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The Great Man

by Kate Christensen (2007; Anchor, 2008)

The satisfactions of Kate Christensen's fourth novel, The Great Man, lie in the relationship between observation and reconciliation. A keen observer herself, the novelist charts the reassessment of relationships that follows the death of a famous painter when, five years later, he attracts the interest of not one but two biographers, Henry Burke, who is white and straight, and Ralph Washington, who is black and gay. These men become catalysts when they seek out the women in their subject's life. The women, until now quite settled in their ideas about the artist as well as in their mutual dislikes, are obliged by simple acts of memory to reconsider. At the end, their own relationships completely realigned, they commit the memory of the great man to the tomb of his biographies and are free of him at last.

In a somewhat arch but wholly successful gesture, The Great Man begins and ends with clippings from the New York Times. Both are obituaries. The first is officially so, composed in echt Times style. The second is effectively an obituary as well: it pretends to be a review of the two new biographies. Comparison of the two is an object lesson in the difference, at least at the nation's newspaper of record, between a man and his work. The formal obituary, like anyone's, springs from Oscar Feldman's fame, but it places him carefully in the bosom of his official family, notably his widow, Abigail, and his sister, Maxine. It does not mention his long-time mistress, Claire "Teddy" St Cloud. Nor does it touch on his rivalry, largely suppressed, with his sister. These details are flourished in the book review at the end. What it would have been bad form to mention in connection with a deceased individual is wholly permissible in terms of an artist's career. The obituary, moreover, being a news item, refers to the late Oscar as Mr Feldman for the last time. In the book review, he is of course simply "Feldman."

Between these notices, the novel appropriately enough takes place entirely in New York City, in the more-or-less artistic quarters of Williamsburgh, SoHo, and the Upper West Side. The characters group themselves with the simplicity of a Greek play: the dead man, ever offstage; the two male biographers, and the six or seven women (depending upon whether you count an art historian at Columbia) who keep his memory. Of these, the three principals wife, mistress, and sister undergo extensive alterations as their feelings about the late artist are exposed to the light for the first time, certainly since Oscar Feldman's death and very possibly ever. The process of reconsideration is never mentioned or covertly discussed by the novelist; it is simply what happens in the course of the story.

Not long before the end of the novel, Abigail has Samantha, one of Oscar's twin daughter's by Teddy, children whom Abigail and Maxine never acknowledged, to lunch. That Abigail has come that far is of course an indication of great changes, but her conversation with Samantha pushes her along even further.

Abigail set the table with plates, silverware, napkins. The little boy, Buster, or Peter, whatever his name was, had nestled against his mother on the bench and fallen asleep, his lips parted. Asleep, he looked angelic. Abigail, with unconscious yearning, remembered the recent warm heft of him in her lap, the whiff of yeasty crackers on his breath, his hot, clammy hand slighting brfiefly on her clavicle.

"I have thought, through the years, in my more charitable moments, about how hard it must have been for your mother," Abigail said. "I know Oscar never supported you. I am sorry for that. He and I never discussed you girls directly, so I never took steps to ensure you were properly cared for financially by him. That was my own pettiness. Of course it was because I resented you, but that was childish of me."

"How amazing of you to say that," said Samantha.

"And I know you hardly ever saw your father," Abigail went on.

"Right," said Samantha. "And when we did, he and my mother demanded each other's full attention."

"Yes," said Abigail. She drizzled the vinaigrette over the salad and looked at it for a moment. She had forgotten all about the cantaloupe soup. Impressing this girl no longer mattered to her, and anyway, Samantha wouldn't have cared if she had served a pile of shredded Kleenex; food was obviously not among her passions.

In the course of this brief encounter, Samantha shifts, in Abigail's eyes, from enemy child first into husband's daughter, and then into a young woman to whom she happens to be connected, even if it no longer matters how. The transition is perhaps uncharacteristically smooth. Ms Christensen's characters are complicated people who don't always know their own minds and who therefore wind up inexplicably dissatisfied.

Ms Christensen's handling of what might have been a pointed plot device establishes her predominating interest in characters and the sheer miscellaneousness of their lives, at the possible expense of what Aristotle called peripety. In a desultory way, we're told that Maxine and Oscar made a bet at one time. Maxine wants to keep this bet a secret from the general public, but Ms Christensen doesn't seem to share her concern as regards the reader. Without fanfare of any kind, she has Maxine spill the beans about the bet to Abigail at the exact midpoint the novel. This is undoubtedly what must have inspired the jacket blurb copy-writer to write, "a devastating skeleton threatens to come to light." Well, that's what sells books. But the only aspect of the "skeleton" that anybody in the novel regards as "devastating" is the idea of keeping it a secret. It's no surprise, then, that the secret altogether ceases to be one not long after the two-thirds mark.

The Great Man is by far the quietest of Ms Christensen's books. The only character who has much in common with the protagonists of the earlier works is dead. A compulsive but joyous womanizer, a rebel strong enough to preserve his reputation as an artist from the scorn invited by his resolution to paint figuratively throughout the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Oscar's luck approaches that of a guileless fool; he is conspicuously spared the tribulations of Jeremy Thrane (Jeremy Thrane) and Hugh Whittier (The Epicure's Lament), and his comfortable marriage to the wealthy Abigail saves him from the exiguities that make the life of Claudia Steiner (In the Drink) such an ekesome ordeal. In many ways, the dead Oscar is an apotheosis of Ms Christensen's preoccupations: conveniently deceased, he clears the way for her to move on.

It would be misleading to say that Oscar comes vividly to light in the course of the novel; rather, the women's vivid feelings for Oscar are exposed, through discussion with the biographers and with one another, to the light of day, which said feelings can't really withstand. Although each woman is determined, in her own way, to shield her flame for Oscar from the biographers' view, each fails to do so, only to find liberation in openness. If one were pressed for a more apt title for this novel, it could be The End of Oscar. (July 2008)

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