The Great Man

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The Millions Interview: Kate Christensen

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In my household, Kate Christensen–the author of such sharp and fun novels as The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man–is known as my husband’s second wife.  I don’t mind; how can I fault my man’s impeccable taste?  Christensen’s books are readable, the prose simultaneously unobtrusive and stylish, and her characters are deliciously flawed, rendered with humor and compassion.  She’s a genius at depicting both losers and food in fiction (seriously, about the latter: I’ve cooked whole meals based on passages she’s written).   After finishing her latest–and, in my opinion, her best–novel, The Astral (which is out today), I’ve decided that I don’t want to be Christensen’s sister-wife…I want to marry her myself.

When The Astral opens, failed poet Harry Quirk has been kicked out of his home.  His wife Luz mistakenly believes he’s having an affair with his best friend Marion, and she won’t listen to his defense.  Over the course of the novel, Harry wanders around his long-time neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, trying to reckon with his floundering present.  Luz has destroyed his latest book of poems. His daughter, Karina, is a Freegan.  His son, Hector, has been in the clutches of a cult.  Harry has no money, no job, no woman to anchor his days.  The novel, by turns funny, sad and wise, is glittering with insightful and lovely descriptions, and Harry is so far my favorite fictional character of 2011: he’s complicated, stubborn, smart, foolish, vulnerable, and–man oh man–does he feel real.

The Millions: One of my favorite aspects of your novel is Harry Quirk’s first-person narration. Perhaps because he’s a poet, he gets away with crystalline imagery and clever turns of phrase, while still maintaining a conversational, natural voice. I was especially taken with his lists of adjectives, such as this memory of his estranged wife, Luz: “In bed, naked with me, she was kittenish, sinuous, carnal, darling, ravenous, generous, selfish, laughing, violent, intimate, cooing, and soft.” God, that’s fun to type out, and read aloud! Can you speak a little about what went into developing Harry’s voice?

Kate Christensen: Generally, my first-person-narrator characters start talking to me, haunting my skull with their voices, which are not my own, like barflies hanging around yakking about themselves until closing time. And the only way to exorcise them is to start typing what they’re saying and keep going till they shut up. After 300 pages, give or take, they generally seem satisfied and go away, never to return. It keeps happening – there seems to be no cure. And it’s a pleasure to let someone else take over for a while. I get tired of the sound of my own thoughts. Harry took me around the neighborhood where I’d lived for the greater part of 20 years, most of my adult life, the neighborhood I had just left behind forever. His poetic take on the world allowed me to say a kind of lyrical, lingering goodbye to all the places I knew so well and the shed skins of past selves.

TM: One can’t separate this novel from its setting: contemporary Brooklyn, and, more specifically, Greenpoint, where Harry has spent most of his adult life. The novel is peppered with many terrific descriptions of place; take this one, for instance: “I went through the intersection at Greenpoint Avenue, the dingy McDonald’s, defeated Starbucks, opposing Arab newsstands, and onto the old Associated Supermarket with its sexy Polish girls pouting at nothing as they rang up your groceries.” (And, by the way, as a lass of Polish descent, I thank you for all this talk of sexy.) How does Brooklyn, and Greenpoint in particular, shape Harry’s character? I recently read that you now live in New England. Was it easier for you to write New York once you left it?

KC: In a word, yes. In fact, I was writing about a lot of things I’d recently left behind… among them Brooklyn, a long marriage, and an ancient, ongoing, panicky sense of failure. I wrote this novel about a middle-aged failed poet hieing himself around north Brooklyn, hungry and lonely and filled with regret, yearning, and nostalgia, when I was in the throes of new love, living in Tuscany and Rome and the White Mountains, with a contract for my sixth novel, feeling incredibly lucky, fulfilled, and safe. Harry manifested something internal, something at the core of all this good fortune – no matter what the reason or outcome, having a long, very loving marriage end is shockingly painful. It’s like a death in life. Harry could express a lot of the things I was feeling even as my life pressed on. He and I needed to dwell together in that raw state of disbelieving grief. Harry stayed in Greenpoint for me, faced it all, grappled and wrestled and tried to solve the insoluble mystery of the death of love.

