The Pitfalls and Pleasures of the Current Realist Novel
by Daniel Handler (The New York Times)
Lately the realist novel’s been getting realistic. Originally developed in response to a highfalutin form gone stale, realism has a long and glorious tradition of extraordinary yarns about ordinary people. But the name “realism” was never quite right. Authors as disparate as Mark Twain, Émile Zola and Edith Wharton are called “realists,” which would be fitting if you spent your adolescence drifting down the Mississippi, worked out your love problems by drowning your rival and attempted suicide by sled.
In later years, however, realism has been tailored to more closely fit its title, and it now largely relates the tales of ordinary people not in extraordinary circumstances but in ordinary ones. Modernism basically started this off, with a man bumming around Dublin or a woman buying flowers for a party serving as a framework for far-flung experiments of language and consciousness. There have been wonderful, wonderful books of modern realism — I’d like to pause here to light a candle for the much missed Laurie Colwin — but it’s tricky to pull off. Kate Christensen’s new novel, “The Astral,” is an object lesson on the current realist novel, with its pitfalls and pleasures both as clear as the book’s unsentimental vision.
“The Astral” is about Harry Quirk, a poet whose wife suspects him, incorrectly, of having an affair. She throws him out of their apartment and destroys his work in progress, sending Quirk into the streets of Brooklyn. He walks the neighborhoods. He drinks at bars. And he checks in with friends and family, who all have problems of their own. His best friend (and supposed lover) is a widow learning to move on. His daughter has become a freegan, meaning she Dumpster-dives for food and furniture, and his son has joined a Christian cult. Quirk gets a job, and then another one; he gets an apartment, and then another one; and he misses, first fiercely and then less so, his seething wife.
This is the plot, such as it is, but plot’s not really the point here. “The Astral” is structured as a journey — a poet’s trip through an interior and exterior landscape — and Christensen manages each step with quiet deliberation: