Harry Quirk, failed poet and middle-aged father to a lesbian, dumpster-diving freegan and a weak-willed son currently in the clutches of a pseudo-religious cult, has been thrown out of his home by his wife Luz, who suspects him of having a long-term affair with his best friend Marion. There is nothing Harry can do to convince his hotheaded, stubborn spouse that the love sonnets she’s discovered are addressed to an imaginary woman; he is innocent, but Luz has destroyed the book and refuses to hear him out. And so, although he has no skills to speak of and has mooched off his wife’s earnings for decades, Harry has no choice but to find a job and a place to live—no small matter for a man who’s used to someone else wearing the pants.
Kate Christensen’s The Astral, which takes its name from the down-at-the-heels apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that Harry and Luz have lived in for much of their 30-year marriage, is told from Harry’s point of view—not the first time this smart and wickedly funny writer has adopted a male perspective to shed light on the convoluted ways in which love thrives and fails. Christensen is the author of five previous novels including The Great Man, winner of the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award; The Astral is her third book to employ a strategy that, as she describes in her essay “Take it Like a Man,” “allowed me to write in a way I couldn’t have otherwise—a female narrator would have been too close to my own voice to tell certain autobiographical truths I needed to expose.” And expose she does. But as always in Christensen’s writing, like it or not, the gritty human truths she reveals apply to us all.
Harry Quirk—endearing, by turns humble and arrogant, defeated and hopeful, exasperating, intelligent, and perpetually hungry—is terrified of being on his own. As he gradually becomes aware of the scope of his passivity, even his poetry begins to seem docile to him, its rigid adherence to form indicative of a larger need to be controlled: “All my life I’d willingly set my poetics into predetermined molds, shaped language according to external dictates. I had surrendered up much of my volition, harnessed my imagination in service to strict poetic rules. Perhaps I needed someone else’s external, imposed will, because internally, I had none.” Spinelessness, it seems, is the tragic flaw both in his art and his marriage; for decades, he has leaned on Luz and her single-minded, jealous love to retreat into the domain of the mind.
But Luz wants nothing more to do with him, and so Harry, instead of peregrinating the multitudinous permutations of a form invented long ago by a braver, more visionary soul, now wanders around his Brooklyn haunts, succumbing to waves of nostalgia, regret, and loneliness. Harry’s reminiscences of past times are not only of happier days in his marriage, but also of the pre-gentrification, pre-hipster days when Williamsburg and Greenpoint were strange and distant places adventurous youths moved to who could no longer afford the Manhattan rents. Well past middle age, having dedicated his life to a rarified aesthetic pursuit that has brought him neither fame nor fortune, Harry is every artist’s greatest fear—of becoming a wash-up, a has-been in the ongoing narrative of a culture in a perpetual state of change and redefinition. Even his parenting skills are questionable; in a key scene, when he and his daughter pay a visit to their son Hector in a reconnaissance mission, Harry gives himself over to his own imaginings at the very moment he needs to remain most alert:
Karina stared at me as if she was waiting for me to say something. I raised my eyebrows and smiled at her and the table at large with pleasant acceptance. I had just been thinking about the shower I’d taken earlier that day in Marion’s cozy claw-foot tub, which had a circular shower curtain and lots of different soaps and shampoos, all of which I enjoyed sampling. […] Now, sitting here, warm and drowsy and sated with nourishing food, listening to the stilted claptrap these clean-scrubbed dressed-alike kids were reciting as if from memory, I wanted to give them all big hugs, get the hell out of here, and escape to a big festive party where everyone was drunk and behaving outrageously and inappropriately.
Christensen is formidable when it comes to psychological observation. What truly sets her writing apart, however, are the disturbing, touching, confounding discrepancies she articulates between inner experience and external behavior, the compassion she brings to bear in her analysis of the fraught, misguided ways in which people interact. The thing about Harry is that he’s as tangled up in contradictions as the rest of us poor mortals, caught in a complex web of interdependence that he feels he might understand better if he “squinted and looked at it a certain way.” But The Astral wouldn’t be as brilliant as it is if it didn’t sparkle with intelligently wrought irony—and so while Harry is as reliant on external support as a clinging vine, he turns out to be deeply critical of his wife’s Catholicism and the ethical core she thinks it provides her, which, he feels, she lacks within herself to better understand her failings and transgressions: “I’d always felt superior to my wife because of her need for confession and prayer. She was weak because of that. I was always determined to muddle through on my own, fucking up and apologizing and learning from my mistakes and moving on. That was what grown-ups did; that was the responsible way to go about things.”
As Harry ponders the allure people succumb to when they lean into the dubious comfort of anything that dictates to them what they should and shouldn’t do, he grows increasingly disturbed by the obvious parallel between Luz’s religious beliefs and the cult their son has joined and has no intentions of leaving any time soon. In a fascinating study of the human need to relinquish control and subjugate oneself to a higher, more powerful force, Christensen juxtaposes the coercion and deception of cult practices with a far more familiar way in which people acquiesce to a larger, seemingly protective structure: psychotherapy. When Luz begins seeing a dubious therapist who simultaneously treats the husbands and wives, wives and mistresses, friends and friends of friends within their closest circle, Harry recognizes the danger of Luz’s susceptibility and sees his last hopes of saving their marriage evaporate. But as he manages to muster up enough rage to face the unethical “maverick” quack, he is also gathering strength to face a new chapter in his life, one in which he will ultimately have to learn to let go.
In one of the greatest showdowns with a shrink in recent literary history, Harry delivers a brilliant soliloquy as he stands up to the manipulative therapist. Their battle is brilliant and funny and uncannily Machiavellian, and I would quote it in its entirety if that were possible, but as it’s not, you will simply have to read the book. Harry’s prescient, knife-like insight into Helen’s machinations cannot prevent the fact that his sense of self is eroding; they are each right and wrong, by turns, and the therapist has a Zen-like, masterful command of deflecting each of Harry’s blows to her unscrupulous advantage. We are privy to mind control even as we see it in blatant action, watch it wield its cool and awful power.
As several themes converge in the book—the loss of the autonomous, self-critical self in psychotherapy; the loss of the erotic self in marriage; the loss of the rational, skeptical self in religion and in religious cults—Christensen exposes our complicity in these processes. We willingly throw our freedom away because it frightens us—and because the past, as stifling and stunting and crippling as it may be, always seems more familiar and comforting than an unknown future that requires us to face our worst fear, which is always change. And so, while The Astral is essentially a book about failure—the nobility of failure in the creative enterprise, the sadness of a failed marriage, the painful way in which words fail to convince the people we need the most—it is also, ultimately, a celebration of the joys, challenges, and responsibilities of unexpected freedom.