TM: The jacket copy of the galley says that you know “what secrets lurk in the hearts of men.” Pray tell, what are these secrets, and how do you know them? You’ve written a number of wonderful male characters over the years (Hugo Whittier from The Epicure’s Lament is perhaps the most beloved and memorable antihero in contemporary fiction). Do you approach creating male characters any differently than you do female characters?

KC: If I do know some of men’s innermost secrets, it’s only because I share them. Men can be curmudgeons, horndogs, misanthropes, selfish, rebellious, crafty, mischievous, and so forth and still be loved – boys will be boys, their foibles and faults can be charming and funny — but girls are another story entirely. So I couch all my most antisocial, unacceptable, non-feminine tendencies in male voices. But my own Id is flying from the topmast.

TM:  The women in the novel—Luz, Harry’s daughter Karina, Harry’s friend Marion (with whom Luz accuses him of having an affair), and even Christa, Harry’s son Hector’s cult leader —are powerful, competent, opinionated, and self-sufficient. The men, by contrast, strike me as quite lost. Was this intentional? Can you speak about this difference?

KC: It’s not a general statement about men and women by any means. One of the themes I’m exploring in The Astral is the ways in which certain women control, or try to control, other people – their husbands first and foremost, and their children, and in one case, their clients, and in another, their followers. Luz, Lisa, Christa, and Helen all tend to attract men who want to be controlled, who need it on some level, either because it’s what they’re used to from their own mothers or because they lack the internal wherewithal to direct the course of their own lives. There are clusters of relationships around these four women in the novel, all of which are defined by this dynamic.

It was interesting for me to explore this dynamic fictionally because I relate to it so little and always find myself empathizing with the men who fall into such women’s grasps. I’ve had my share of encounters with controlling women. There’s a mechanism at work in them that is deeply foreign to me and which I sought to expose. So yes, on this level, it was completely intentional.

Karina and Marion, on the other hand, are Harry’s gatekeepers, loyal and protective and generous. They seek connection and truth rather than control and power, and therefore serve as the counterpoints to the other female characters in the novel.

TM: Much of the novel is obsessed with the past, and Harry’s longing for a lost time: when his marriage seemed to work, when his kids were young, and his group of friends was intact, before Brooklyn was fully gentrified. Even Harry’s preferences as a poet, for old-fashioned formal structures, speaks of his nostalgia for something that has faded. When you set out to write the book, did you know that this would be a story of man looking backward, and seeing the past anew?

KC: From the opening sentences, Harry’s voice is steeped in the past. The germ of the novel was a man in late middle age, cast out of his home like an old Adam banished by his Eve from a comfortable, domestic Eden. The entire tenor of the book is shaped around this image of paradise lost, and Adam alone, humbled and brought low. His need to understand the past is intense and urgent; he’s a falsely-accused man hell-bent on proving his own innocence and discovering the actual perpetrator of the crime. The book was half inspired by Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth and half by the convention of detective noir in which the accused becomes the crime-solver by default, to clear his own name, and goes around interviewing anyone who can help him figure it out. Harry shambles around Greenpoint, hot on the trail of the cause of the death of love, inquiring and analyzing and picking up clues.

TM: I loved reading about Hector’s activities with the cult, which the book treats earnestly and compassionately, but not without a touch of humor as well—it’s hard not to laugh at people who rename themselves Lake and Bard. What kind of research, if any, did you do to write these sections? Just tell me: Have you ever been in a cult?

KC: No, I haven’t, but my little sister was in a group called the Twelve Tribes for many, many years. About ten years ago, my mother and then-husband and I planned an intervention; the group discovered that we were planning it and blocked it from happening. For several years, we read every book on the subject and met with ex-members and cult exit counselors and also with Steve Hassan, an ex-Moonie and cult expert whose Combatting Cult Mind Control is the most interesting, enlightening, helpful book I’ve ever read about how cults work and why people join them.

