many of us are trying to play all at once.
If only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only a female author could create such a sympathetic male narrator trying to placate his harridan of a wife. (There’s a poisonous female therapist here, too, “a stuck-up stone-faced shamanistic manipulator.”) Imagine the blowback that Updike, Irving or Roth would have suffered — have suffered! — for lines like this:
“That was marriage, sometimes. Wives got their husbands under control and kept them there. That was how they operated, these possessive, manipulative, needy, controlling women, they pretended to be soft and vulnerable, sweet and loving, and we, big dumb dogs that we were, fell for their cooing flattery and breasty softness, tried to be the heroes they wanted us to be, to live up to their expectations. And when we failed and our wives lashed out, we skulked around, tails between legs, hangdog and furtive, doing their bidding until they forgave us, if they did.”
That’s not Christensen speaking through a mask, ironically or otherwise. That’s a passionate, sexist, loving, complex man named Harry Quirk. Alive, like us. Go meet him.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Kate Christensen
311 pp. $25.95