"Failure is Subversive"
An Interview with Kate Christensen
Christensen is best known for her 2007 novel The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. But I was most interested in her two novels narrated by failed, hard-drinking male poets, The Epicure’s Lament (2004) and The Astral (2011). They’re insular, philosophical, antic, minimally plotted, and written in paragraphs that mimic the circularity of thought.
Christensen’s maternal grandfather was a German actor who fled to the United States after he was conscripted at the outbreak of World War II; by a trick of fate, he managed to elude the Nazis and bring his wife and two small children to the U.S. Decades later, after Christensen’s father abandoned the family, her mother progressed from graduate school to one job to another, moving often, to support her three daughters as a therapist. Now, Christensen’s living room in Portland, Maine looks like a semi-itinerant, bookish child’s dream of a settled life. There are walls of books, bottles of Fernet Branca, bitters and Campari glimmering evilly in a copper-lined wood Victrola case, soft old rugs and a square-shouldered, orange couch with Chanel-suit piping, on which Flannery O’Connor once sat.
— Benjamin Nugent
You often write about male losers. Why?
I am really interested in—I think of it as genre but maybe it’s only a genre in my own head—Loser Lit, the kind of novel whose protagonist is a vaguely loser-ish person far too intelligent and educated for his circumstances, usually a man. He has a voice so strong that it drives the narrative more than whatever plot he finds himself in.
Lucky Jim was the first of those books I read and is my lifelong favorite. Jernigan by David Gates was another one. And Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth: there’s a fizzy excitement to Gulley Jimson’s voice, how idiosyncratic and cranky and passionate and articulate and in love with itself it is.
When a book affects me like that, as an inspiration and a goad, I want to write a book in homage. Writing The Astral was in part a way of saying thank you to Joyce Cary across the decades, of reaching that other finger.
What goes into finding and writing a voice that can carry a book with minimal help from plot?
The qualities in the kind of novel I’ve always found most interesting and memorable are interpersonal drama, trouble, tension, mischief, and/or emotional duress. For me, the key word is “interpersonal.” An overly contrived or clever or gimmicky plot can detract from what I find most important in a story: how are the people getting along? How do they feel about one another? What sorts of mistakes are they making, and what are the consequences?
Loss creates desire, which creates narrative energy and forward momentum. The kind of plot I gravitate toward is generally set in motion by unfulfilled desire, whether it’s desire for money, love, fame, freedom, justice, escape, children, work, identity, etc. All my novels begin with an unexpected upheaval. Their protagonists are forced to reckon with the consequences of their own choices, yearnings, and mistakes, so they’re in a state of unusually heightened awareness. People who’ve been shocked awake tend to be more prone to frank reflection and change than complacent, settled characters who have no reason to want anything to be different. What interests me are people who’ve been challenged and who can rise to it somehow without compromising themselves, who remain true to themselves even as they take stock and scramble to adjust.
For me, black comedy (as opposed to light or romantic comedy) courts the truths that are revealed under this type of psychic duress. And so, despite appearances to the contrary, I find it a deeply moral genre: it concerns itself with the friction between the way things are and a character’s inability to deal with this or change it. Authenticity is the fundamental aim of the black comic novelist—an inability to stomach hypocrisy or bromides or the banality of evil. The only way to combat them is to point them out, to invoke a particular kind of laughter that can be cathartic and communal in spite of the darkness.
You learned about literature from your mother?
When I was a kid, I used to stand in front of my mother’s bookshelves staring at the titles of her thick, intimidating-looking paperbacks. I can still see them all: Fear of Flying, Humboldt’s Gift, Goodbye, Columbus, The Magic Mountain, Call it Sleep, The Horse’s Mouth, The Golden Notebook, Henderson the Rain King, Catch-22 and the big literary blockbusters of the 1970s.
I ignored them. I wasn’t a precociously intellectual reader, I was visceral and prurient and primarily concerned with sex. So I helped myself to Our Bodies, Our Selves and all the books that seemed vaguely racy, The Happy Hooker and Coffee, Tea or Me? and Portnoy’s Complaint. And I read Fear of Flying, of course, several times. These adult books supplemented all the age-appropriate reading I was doing, the Little House books, Little Women, biographies of people like Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony, C.S. Lewis, Harriet the Spy, Jane Eyre, and so forth.