I think it’s very easy to satirize cults without any experience of them or education about them, to portray cult members as wacked-out zombies and the cults themselves as one-dimensional jokes. I know too much, have experienced too much, to do anything but treat the entire subject with the earnestness and compassion it deserves – and humor as well, which was one way of coping with the pain and sadness of losing my sister for so many years. (As an aside, she came out of the group with her husband and four children the same week I finished writing The Astral.)

TM:  Because this is The Millions, I have to ask: What was the last great book you read?

KC: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser.

A Year in Reading: Julie Klam

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Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates: Reading a Sarah Vowell book is like getting the coolest, smartest and funniest person in the world to take you on a tour of the kind of places you’d go to if you weren’t held down by a nagging wife, whiny kids, and demanding cats*. Sarah Vowell is like that commercial “where history comes alive.” In The Wordy Shipmates, as she does in all of her other books which you should read, too, she writes about the Puritans or Early Americans or whatever you want to call them (I think of them as non-Jews) with dishy intimacy and poignancy. Ms. Vowell is monstrously entertaining and there’s the added benefit that you walk away knowing some obscure historical facts that would be a hit at the cocktail parties you’d go to if not for the wife, and kids and cats.

(*this is not me as I have a husband, only one child and dogs, not cats)

Hyatt Bass, The Embers: Who wants to read a book about a dead kid? Not me! I have depressing-book-a-phobia, especially one where a child dies. I’m glad I didn’t know that before I picked up The Embers, because I never would have found out that that isn’t what the book is about at all. It’s the story of a family – complex, dysfunctional, totally normal characters, except they’re insanely engaging. Ms. Bass is the rare kind of storyteller whose lush, elegant prose keeps pace with her riveting page-turning plot. The one thing I had a hard time believing was that this was Ms. Bass’s first book.

The Books of Kate Christensen: At an introduction at a reading, Maud Newton said, “If you haven’t read Kate’s books, well you must read them all.” I always listen to Maud so I read The Great Man first. I gobbled it up and went on to The Epicure’s Lament, In The Drink, Jeremy Thrane, and Trouble. This was where I became convinced her talent was otherworldly. Who is this writer who inhabits every character so absolutely? Never for a minute do I doubt that each book is being told by an aging man, a twenty-something assistant, a young gay guy, or a middle-aged divorcee, respectively.

In 2009, I also loved (lerved, loaved, luffed): Fly-Over State by Emma Straub, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Dog Years by Mark Doty, The Melting Season by Jami Attenberg, Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner and Queen Takes King by Gigi Levangie Grazer.

More from A Year in Reading

A Year in Reading 2009

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The end of another year (and decade) offers many amusements and diversions, chief among them the inevitable, retrospective lists. We made our own attempt in September, with our Best of the Millennium (So Far) series, which proved to be an instructive and contentious exercise. Among the chief arguments leveled against such “best of” lists is the way they posit an illusory pinnacle of achievement and quality. By means of a grand consensus, the list smooths over natural and exciting variations in individual taste. But true discoveries are often made not by finding out what everybody liked, but by getting from one trusted fellow reader a recommendation that strikes a nerve or piques an interest.

It’s also true that the reader who reflects on a year will find a thread of reading experiences to parallel the real-life ones…and particularly sublime moments alone (even in a crowd, alone) when a book has taken the reader out of her world and into its own. This experience transcends the cold qualitative accounting that names one book better than another.

And so amid all the lists (even our own), to round out the year, we offer a new installment of our annual “Year in Reading” series – an anti-list, as it were. Acknowledging that few readers, if any, read exclusively newly published books, we’ve asked our regular contributors and distinguished guests to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these considerations, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help your year in reading in 2010 be a fruitful one.

