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Astral (Christensen)

The Astral
Kate Christensen, 2011
Knopf Doubleday
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385530910


Summary
The Astral is a huge rose-colored old pile of an apart­ment building in the gentrifying neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. For decades it was the happy home (or so he thought) of the poet Harry Quirk and his wife, Luz, a nurse, and of their two children: Karina, now a fer­vent freegan, and Hector, now in the clutches of a cultish Christian community.

But Luz has found (and destroyed) some poems of Harry’s that ignite her long-simmering sus­picions of infidelity, and he’s been summarily kicked out. He now has to reckon with the consequence of his literary, marital, financial, and parental failures (and perhaps oth­ers) and find his way forward—and back into Luz’s good graces.

Harry Quirk is, in short, a loser, living small and low in the water. But touched by Kate Christensen’s novelistic grace and acute perception, his floundering attempts to reach higher ground and forge a new life for himself become funny, bittersweet, and terrifically moving. She knows what secrets lurk in the hearts of men—and she turns them into literary art of the highest order. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio

Birth—August 22, 1962
Where—N/A
Education—B.A., Reed College; Iowa
   Writers' Workshop.
Awards—PEN/Faulkner Award
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York


Kate Christensen is an American novelist. She won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for her fourth novel, The Great Man, about a painter and the three women in his life. Her other novels are In the Drink (1999), Jeremy Thrane (2001), The Epicure's Lament (2004), Trouble (2009), and The Astral (2011).

She is a graduate of Reed College, Class of 1986, and the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her essays, articles, reviews, and stories have appeared in many anthologies and periodicals, most recently The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Elle, Wall Street Journal, Tin House, The Wilson Quarterly, The B&N Review, and Fivechapters.com. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
Engaging…wonderfully drawn.  It’s worth noting that Christensen has somehow — again — created a captivatingly believable male narrator, although she can’t see 60 on the horizon, has not been married to a tempestuous Mexican woman for 30 years or published largely ignored poetry in academic journals. (Her previous novel, The Great Man, won the PEN/Faulkner Award.) And yet here she is doing what talented novelists do: creating a voice so rich with the peculiar timbre of lived experience that you feel as though she’s introduced you to a witty, deeply frustrated (and frustrating) new friend.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Not once during The Astral did this reader ever feel like the narrative strayed from the vivid, first-person voice of Harry. Another pleasure of this novel is that Christensen manages to shape this itinerant narrative with unexpected tensions and tenderness. By the conclusion, Harry alters his ways, moving outside the familiar grooves of his old life and begins to chart new territory of employment and relationships. Taken altogether, this entertaining novel reads like an ode to Brooklyn and broken marriages, endings and beginnings, and the spaces in between.
S. Kirk Walsh - Boston Globe


[The] characters’ ruminations on how the forces of love and deception work in tandem within a relationship are both searing and concise... [Chistensen] is a forceful writer whose talent is all over the page. Her prose is visceral and poetic, like being bludgeoned with an exquisitely painted sledgehammer. She is a portrait artist, drawing in miniature, capturing the light within.
Janelle Brown - San Francisco Chronicle


Ah, urban beauty: Christensen gets what’s funny about it, and also what’s disappointing. [Christensen’s] a mischievous writer with a keen eye and ear for comedy, one who sets up precarious scenarios and then lets her characters hash things out.
New York Observer


(Starred review.) Like the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn of its setting, Christensen's unremittingly wonderful latest (after Trouble) is populated by an odd but captivating mix of characters. At the center is Harry Quirk, a middle-aged poet whose comfortable life is upended one winter day when his wife, Luz, convinced he's having an affair, destroys his notebooks, throws his laptop from the window, and kicks him out. Things, Harry has to admit, are not going well: their idealistic Dumpster-diving daughter, Karina, is lonely and lovelorn, and their son, Hector, is in the grip of a messianic cult. Taking in a much-changed Greenpoint, Brooklyn, while working at a lumberyard and hoping to recover his poetic spark, Harry must come to terms with the demands of starting anew at 57. Astute and unsentimental, at once romantic and wholly rational, Harry is an everyman adrift in a changing world, and as he surveys his failings, Christensen takes a singular, genuine story and blows it up into a smart inquiry into the nature of love and the commitments we make, the promises we do and do not honor, and the people we become as we negotiate the treacherous parameters of marriage and friendship and parenthood.
Publishers Weekly


The Astral, a big, rose-hued apartment building in Brooklyn, NY, has long been home to poet Harry Quirk and his family. But Harry's wife, Luz, has discovered poems that seem to confirm her suspicions of infidelity, and she's tossed him out. Harry, sensing that he's failed as a poet, husband, and father (son Hector is trapped in a crazy Christian cult), decides to straighten out. This latest from Christensen arrives with some promise, as her recent The Great Man won a PEN Faulkner Award. This could be a real charmer; watch.
Library Journal


Christensen perfectly embodies the voice of a male poet in crisis, Harry Quirk ... [she] is a master at nailing Harry’s antagonizing voice, and her protagonist does not disappoint. Readers will be sucked into extremely realistic familial dramas.... With acute perception and witty humor, this bittersweet novel moves along at a tremendous pace, entertaining until its climactic final scene. —Megan Fishman
Bookpage


Christensen (Trouble, 2009, etc.) knows her way around aging characters. Having won the PEN/Faulkner Award for her lively septuagenarians in The Great Man (2007), she now creates a charmingly ribald bohemian poet flailing about in late middle age. A masterpiece of comedy and angst.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Harry Quirk’s obsession with his imploding marriage forms a central arc in The Astral.  Do you trust his narrative of the marriage and its dissolution?  How does your opinion of him evolve as you read the novel?

2. Luz is convinced that Harry is sleeping with Marion. Although her accusations of sexual intimacy are unfounded, Harry and Marion are very close friends. Do you think that it is possible to commit emotional infidelity, and if so, is Harry guilty of it? How would you define an “emotional affair”? 

3. In Chapter Fourteen, Harry visits his wife’s therapist, Helen.  What do you make of Harry’s animosity towards her? Why do you think the author included this confrontation? 

4. Harry’s work-in-progress, “an epic poem of loss and displacement,” is titled The Astral.  How does this echo the symbolic role of The Astral apartment building in the novel?

5. During the course of the novel, Harry and Karina pay several visits to Hector at the Sag Harbor compound. How do these experiences compare, and what do they contribute to our understanding of Hector and his situation? Do you think Hector is a true believer of the Children of Hashem cult, or is he an opportunist like his older consort Christa?

6. The Astral portrays a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, rapidly changing Brooklyn of artists, artisans, immigrants, and long-settled locals.  Discuss the tensions inherent in such a quilt of social types. How does the author portray the interactions between immigration and gentrification?

7. Kate Christensen once wrote an influential essay titled “Loser Lit” in praise of such books as Lucky Jim, A Confederacy of Dunces, Jernigan and Wonder Boys, whose books center on self-defeating characters whose often comic misadventures as they slide to the bottom have garnered these novels fervent cult followings. To what extent do you think Harry Quirk qualifies as a Loser Lit antihero?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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