But the really literary books—Henry Roth, Doris Lessing, Saul Bellow, Thomas Mann—always struck me as formidably adult in a way that put me off. I imagined they were impenetrably dense and filled with inscrutably boring grownup goings-on like taxpaying and business meetings and politics. When I finally read The Horse’s Mouth, I found that it’s not formidably adult. It’s the opposite. So that was my gateway drug to “real” grownup literature.
What do you mean by the opposite of formidably adult?
Playful, antic, funny, surprising, light-hearted, childish, subversive, fun.
You’re a third-generation bohemian.
Very much so. My grandmother was a Waldorf teacher and a follower of Rudolf Steiner. So she had a decided bent towards the fantastic or the supernatural and fairy tales. But I resisted with all my might the supernatural; in that, I was influenced by my extremely empirically-minded mother, and come to think of it, I’m inherently that way myself. I’m interested most in novels about experience; there’s enough magic and mystery in reality for a lifetime, for me.
My grandmother and mother and I shared a love of English Victorian novels and detective and mystery novels. My grandmother always had a big pile of library books next to her bed. When she died, I found a list on her desk of library books she was waiting for, that she hadn’t yet read.
Do you think of your books as comic?
Oftentimes comic novels are comic because they’re subversive. In Lucky Jim, he cannot tolerate the history department of this small university. His ways of dealing with his inability to tolerate this job are the entire plot. What comes out of that is the cigarette-burned sheet, having to lip-sync medieval music and the speech where he’s so drunk he starts imitating his hated boss, which ends his career. It satisfies some deeply subversive part of me that I’ve never overtly expressed and that’s why I think these novels are so exciting because they’re about people like me. It all comes down to my love of these failed artists walking around spouting ideas and thinking to themselves as well as people whose lives are sort of going off the rails. There’s a spark of tension between who they are and a conventional notion of adulthood that’s like striking a flint off the granite wall of society. It’s this kind of mischief, and it’s often comic.
Can you say more about subversion? What is being subverted in the novels you like and in the novels you’ve written?
In this success-oriented, image-obsessed, super-capitalist country, failure is subversive. To write about someone who embraces failure and not condemn him or her for doing so is to flout everything our politicians and business leaders and self-help gurus profess to hold most dear: climbing the ladder, achieving your potential, reaching your goals, making the world a better place, one nation, under God, indivisible, etc. Hugo Whittier [the narrator of The Epicure’s Lament], and Harry Quirk [the narrator of The Astral] have both opted out of all this, or rather, they’ve never engaged with it. They’re underdogs, losers, lowlife nobodies who really ought to have the courtesy to stay invisible, on the sidelines, while their busy, chipper, industrious brethren take center stage. As their chronicler, I’m probably subverting the American heroic literary tradition by giving them a loud and central voice, allowing their bad attitudes and anti-winning-the-rat-race ideas and behavior all the room they need, letting them self-indulgently delve into the ramifications of failure as if it were a legitimate lifestyle choice.
I inherited this tendency from other Loser Lit writers, or maybe I caught it from them, like a pernicious virus.
How are the people in them like you?
Hugo’s struggle is between living and dying, because he’s forty, that old forty; forty is the oldest age I’ve ever been. I’m fifty-two now, and I get younger every year. Forty is like standing on the pinnacle of the hill, looking back down the slopes of youth you’ve just climbed and ahead at the slopes of old age you’re about to slide down. (The good news is that once you’re on your way down those slopes, you stop feeling so direly mortal, so ancient, so panic-stricken about your own damn death, which you’ve now accepted as inevitable.) I turned forty in 2002, the summer after September 11th, when New York seemed tragically wounded. I wrote The Epicure’s Lament during a yearlong existential crisis slash nervous breakdown. Hugo, c’est moi, except that he’s far enough upriver from New York City to feel the aftereffects of the terrorist attacks as a dull echoing ripple. And of course, he’s a man, which makes everything easier, as a matter of course. I buried myself in Hugo to escape my own life.
Harry Quirk is older, 57. He’s made his bed, for the most part, and he’d love to lie in it, but he’s been kicked out of it and now he’s facing the fact that he’s about to get old, he’s facing the final decades of his life. So for him the crisis is, ‘How am I going to get through the rest of it?’ He married a conventional woman who required him to play a conventional role that he was unable to play, and that, more than anything, caused the end of his marriage.
I wrote The Astral in the aftermath of my own marriage; I felt deeply akin to Harry even though I was younger and a woman. My marriage was really over, and I wasn’t trying to make it work anymore, unlike him, but still, it was heartbreaking, a total shock. I felt like one of those sad sack hapless older men who walk around Greenpoint. I started paying attention to them right before I left my husband.
I used to go to a bar up the street from my old house called Irene’s, which I called Marlene’s in the novel—that was sort of my hangout. The bartender there really was named George, and he was exactly as described in the book. That was the nexus for me: the opening scene of the book was where my life and Harry’s were conjoined. I could have been sitting down the bar from Harry. That scene could have taken place, and I could have watched it. It was my way of pinning my own life to his, and then his perspective took off with the book, and his story became completely fictional. The book’s opening passage is meant as an echoing homage to the first lines of The Horse’s Mouth; so Gulley Jimson is in the mix there with Harry and me.
I wanted to write about an essentially good or at least well-intentioned man who can’t do a thing right, ever, who fails everyone he cares about—his daughter, son, wife. It’s a novel about failure, at its core, the unachieved ego, the ambition that hasn’t been realized.
Why was it useful to find an alter ego who was different from you in the respect of being male and older?
It was a way of more directly expressing myself and not being hampered by literal autobiography or a female eye or a one-to-one relationship. I didn’t want to be suspected of being autobiographical, because if you’re not suspected in that way, you can really get into all the things in a more sort of—not a metaphorical way, but it’s almost more direct to sort of bypass actual life facts and to go straight into the heart. It was like a twelve-year odyssey of self-discovery and expression that, thank God, I think I’m finally ready to move beyond in both life and writing.
It seems like one of the things failure does in your books is create self-loathing to such a degree that love becomes impossible.
I think it did for Harry, it made it hard for him to connect with anyone. But I think with Hugo, who’s forty, and who’s smoking himself to death and ostensibly trying to die and planning his suicide, I think it’s kind of a defiant source of pride in a way. Like, well, my wife broke my heart and cheated on me and treated me like shit, my daughter isn’t even mine, and my wife left me and I can’t write anymore and I was never any good anyway—he’s such a different character from Harry, who took pride in his published work and long marriage, who raised children to adulthood and is part of a community. Hugo is so arrogant, so superior to everyone else, and it’s almost like he disavowed success the way a little kid decides he never wanted that toy anyway, the one he can’t have. He just said fuck it.
I think that’s a younger stance. I think when you’re older there’s something sadder about it. Hugo is at a point where he can either commit suicide or change fundamentally and get unstuck. That’s what he’s come up against: either I’m going to die the way I am now or I’m not going to die, though he doesn’t present the latter as an option. But I feel like all his actions in the novel are pointed, in spite of his overt intentions, towards not dying, which is shown by his propensity to get involved with other people, to cook for them and make trouble, which you don’t do if you’re about to commit suicide, get involved in other people’s lives, meddle. I feel like Hugo’s failure fuels him, gives him energy, whereas Harry’s causes stasis but ultimately affords him a degree of self-knowledge: this is who I am, this is how my life has gone.
Do you see self-loathing as an illness that has to be cured in Harry or do you view it as a useful device? How does it work for Harry?
I think it’s a species of pathos. I think that it—that he—is pathetic. I was always fearing I was like him, identifying that part of myself that feels like a failure. It was almost as if I was trying to work that out with Harry. What does it mean to walk around the neighborhood where you’ve lived all these years and realize that you’re invisible? That you’re a non-entity, a stranger? This place you’ve lived in so long has moved on without you, so much that you don’t even recognize the kids’ haircuts.
That was starting to happen to me in North Brooklyn and I was starting to feel like I had to get out of there, I was too old to live there. The neighborhood changed from 1990, when I first moved there, from a place I knew and recognized and sort of felt at home in. The neighborhood lost a certain strong identity, a historical insularity and a gritty peculiarity, and became more young, generic, hip, urban. So it was about that, about North Brooklyn, as much as it was about the inside of Harry’s head. It was so specific for me, that question: what has happened to this little world that I’ve lived in and loved for the better part of 20 years?
What movements or trends in contemporary fiction are interesting to you right now?
Having just read every single book that got a star on Kirkus in the last year, I think there is a definite trend towards multicultural exoticism. Often writers are writing about countries that are not their native land. I think that’s a definite trend, sort of getting away from Cheever, to use him as an example, or Updike, where you write about this very small familiar sort of white male privileged suburban world—let’s call it Connecticut. So I sort of think Connecticut is not in fashion right now and the further away you get from Connecticut the better. Which means all kinds of different directions, like Ethiopia or wizards or vampires or zombies or the 14th century or the 23rd century or outer space or virtual reality [laughs]. Anything that’s not writing about your dad or where you grew up and went to school.
It’s interesting to me. I feel there are a lot of reasons for this: things are bad, we want to escape reality, ethnicity is in, exoticism is all the rage, the distant past and hypothetical dystopian future are more appealing to read about than the highly problematic present. But I don’t participate in it. Emily Dickinson exploded her brain into electric, wild poetry in a tiny little room in deepest New England. It’s more interesting to me to try to do that, to write about the world I know. To me, it’s as strange and interesting as any other: reality is as bizarre as anything anyone can dream up.
But of course there are some very good books being written that take place outside of reality, outside of familiarity.
Right—outside of familiarity seems to be the tent that links Ethiopia with the apocalypse.
[laughs] Yeah, sometimes I think it’s a fear or distrust or rejection of realism.
The other thing that interests me, and I feel like this is a strain in your last two books, is the link between cults and love and family. I was wondering how you feel those things go together.
My little sister joined a cult, the Twelve Tribes.
The hallmark of a cult is mind control and a hidden agenda. So the Mormons—that’s not a cult, there’s no hidden agenda; Christian Science is not a cult because there’s no hidden agenda. But the Scientologists have a hidden agenda, so they are by definition a cult. So there’s this very distinct thing that happens in a cult that kind of reminds me of what could happen in a family. And I think there are these weird parallels. Manson called his cult a family. And I think the cult replicates the family but also substitutes for it.
When my sister joined the cult it was her way, in one sense, of flipping the bird to my mother. Because having this sort of belief system goes against everything my mother believes in. My mother was so empirically minded and so not a follower. Even as a therapist, she developed her own way of doing therapy that was kind of an amalgam of everyone else’s, without theory, and it ultimately became her own. I mean, she grew up with anthroposophists who tried to shove Rudolf Steiner down her throat; she reacts very strongly to dogma or black-and-white belief systems.
My sister had married a German man twelve years her senior who named her Flower and kept her crushed under his thumb. And there was a part of her that wanted that. It was a cult of two, on a farm in remote rural New Zealand. Then she joined the Twelve Tribes after she left him—after ten years together—and then there was this whole large community she lived with in Australia, which must have been such a relief after being stuck with just her crazy, controlling husband for a decade.
She said she never really got into the belief system, but I think she loved the sense that there was a community with hard and fast rules: they gathered for prayer at five o’clock in the morning, they prayed again at sundown. Women had to dress a certain way, everyone had to work long, hard hours. There was no room for individual rebellion or thought, and I imagine there was a part of her, because of how fragmented and untraditional my family was, that desperately needed it. Finally she created her own family, she married a man in the cult and came out of it with him and their kids, and now they’re living a settled but happy-go-lucky life in suburban New Zealand. Four wild, bright, healthy kids, happy home, they seem like the happiest family in the world now.
I think for my sister, the cult was about needing the corrective discipline, the removal of having to think for yourself and make decisions as an individual, and as your reward, getting to feel like part of something larger than yourself. I think she was craving it, and I think a lot of people feel that way.
And one of the interesting thoughts that Harry has about art in The Astral is that art allows you to do what a cult won’t allow you to do in that it will allow you to be multiple people.
And think multiple things at the same time. And that’s hard to deal with for some people who need an Answer.