As we have in prior years, the names of our 2009 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.

Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions
Julie Klam, author of Please Excuse My Daughter
Phillip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Diane Williams, author of It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, editor of NOON
Jonathan Lethem, author of Chronic City
David Gutowski, proprietor of Largehearted Boy
Jesse Ball, author of The Way Through Doors
Deb Olin Unferth, author of Vacation
Edan Lepucki of The Millions
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
William H. Gass, author of The Tunnel
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine
Dana Goodyear, author of Honey & Junk, New Yorker staff writer
Rosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There
Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
David Shields, author of Reality Hunger
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries
Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
Rick Moody, author of The Black Veil
Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man
Marco Roth, a founding editor of N+1
Maud Newton, proprietor of
Patrick Brown of The Millions
Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen
Scott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and of Conversational Reading
Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
Joe Meno, author of The Great Perhaps
Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night In Montreal
Jennifer Egan, author of The Invisible Circus
Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
Samantha Peale, author of The American Painter Emma Dial
Lan Samantha Chang, author of Inheritance
David L. Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
Jon Raymond, author of The Half-Life
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Ken Chen, author of Juvenilia
Mark Haskell Smith, author of Moist
Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men
John Williams, editor of The Second Pass
Carolyn Kellogg, of Jacket Copy and
Anne K. Yoder, of The Millions
Tim W. Brown, author of American Renaissance
Traver Kauffman, of Rake’s Progress
Jeff Martin, author of My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize
Ed Park, author of Personal Days
Cristina Henríquez, author of The World in Half
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions
Motoyuki Shibata, author of American Narcissus
Robert Lopez, author of Kamby Bolongo Mean River
Masatsugu Ono, author of Graves Buried in Water
Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future
Michael Fusco, of Michael Fusco Design

