The Astral by Danielle Drees

Danielle Drees on Kate Christensen’s fifth novel The Astral, an examination of marriage and middle-age from a Brooklyn poet’s perspective.

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19

Kate Christensen’s The Astral does for Brooklyn what Joyce did for Dublin: it maps the city’s neighborhoods through vivid anecdotes of residents’ lives, from a crumbling marriage in a crumbling apartment building in Greenpoint to a “freegan” DIY-er in Crown Heights, and it makes the city into a person itself, an animate, often antagonistic force. “I stood behind the chain-link fence the city had slapped up to keep the likes of me from jumping in,” says narrator Harry Quirk, a middle-aged poet mid-marital crisis, whose attempts to recover are stymied both by old-school Brooklyn, a city so small-town he can’t stop running into his wife on the street, and by newly gentrified Brooklyn, where a therapist with a personal agenda pushes her upper-middle-class patients toward divorce.

The novel’s title cleverly encompasses Christensen’s treatment of the city: it is both a literal setting—Harry’s once-grandiose apartment building—and a figurative presence, the title of the epic poem Harry writes in an attempt to transform his failed marriage into “the story of Adam banished by Eve, sent from the marital Edenic nest to live alone in the cold wilderness.”

Unlike Harry’s poem, Christensen succeeds by telling her story of an unraveling marriage on an everyday, not epic, scale. While The Astral’s characters begin as familiar Brooklyn figures—a writer who migrated from the East Village with the rest of New York’s art scene, or a dumpster diver like those profiled in The New York Times last summer—Christensen’s novel ultimately has no archetypes and no heroes. Every character involved in pulling apart Harry and his wife Luz’s marriage is partially in the wrong. Harry truly didn’t sleep with his best friend, Marion, as Luz accuses, but he did cheat on his wife twelve years earlier; Marion, likewise, didn’t encourage Harry’s infidelity, but is vocally unsupportive of his marriage.

Filtered through Harry’s slightly unreliable narration, the ethical dilemmas of love and loyalty are not black and white actions of devotion and betrayal but instead fall in wide swaths of gray. Quirks like Marion’s refusal to own “countertop appliances” such as a toaster root each character’s particular morality in a three-dimensional presence.

As much as it’s about marriage, The Astral is also a novel about writing, and it’s suffused with musings on both topics, which add a self-reflective aspect to Harry that complements his tendency to react to circumstances, rather than taking charge of his life. Harry’s thoughts on poetry—“Adhering to the most beautiful poetic forms is as human as getting drunk on plonk on a park bench and pissing yourself”—along with snippets of his verses, are a treat for the reader, as is his equally idiosyncratic commentary on his marriage: “I wanted my memories all in one place until the end.” Harry’s narration is peppered with literary references, preserving the reader’s interest in moments when Harry acts like a petulant, arrogant failed artist that anyone would be glad to kick out of her apartment.

Although the blend of Christensen’s vivid depictions of the city and Harry’s metaphorical renderings of his life occasionally turns confusing or clichéd—Harry compares long-term marriage to filling a role in a play, hardly an original insight into the human tendency to fall into patterned behavior—the voice of The Astral is fluid and ingenious, and at least vies for honesty. The Astral is an engaging and insightful exploration of how a poet who believes in formal order and metaphoric comparison copes with a marital collapse that lands him in the world of the messy and the literal.

The Astral is available now from Doubleday.

Like Harry Quirk, Danielle Drees is from Iowa and currently lives in Brooklyn. She studies English at Harvard University.

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