Muskie 201. In the dimly lit, auratic atmosphere of the high ceilinged second floor of Muskie Archives, Kate Christensen gave several powerful readings of her works. In a compelling and progressive introduction, Jess Anthony brought to light Christensen’s many achievements. A steady and unrelenting presence in the room, Christensen read her works with humility and answered questions honestly without effacing her significant achievements.
Born August 22, 1962, Christensen attended Reed College and later, the Iowa Writers Workshop. Writing from an early age, she said that she knew she was going to be a writer from the age of six. Christensen moved to New York at the age of 27 and began her career as a writer. Her first novel, In the Drink was published and, since then, Christensen has published five others including The Great Man, which won the coveted Pen Faulkner Award in 2008. He articles and essays have appeared in periodicals such as The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and the Oprah Magazine.
Christensen opened with a gracious acquiescence of the profound introductions and a contest for the audience. She planned to read from four of her most successful works, having the audience guess the unifying theme between all four. The audience could raise their hands between readings and each member had an unlimited number of guesses. She began with In the Drink, which she dubbed a “loser lit” novel, where the protagonist has an absolutely miserable situation. The passage she read was dubiously marked by squalor and decay and showed the wasting nature of not only the building in which the protagonist lived, but also the wasting nature of the protagonist herself. She playfully asked at the end of the reading if anybody knew the unifying theme yet.
The second excerpt, from Jeremy Thrane, produced a different aura, more of sexuality and the other, much more alive side of New York – the city that most of her novels are set and centered around. Again, she asked if anyone had a guess; no one answered. The third novel, The Epicure’s Lament, tells of a man smoking himself to death as he navigates his relationship with his ex-wife and his estranged daughter with whom he feels an eerie closeness. As she finished this third reading Christensen looked up expectantly and scanned the room for guesses. A wary hand wavered into the air and she found it with her sharp bespectacled eyes. “Coffee?” He got it. She handed him the coffee mug prize and continued with her fourth and final reading. In The Great Man, she depicts a perverted old man (not dissimilar from Bukowski) who, in fantasizing about a young, Polish woman, sparks an altercation with a man much bigger than himself.
Christensen ended these readings without dissecting of the vast amount of information in which she had drenched the audience. She continued onto Q & A where she fielded questions with intelligence and elegance. She discussed the pros and cons of New York City and spoke about the necessity of both energy and vitality in her writing but also about the necessity of having a special space to write in. When asked about her novels, most of which are written in the 1st person, through from both male and female perspectives, she answered simply, saying “they’re all sort of… me.” Her most acclaimed work, The Great Man, is written in the third person and Christensen discussed the scale on which she is able to write when she enters the minds of multiple characters at once. Although the first person is very natural for her, the third person format gives her an objective perspective that allows her a different kind of freedom in her writing.
Christensen answered one of the final questions in a very important way. She was asked about the way in which she writes from the perspective of a man, something she has done in three of her novels. In a very enlightening answer she talked about the freedom she found writing from a male perspective. She said that there were things she was able to say from the perspective of her male characters that she would be unable to otherwise. She moved on speedily but the implications of such an explanation are haunting.
What does it say that a confident secure female author who has had paramount success must use a male character to explore ideas she feels uncomfortable discussing as a woman? In an interesting and informative lecture, highlighted by her great art, this was the most powerful and substantive thread.