THE ASTRAL: A Novel
by Kate Christensen
(Doubleday, 320 pp., $25.95)
As The Astral opens, middle-aged poet Harry Quirk has just been tossed out of it—The Astral, which is the eponymous apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn that has been his family’s home for decades. Harry’s wife, Luz, who is certain that his new poems reveal that he has been having an affair with his female best friend, destroys her husband’s drafts and banishes him with unflinching resolve. Whereas your traditional tale might feature a man exiled from Eden, seeking to find true love again, Harry’s exile forces him to seek a life and identity for himself with meanings all their own, even without the stability and nourishment of the nuclear family he both built and lost himself in.
Harry is a fundamentally gentle Midwesterner, a fittingly sensitive, non-Bukowskian poet. In spite of his disdain of trendy youth culture and the overpriced coffee selling around Greenpoint—a traditionally Polish neighborhood that has steadily grown younger, trendier, and pricier—Harry himself walks a fine cultural line. Though he feels like a different species from the “beautiful, intent kids with artsy haircuts” taking over his neighborhood, we observe him to be a bike-riding, dive-bar-patronizing, poetry-quoting Brooklyner. Only age and earnestness separate him from the youths who seem poised to displace him, though Harry feels the gap deeply.
While Christensen’s publisher would have you believe that he’s “a loser... living small and low in the water” (from the back of the bound galley), being a semi-broke artist and resenting everyone with whom you must share your Brooklyn neighborhood are the hallmarks of a certain kind of achievement in lifestyle and authenticity in New York, isn’t it so? And because Harry is so self-reflective and gifted with words, his character likely earns the high esteem of any reader who has joined more Quiz Bowls than varsity teams. How many lovers of literature can say they’re not guilty of the same snobbery as Harry, and as his best friend, who accuses Luz of being “not at all... imaginative or interesting”? Perhaps the newer generations of readers are effectively flipping the hero / anti-hero premise on its head. To them, Harry’s probably just an Everyman, struggling to settle his heart.
Harry’s heartache acquires an odd poetry, as his feelings and the ambience of Greenpoint reflect each other back and forth. The reader feels his suffering from the first page, a “recoiling tension with an ache like a bruise.” Both Greenpoint and Harry are painted beautiful-in-their-toxicity: Greenpoint with its chemical sunsets and oil-slicks, Harry with his impoverished poet’s diet and unemployability. But Christensen’s descriptions are so colorful, so without causing pain, that Harry’s despair is not contagious to the reader. We also come to see that Greenpoint is Harry, and for much of the book we cannot tell where Greenpoint ends and Harry begins. Christensen uses the neighborhood that was once Harry’s Eden like a mood ring, which has the strange effect of both anesthetizing Harry’s pain and embodying it, making it both omnipresent yet less real.
Since Greenpoint keeps Harry trapped and spinning, unable to emotionally or physically move on, it is lovingly mapped down to the last McDonald’s, and Harry’s every movement around Greenpoint is like a maneuver across a chessboard. When his daughter offers him her spare room in her apartment four miles away, so he won’t have to stay on the suspect friend’s couch, he demurs: “I don’t want to move all the way to Crown Heights. That’s not my neighborhood. I don’t know anyone there, and it’s too far from Marlene’s (his dive bar), but thanks for the offer.” Christensen measures and counts his entrances and exits to and from bars, his friend’s homes, the Astral, and, with the addition of bus routes, Starbucks, and throws in the “outdoor clock at the Smolenski Funeral Home...permanently stopped at 6:30, both hands pointing straight down to hell.” There is an echo here of Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, with its focus on the urban scene, mobility (in Harry’s case, walking, then biking, and the very occasional car or subway ride), and the machinery and objects of the vibrant present time.
Harry’s narrative, though confident and comfortable, book- and street-smart, is upstaged on occasion by the author’s trademark punchy prose. She hits a lot of moments right on the head, from the secret pleasure of one’s first office job, to writing gorgeous natural-meets-industrial landscapes that reflect our protagonist’s mood. The absolute most grabbing, alive moments in this novel come in the book’s middle section. Two pages of vivid, dense description of Harry’s struggle to sit up in bed put satisfying precision to the way we all feel when the bug really gets us:
“My entire body hurt, or rather, its surfaces
Harry’s confrontation with Helen, the therapist he views as an unethical scourge after she agreed to see all three of his friends who were engaged in a marital infidelity, is a hilarious satire mocking the too-smart-for-its-own-good middle class, suspenseful and delicious enough to be worthy of a Judd Apatow script. Harry’s rupture of the boundaries of propriety and his vicious dressing-down of her are a vicarious thrill. These eleven pages of lost control begin with the usual what-brings-you-to-my-couch conversation, which Harry answers, “What brings me here today, is the need to take your turkey neck between my two hands and twist it till you fall limp as a rag doll.” Harry then apologizes for his cliché imagery, and much of what follows really isn’t efficiently quotable here.
With the illusion of his stable, “cliche” family life fallen, Harry sees that a great many things around him have been changing—mostly decaying—for years. Time, it seems, is kind neither to people nor to neighborhoods, and dissolution plagues them both: his creative spirit, family unit, group of friends, and neighborhood are all in decline. Greenpoint was once full of his “easy flock of trusted pals, a de facto family of neighbors, fellow artists”, but, in the present day, they are “splintered into isolated factions” and his family is reduced to “four separate people flung asunder to (their) various, unrelated fates”. Gentrification, New-York-then-versus-now, and the mysterious, unsettling forces of change are a background theme throughout the novel, but Harry is so personally entangled in his own displacement, rupture, and disintegration, that the story remains specific and avoids falling into cliché territory itself.
Rather than tackle gentrification and “hipsters” straight on, by taking the point of view of, say, an artsy barista or the plight of a priced-out family as her starting point, Kate Christensen gets us in through a side angle: the average Joe, or the potential former-hipster. In the end, Harry does escape from Greenpoint to Crown Heights, where his daughter has refurbished by hand an old home bought out of foreclosure. He remains hopeful about love, and we see that, both with individuals and with neighborhoods, all life is just a continuation of cycles, and that love is the most powerful force when it comes to defining our lives. Harry recalls Blake’s saying that “without contraries there is no progression” and thinks, “without contraries there was no poetry,” but his life is all contraries and no poetry. Harry’s conflicts, combined with Christensen’s accessible poetic writing, make The Astral a great book to read this summer along any waterfront, whether you’re happy—or, instead, over a bitter cup of overpriced coffee if you’re in need of commiseration with a fellow soul in struggle.
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