In Kate Christensen’s The Great Man, Oscar Feldman, egotistical painter of female nudes, has died (as even egotists do), and the biographers are circling for the scoop on his life. Interviews with those who knew him best-his wife, Abigail, his mistress, Teddy, and his sister, Maxine-should comprehensively illuminate the artist’s life and work.
Oscar’s tale, however, is gradually revealed to be but background for the real drama-the stories of the three women in his life. And what stories they are. Abigail, the docile wife with an autistic son, has reconciled herself to the existence of the bohemian Teddy-and Teddy’s two daughters by Oscar. Maxine is herself a painter, and there’s more than just the inevitable sibling rivalry between Oscar and her, for in their history lies a slippery little secret. While Oscar would seem to be the focal point of their lives, the women in fact transcend him, and in doing so, throw Oscar’s claim to greatness into serious doubt.
The Great Man is written in the three women’s voices, and the device, besides briskly moving the plot along, successfully skews our perspective (and our sympathies) with every change of narrator. These are beautifully realized characterizations-much more so than Oscar, who never really comes to life (pardon the pun) in this tale. But there is so much to enjoy about this clever, breezy, knowing novel that the latter seems moot.
The seeming effortlessness of the read is misleading however; this is fine, fine writing. Christensen can carve an image in your mind with a few deft words–a dog who resembles “a mournful miniature hippo,” or a toddler who looks like “an evil little elf,” with “potential for explosiveness in the manic corners of his mouth.” There are lovingly detailed, impossible-to- resist descriptions of food, which left me aglow with lunch ideas for the next few years.
But the prose truly takes off when Christensen is describing a setting. A dinner party, a kitchen with a meal in preparation, a trip to the grocery store are all described with such articulate panache that we are sucked right into the scene, eavesdropping on a neighbor’s revelations about an old flame even as we stir our soup bowls to identify that elusive spice. Somebody buy Christensen a ticket to see the Taj Mahal.
The artist in Anna Shapiro’s Living on Air is Milt Pugh, a painter who insists on black walls in his house so as to best show his work. Bearing the brunt of Milt’s perversities is his fourteen-year-old daughter, the preternaturally sensitive Maude. When Maude gets a scholarship to the Bay Farm prep school, she believes she’s finally escaped her parents’ confines-an impression strengthened by her new friendship with the privileged Weesie Herrick. But the escape proves illusory, for family ties are more difficult to sunder than Maude ever imagined.
I’m an unabashed admirer of Anna Shapiro’s work, especially her book reviews for The Guardian. I turned to her critiques several times while reviewing this book, for Living on Air is a tricky one. The novel handles a difficult subject-adolescence-with great sensitivity. There’s a cast of eccentric, interesting personalities; even the secondary characters are, without exception, intriguing. The prose is often beautiful; some sentences are diamond-hard in their brevity and brilliance. When Shapiro writes about Maude’s interior life and the way she locates herself in her community and in the world, she is scarily good-Alice Munro-ishly good, even; we thrill with recognition on seeing our secret preoccupations and predispositions set out in print. Consider:
“Addressing the implicit values so brutally made [Maude] feel she had lost whatever status she had left to lose, and she had been astonished to uncover an essential dynamic: that this was, precisely, what cool was-utter carelessness as to what others will think. Combined, of course, with social knowingness.”
But. Every reader knows the feeling of reading a book with graceful prose, fault-free plots and impeccable characterization-all of which somehow fail to cast the spell required to make us forget the passing of time and the ache behind our eyes while reading, making us question whether it’s the book or one’s own readerly sensibility which is lacking. Living on Air is that book for me. The novel is set in the sixties, and is primarily an ode to the period; I suspect it didn’t transport me because I’m not quite as in the thrall of that age as Shapiro needs her audience to be. The decade’s minutiae are parsed and scrutinized to the tiniest degree. Here, for example, is a description of a shoe:
“…Maude’s T-straps with the pleasing detail of a triangle that seemed to have been cut off the pointy toe and outlined as a cutout on the instep like a modernist eyelet…”
If this sort of thing fascinates rather than exhausts you, then drag Living on Air to your Shopping Cart now. As for me: I found myself searching for Maude in a plot that felt all but submerged under such over-wound writing. The driving force that animates a good novel for me–the need to know what happens next–was so diluted that ultimately, I found myself dipping into this book almost as though it were a series of short stories. But there’s so much that’s beautiful about this novel that I can’t not recommend it, and if I loved this book less than I ought–perhaps it’s not you, Shapiro, but me.
(These reviews appear in the current issue of Eclectica Magazine.)