Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Review Kate Christensen's The Great Man

Kate Christensen’s newest novel The Great Man, for which she recently won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, is actually about three women and their relationship to one not-so-great man, the figurative painter Oscar Feldman. Claire St. Cloud, or “Teddy” as she’s known to her confidants, was Oscar’s lover, Abigail Feldman, his widow and the mother of his autistic son, and Maxine Feldman, his sister, an abstract painter and a masculine lesbian. While he was alive, these three women orbited Oscar each in their own path, glimpsing one another at openings and parties, but never approaching, knowing of each other’s existence but not acknowledging it.

After Oscar’s death, a pair of biographers come calling in search of the life of the great Oscar Feldman. These two biographers -- Henry Burke, a tentative 40 year-old white man heading into a difficult stretch in his marriage, and Ralph Washington, a gay black man struggling with his own analysis and critique of Oscar’s work – dredge up feelings long buried and force hard confrontations between the three female protagonists.

Christensen’s previous novel, The Epicure’s Lament, was a tour de force of voice, a blistering first-person screed that showed her flair for language, pacing and character. Here, the voice is reserved, but the point of view is constantly shifting. Indeed, the genius of this novel is in how, through its floating perspective, it coaxes the reader into making certain assumptions about the characters, and then subverts those assumptions. In this way, it mirrors the experience of a work of art in the critical marketplace. Much of the book is concerned with the legacies of the two artists – Oscar and Maxine – and how their work has been and will be perceived by critics. While some of the theoretical discussions of art seem facile, Christensen makes a sly comment on the “eye of the beholder.” Implicit in these discussions, of course, is the notion of taste and its inherent place within perspective.

The novel opens on Teddy, a particularly crafty bit of manipulation on Christensen’s part, as it places the reader firmly in Teddy’s camp, never giving him a second to see Teddy as the “other woman.” We get Teddy’s view of Abigail, “Oscar’s fat wife,” and feel her sacrifices (when she went into labor with Oscar’s twin daughters, Ruby and Samantha, it was her friend Lila she called, since she couldn’t call Oscar. In fact, she learned of his death when she read the obituary in the New York Times).

Just as we settle perfectly beside elegant, seductive Teddy, Christensen moves on to Maxine, Oscar’s cantankerous sister. Maxine can’t stand Teddy, who she feels is all flash and no substance and a home-wrecker. Maxine, easily the least happy of the characters, hungers for some sort of companionship, preferably that of younger assistant Katerina. Maxine feels “that her advanced age should have granted her some kind of immunity from the humiliation of unrequited lust. That it didn’t was yet another of the many indignities of old age.”

Surprisingly, the indignities of old age are few and far between in this story of three women, all of whom are north of 70. Not since Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils has there been a novel that addresses aging so well. Where Amis was largely concerned with the collision between infirmity and desire, his old men chasing women like twenty-year-olds while gingerly biting into toast to avoid rotted teeth, Christensen are more feminine concerns. Companionship, or lack thereof, motherhood and its consolations, and plenty of domestic issues take precedence in The Great Man. That’s not to say there’s no lust – there’s plenty of it. Requited and unrequited love takes up much of the book. Sure there’s talk of exhaustion and failing erections, and yes, one of the characters discusses her will, but the reader is left with the sense that these women are vibrantly alive, still entangled in the messiness of love and sex, of family, of living.

For all the comparisons between Amis and Christensen (Is it a coincidence that the Christensen chose a poem from Amis’ good friend Philip Larkin as her epigraph?), there is a key difference between her work and Amis’. Kingsley Amis published The Old Devils in 1986, when he was 64 years old and just nine years from the grave (not that he could’ve known it). He was writing from experience. Christensen published The Great Man in 2007 at the age of 45. For Christensen to so thoroughly craft the twilight of these women’s lives is a remarkable feat of imagination. To project forward is a hundredfold harder than looking back, and Christensen masters it with this novel.

Among the pleasures of Christensen’s writing are the dining and cooking scenes. Many authors, most in fact, treat eating as something the characters occasionally must do, no different than crossing the street, or as a prop to fill the scene with action, or a topic of conversation, maybe. But nobody uses food quite as well as Christensen. The Epicure’s Lament was laden with detailed descriptions of meals prepared, including a fine recipe for Shrimp Newberg. For the narrator, Hugo Whittier, food is a benchmark of culture, like a play or a novel, and its proper execution a matter of pride and honor. The Great Man is no different. Many of the scenes revolve around a meal. When Henry first visits Teddy, she seduces him with a subtle, surprisingly tasty stew:
“The food, which looked bland and unprepossessing, was subtle and amazing. The couscous tasted nutty and buttery. The rich chicken stew was laced with hints of saffron, cinnamon, cayenne, lemon zest, and something else, unfamiliar and exotic, but these things announced themselves very faintly, so he had to concentrate to taste them through the perfectly cooked meat and grain.”
Each meal reveals something about its maker. Teddy’s dish, made from a chicken for which she bartered and vegetables from her backyard garden, displays not only her skills as a seductress, but also her independence, her resourcefulness. It’s a different story when Maxine attends a dinner party at her longtime dealer, Michael Rubinstein’s house:
“The soup bowls were whisked away and plates of summery salad replaced them: a Japanese woodcut sea of curly pale green frisee lettuce on which floated almond slice rafts, each holding a tiny, near-translucent poached baby shrimp as pink and naked as a newborn. Crisp blanched haricots verts darted through the sea like needle-nosed fish. Cerise-rimmed radish slices bobbed here and there like sea foam. The dressing was a briny green lime juice and olive oil emulsion. Maxine stared at the thing, trying to imagine the person who had so painstakingly made it. It would be demolished in three bites. She would have been perfectly happy with a wedge of iceberg lettuce with a glop of bottled Russian dressing, like you got in the olden days.
Food had become so fussy and contrived.”
Christensen’s obsession with food can, at times, overwhelm (I stopped noticing how often a scene revolved around a meal about halfway through the book), but it adds a verisimilitude that eludes lesser authors. Christensen’s characters eat, they sleep and work. They live.

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