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July 21, 2011

Book Notes - Kate Christensen ("The Astral")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Kate Christensen is one of my favorite novelists. Her depictions and understanding of human relationships is unparalleled, and this is especially true in her new novel The Astral. Set in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, the book is filled with Christensen's keen and often profound insights into middle age, life, and love. Seeing the world through the eyes of her narrator, the poet Harry Quirk, makes for a memorable trip and remarkable book.

In the Miami Herald, Andrew Ervin wrote of the book:

"I can’t wait to see how Christensen’s work develops over the coming decades. She has the makings of a major American author. Her storytelling derives organically from a firm grasp of characterization and how people work, flaws and all. The Astral, artfully composed and emotionally tender, is evidence of true literary genius."

In her own words, here is Kate Christensen's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Astral:

I wrote The Astral in the immediate aftermath of a long marriage, having just left New York after living there for twenty years. During the year I spent writing the novel, my life was zooming simultaneously ahead toward the future and back to the past – like dual time travel. I was grieving for my ex-husband and the city I'd loved for so long as I headed forward to new places with new people. It was an odd time. The Astral knit it all together for me; Harry's voice allowed me to make sense of it all.

Nostalgia is a powerful drug. Under its influence, ordinary songs take on dimensions and powers, like emotional superheroes. The following is a list of songs that will forever and irrevocably remind me of particular times, experiences -- people I've loved (truly, madly, deeply) and, inevitably, lost.

"1952 Vincent Black Lightning" – Richard Thompson

One night in Brooklyn Heights in 1989, just arrived in New York, I found myself weeping with drunken piteousness, the kind of sobbing caused by youth, too much whiskey, and an empty heart pierced by intolerable unfulfilled longing. I lay face-down on a bed, alone in a room in a mostly-empty brownstone, while the object of my heartache sat out in the living room, talking to a cool, sultry, sympathetic lesbian pal he was secretly in love with. Looking back, I wish I'd know then what I know now: I should have been talking to her instead of pining for him. I should have made her my friend for life and told him to fuck off. But back then, I thought heartache meant love. I thought crying over a man was important, a worthy activity.

"If There is Something" – Roxy Music

1990, late at night, I was watching an old Roxy Music video with my then-boyfriend and his ex-girlfriend, who lived with us. I had to get up for work in a few hours; we were sitting on the bed I needed to sleep in, a fold-out futon couch. I was a receptionist at a private school who lived in a dump upstairs from a dry cleaners in a spectacularly demented menage that had all our friends puzzled on our behalf. Bryan Ferry was a rock star in glam pants who fucked Jerry Hall. The distance between him and me could have been measured in light-years. I was pierced to the core with the hopelessness of my own situation. I craved the total abandoned decadent joy of this song.

"A Love Supreme" – John Coltrane

Things got better in 1994. I fell in love with someone new and wonderful, left my bad boyfriend, got my own apartment in Greenpoint, and got a high-paying job as a secretary at a swaps and derivatives company on the 49th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower. I sat all day at my desk, working on my first novel, In the Drink, between my duties, looking out over New York Harbor, high up in the air. One day after work, my new and wonderful boyfriend called me and told me he had put a chicken in the oven, and did I want to come over. When I showed up, "A Love Supreme" was playing and his floor was freshly mopped and he'd opened a bottle of red wine. Reader, I married him.

"In the Pines" – Nirvana

In the fall of 1996, we had the official part of our wedding at my mother's house in Woodstock on her back deck, under a chuppah my new husband had made, then we all drove down to Brooklyn for a party the next night in an old bank on Grand Street in Williamsburg -- Mexican food, wild klezmer band, an ocean of booze, and a roomful of people we loved. Before the party, my sister and I drove around buying candles and other last–minute things, listening to Nirvana Unplugged on the car's CD player. This song came on as we were stopped at a red light, waiting to turn on Manhattan Avenue, on our way to the Associated. We sat there with the windows down singing along at the tops of our lungs, like we used to do when we were kids listening to top 40 hits on KUPD in Tempe, Arizona in the backseat of our Dodge station wagon: "My GIRL, my GIRL, don't LIE to me, tell me WHERE did you SLEEEP last NIGHT?"

"St. Louis Blues" – Bessie Smith

For our honeymoon, my new husband and I rented a car and took a road trip through the South, to New Orleans. We drove back to Brooklyn via St. Louis, where his grandmother lived. We stopped to visit her; she had severe emphysema after a lifetime of heavy smoking. I was happy to see her. I loved her, and she loved me. The night before we drove away, the three of us stayed up into the early hours of the morning, and she talked about her life. She had traveled, she had had adventures. The next morning, she was so tired she could hardly get up to see us off, but I knew it had been worth it, to get to narrate the best parts of her life to us. As we drove away, I told my husband, "That's the last time we'll see her." I was right. We sang "St. Louis Blues" a lot throughout our marriage, in honor of Fan.

"Sugar on My Tongue" – Talking Heads

September 11th came; the towers fell. I had a breakdown. People my husband loved, old friends and family members, were sick and dying – suicide, cancer, diabetes, ALS. Our marriage ran aground; we retreated to separate wells of misery and lost each other. To pull myself out of my black depression, I braced myself with discipline; I wrote The Epicure's Lament and trained for and ran the 2002 NYC marathon. During all this, I wallowed in a terrible crush on a man who was not my husband – it may have been another way of cheering myself up, since my husband and I were going through so much sorrow together then, there was no respite from grief with him. During this time, this bouncy, chipper song was a source of yearning comfort to me. Things would get better, everything would be okay.

"Hallelujah" – Jeff Buckley

Things didn't get better. Nothing was okay. As my marriage disintegrated, as my solid, comforting husband and I shut each other out and buried ourselves in work and alcohol and threw an affectionate gloss over the big hole in our marriage, I became unhinged, unmoored, ungrounded. I did things that had terrible consequences, things that changed the course of my life. This song will always remind me of the darkest time in my life to date, the fall of 2006, when I lay awake all night with a pounding heart in a basement apartment behind a restaurant in Hunters Point, Queens, just across the Pulaski Bridge from home. I couldn't sleep or eat because of mania and panic and real, true heartbreak. I spent three months in this place, in this state, revising The Great Man every morning, crossing the Pulaski to walk my dog every afternoon, and then I took a deep breath and moved back in with my husband and did everything I could to find a way to stay there.

"New York, New York" – Cat Power

Two years later, during the summer of 2008, it became increasingly clear to both of us that the marriage was over. It was not anyone's fault that it was over, it almost never is anyone's fault at the end of a marriage. However, I was the asshole, the catalyst, the one who acted badly, the one who left. During the months before I moved out, I listened to "Jukebox" over and over, feeling like a teenager, gripped by an almost adolescent anxiety to leave home, a bursting hunger to get out into the world. We both knew what was happening. Neither of us tried to stop me.

"Tell Me Why" – Neil Young

Starting over in midlife is an interesting thing. The past doesn't go away or even recede behind you; it stays with you. I didn't know that when I was young. The past is buried alive in your skin like mites. "Old enough to repaint, but young enough to sell," and I feel like I'm doing both, repainting and selling, digesting my life even as it goes onward.

Kate Christensen and The Astral links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book (chapter 1)

A.V. Club review
The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog review
BOMBLOG review
Bookforum review
Bookmarks Magazine review
BookPage review review
Boston Globe review
The Daily Beast review
Denver Post review
Kirkus Reviews review
Miami Herald review
New York Journal of Books review
New York Press review
Palm Beach Post review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Three Guys One Book review
Time Out New York review
Washington Post review

Author on the Bookcase guest post by the author
The Awl interview with the author
The Cult interview with the author
Fictionaut interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Great Man
Greenpoint Gazette interview with the author
Metro interview with the author
The Millions interview with the author
Newark Star-Ledger interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists