Monday, September 22, 2008

The Great Man by Kate Christensen

The novel I’m going to review today should really have been called Four Women or perhaps Six Women, and it should be obvious enough to any attentive reader within the first few pages that the actual title is meant to be ironic. The novel is Kate Christensen’s The Great Man. The alleged great man is an artist, a painter of female nudes, who has recently died and is now about to be immortalized by two male biographers, both of whom (in the end) think much more highly of him than the women in his life do, but then, of course, the men didn’t know the ‘great man,’ the women did.

Although there are many amusing insights in this book about the art world and about how arbitrary and fleeting fame in that world can be, it is really a book about aging women and cultural stereotypes of aging that so woefully miss the mark. Oscar Feldman is the painter whose life and work is so passionately loved by the two biographers, Henry and Ralph—the former a middle-aged, probably unhappily married man with a young child, the latter a younger, still closeted gay black man who hopes his biography will propel him into graduate school and eventually a professorship in art history. The rough sketches Christensen provides the reader of these two characters are often humorous and perceptive, but they remain simply sketches, shadow-characters compared to the wife, mistress, and sister. The fourth main character, Lila, is the lifelong friend of the mistress, Teddy.

The reader is introduced first to Teddy who, within the first dozen pages begins to set the record straight about the great man. She is being interviewed by Henry, who she can see has a starry-eyed view of Oscar.

‘You’re a romantic,’ she said. ‘Aren’t you? You love artists; you think they’re better than the rest of humanity. Like modern day saints……Oscar was the furthest thing from a genius I ever knew. He was a very good painter with a shtick and a way with women. He knew how to stir up a scene, how to create a buzz before anyone every heard of buzz. But you should go back to his paintings and really look at them. Really look. What you see through all those moths’ wings is a slapdash crudeness in his brush strokes, a boyish swagger in his adulterous success.’
This is not a bitter assessment through the eyes of an abused mistress; it is, she insists, simply the truth. She loved Oscar, still does, and misses him terribly. But she misses who he was, not the great artist others see him as.

Much more important than the interview is Christensen’s wonderfully perceptive and sympathetic portrait of the seductive sexuality of Teddy. Christensen is so well aware that at least in this culture, only young women are seen as sexual. Once the bloom of youth has faded, women are supposed to quietly take their place—as wives, mothers, grandmothers, support-people. But through the conversations between Teddy and her lifelong friend Lila, widowed for the second time, the reader is invited to see that these women, both in their sixties, are simply the sexual beings they have always been, and while they, too, are often surprised by what Simone de Beauvoir calls ‘the stranger in the mirror,’ their inner lives are a continuum, and their desires very much as they have always been.

Maxine, the sister of Oscar and also a painter of some repute, is in her seventies, ten years older than Teddy and Lila. And while Maxine, a lesbian, realizes that the younger women in her life suppose she is now sexless, admired only for her art, her sharp, cynical tongue, and her contempt for most men, she understands that whatever external changes have occurred, her inner self is very much what it has always been. She is careful not to offend her younger friends by coming onto them, more-or-less satisfied simply to admire and desire from afar, but she knows just how distorted their views of sex and aging are.

This novel is meant to be comedic but always with a sharp eye to the truth—about age, about the way ‘great’ men are coddled and forgiven, about the importance of friends who, unlike children and families, continue to see their lifelong friends for the ‘children’ they really are quite apart from the roles society places on them. Again I am reminded of Simone de Beauvoir remarking that adults are nothing but children puffed up with age.

I have not yet mentioned that Oscar managed to maintain two separate families, both of which are subsumed to his art, his life and lusts. With his wife, Abigail, he has an autistic son whom he barely knows and makes little effort to understand, and with his lifelong mistress, Teddy, he has twin daughters who long for his attention and resent his absences. It is the two daughters, Ruby and Samantha, who make up the remainder of the cast in this story about six women. Samantha wants to do right what she is sure her mother (and Oscar) did wrong, and so she devotes herself to her husband and child. Ruby, on the other hand, reacting to the same upbringing, chooses to have neither children nor a steady man. Both daughters are quite certain that they have learned from their parents both how not to live and how to get it right.

Christensen does a fair job of speaking through the mouths of all six women, each contributing to the view of Oscar, to the final canvas that emerges of the great man. It is the sister’s voice, Maxine’s, that emerges as the strongest and most convincing. The reader discovers ultimately that Maxine is a better painter than her brother, and has, indeed, painted one of the nudes attributed to him. But the wife, Abigail, and Lila (Teddy’s friend) are the most sympathetically drawn characters; the relationship that begins between the two is one of the most touching parts of the book. To this reader’s ear, all of the female voices sound too much the same; I was always aware of the author manipulating her characters from off stage. It is for this reason, among others, that I would not call this a great (or even a very good) book. I also sensed a vein of some sort of sexism in this novel, not because of its humorous (and all too often very accurate) view of men, but because of the ways in which the lesbian women are portrayed and because of the language Christensen uses. On the jacket cover, her writing is called clear-eyed and muscular, and I suppose it is that, but some of its muscle would seem simply like rather crude sexism coming from the mouth of a man. Does the fact that she is a woman writer forgive this? Perhaps, but I’m left feeling uneasy, in much the same way that I am by black writers who insist that they can use racist terms that white writers would be justifiably condemned for using.

At any rate, I think this book is perceptive enough and humorous enough to deserve a reading.

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