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 | Support The Millions

The Millions Quiz: Nightstand Reader

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So that you may get to know us better, we introduce The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments.Today’s Question: What’s on your nightstand right now?Emily: Deciding where the nightstand stops in my dorm room is something of a quandary. And sadly, in this final dissertation push, pleasure reading is a thing of the past (Swift Studies 2006, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory, The Chicago Manual of Style…). But among the piles that daily encroach on my bed are two recent purchases: Dover’s paperback editions of Goya’s print series Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War. If you haven’t seen them, take a look. I hesitate to call either a pleasure, but they are, in their ways.Edan: I’m about to read The Great Man by Kate Christensen, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year. I enjoyed her previous novel, The Epicure’s Lament, and this one, about a recently deceased painter and the women in his life, sounds like something to dive into.After that, I’m going to give Edith Wharton my attention, beginning with The Age of Innocence. I also have a galley of Joan Silber’s novel, The Size of the World, the follow-up to her terrific and pleasing story collection Ideas of Heaven (which was nominated for a National Book Award).I just snagged the latest issue of Field, the poetry journal published by the Oberlin College Press, and a copy of Darcie Dennigan’s debut poetry collection, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse. Aside from this poetry reading, I’ll be steamrolling through months of unread New Yorker and Gourmet magazine issues.Garth: I seem to be having a big books problem this summer; my nightstand is about to collapse under the weight of three of them. The first is Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which I’m about 600 pages into (out of 900). The second is Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which I’m about 300 pages into (also out of 900)… and let’s just say that, for all that she does well. Gertrude lacks the, shall we say, narrative velocity of Mr. Bolano. Finally, clocking in at over 1000 pages, I’ve got Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, which seems insane and brilliant and possibly unfinishable. I keep thinking there are only a finite number of gigantic books, and that once I get them out of the way I can move on, and then I learn about writers like McElroy. I’m also hoping to get to Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker this summer. Seriously. In order not to get hopelessly depressed about my rate of reading, I try to read really, really short things in between the long things. My current favorite amuse-bouche or palate-cleansers are Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance and Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. It occurs to me that I may be suffering from some variety of disturbance myself. Call it gigantobibliomania.Ben: I have 18 books on my nightstand at the moment, three of which I think I’m supposed to be reviewing. Most interestingly, I have two autobiographical accounts by historians who retraced the steps of Mao’s Long March. When I learned would be going to China this summer, I briefly toyed with the idea of spending a few months traveling along the route taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as they fled from the Kuomingtan. The three year journey was a harrowing race across thousands of miles of China’s most unforgiving wilderness, and it would eventually go on to become the founding myth of the CCP. Its story is replete with violence and political intrigue and following in its steps while observing how China has changed in the intervening years “would make one great book,” I thought. I was wrong. It has made two mediocre books. The Long March by Ed Jocelyn and The Long March by Sun ShuyunAndrew: It would appear that thirty or so books have taken up occupancy on or near my nightstand. This is where the triage happens. Every few weeks, books seem to show up, sometimes all at once, sometimes individually. Compulsive second-hand book-buyer that I am, I’m afraid I can’t control the in-flow.Like an ER, this may seem to be a chaotic place, but it’s functional and I give prompt attention to the book that demands to be read next. When completed, the book is transferred to the recovery area (aka the bookcases in my den), a much more orderly place. Calm. Perhaps too calm.I began M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few weeks ago, then had to abruptly stop when my life took a chaotic turn, and now that calm reigns once again, I’ve restarted it. Up next will likely be A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair, by Peter Wiedhaas, unless some literary emergency comes in off the street.Emre: My oft-cluttered, permanently dusty nightstand is home to months-old copies of Harper’s and New Yorker magazines, the occasional New York Times Magazine and four books. The books are all byproducts of articles I read in the aforementioned publications. Yet, despite the enticing reviews/mentions I find myself unable to read any of them. Top of the list is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. After reading an article about the Bronx’s revival and realizing that as an adopted New Yorker with literary vices it is a sin not to have read a single Wolfe novel, I immediately picked up a used copy. Despite my best intentions to get going with it right after finishing Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, I am still only some 20 pages into the book. But it remains my top priority. Kind of.I might have a commitment problem. The second book is Parag Khanna’s The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. A book review in the NYT, as well as an excerpt from the book which appeared in the Times Magazine, sounded oh so interesting and timely that the politics wonk in me returned from the depths, turning me into the four-eyed nerd that I actually am to begin reading about how global powers – U.S., EU, China – are attempting to wrest control of the Second World – a term formerly ascribed to the communist bloc, which now may be morphing to describe emerging-market and resource-rich countries. Despite its accessible, Thomas Friedman-ish language, however, I am stuck at the end of Chapter 1. I blame my job for it. Part of my work description is to read news all day. After reading the Wall Street Journal, NYT, the FT and assorted other publications all day long, I have little appetite left for politics and business. On the other hand, I do feel an urgency – as in, lest I read this in the next six months, it may be obsolete.Sharing the third spot and making for a potential good duo-read are my girlfriend’s birthday presents to me: Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems. The gifts were, of course, not coincidental. They were conceived in the aftermath of a New Yorker article about the dying news industry (damn you, Huffington Post, et al.!) and born of our conversations regarding, well, the dying news industry. As conceptually interesting as Lippmann and Dewey’s books are, they also fall into the realm of thought-provoking, attention-requiring books, a la The Second World, which these days is a far stretch from the TV-watching couch potato I am after work. I might have to add a new book to my nightstand. Something in the 200-300 page range that involves fiction and is a light read – as in Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!-light. Any suggestions?Max: I’ve got just one book on my nightstand: Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which Mrs. Millions recently finished and which is waiting to be put back on the Reading Queue shelf. I’ve also got a teetering stack of magazines – issues of The New Yorker, The Week, and The Economist – that keep from reading my books. The book that I’m currently reading, meanwhile, is more often in the same room as me (or in my laptop bag if I’m on the go). This does make for occasional overnight stops on the nightstand.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What’s on your nightstand right now?

Surprise Me!