- Kate Christensen
The Astral, the latest novel from The Great Man author Kate Christensen, plunges a middle-aged poet into a midlife crisis, but his slow progress out resonates far beyond the terms of his particular arrangement. Harry Quirk has been thrown out of the Brooklyn apartment he shared for more than 20 years with his wife Luz. In spite of his protestations of innocence, he’s been tried and convicted for cheating on her with a longtime friend, Marion. Luz’s “evidence” for the crime Harry now wishes he had committed: an unfinished sonnet cycle meant to revitalize his career, but now destroyed and unsalvageable. Harry desperately needs a job, a place to stay—Marion’s couch is a welcoming but unavailable harbor, given the circumstances—and a compelling argument for reconciliation. His daughter Karina is an unwilling intermediary, while his son Hector, absorbed by a messianic cult living in creepy contentment on Long Island, is too blissed-out to be concerned. Walking amid changing pockets of his neighborhood, Harry stares down the barrel of his uncomfortable new freedom, wanting only to return his life to how it was, which is impossible.
Harry’s self-reckoning is more subtle and palatable than the (many) others in his literary class, in part because, once alone, he has an inkling of what would cause his wife to suspect him of an affair. His self-awareness doesn’t keep him from making mistakes, however, and their accumulation throughout The Astral leads him back through the beginning of his relationship with Luz and guides him to see those years through her eyes. As his impotent rages subside, he engenders sympathy without creating a new, splashy personality for himself to cover the prickliness and despair of his separation.
Luz’s rejection of Harry results in a break between the poet and his work, which was inexorably bound up in the security his marriage provided. That theme is explored mostly via wistfulness, and tied to Harry’s sense of himself as middle-aged. He studies the undercurrent of faith, religious and otherwise, that tows the people around him into the choices they make, whether he’s attempting an intervention for Hector or quizzing his Hasidic coworkers at his new job. Through this medium, and the gropings toward reason that occur to Harry Quirk, Christensen lets him arrive at a sensitive elegy for his unconsciously lived life and his figurative rebirth.