A witty, acute new novel takes aim at the art world.
If writers were still considered dangerous, Kate Christensen would likely be in jail. Her writing is clear-eyed, muscular, bitingly funny, and supremely caustic about the niceties of social relations, contemporary American culture, and sexual politics. Her newest novel, The Great Man
(Doubleday), is perfectly titled, since its main job is to prove the phrase an oxymoron. The story centers on two competing biographers searching for life scraps about a typical 1950s New York painter, Oscar Feldman, a hard-living, famously womanizing, now deceased artist with many secrets. The falsehoods of reputation-making that emerge are laid relentlessly before Christensen’s knife for serious trimming. Among Oscar’s many women are his lover Teddy and his sister, Maxine—two of the most complex, intelligent, and appealing female figures in recent fiction, wonderfully cantankerous and refreshingly judgmental. Like all informed devotees of art, their every judgment is an aesthetic one. Christensen is most countercultural in her frequent commentaries—filtered through Teddy’s and Maxine’s consciousnesses—on the comical feminization of American men and the culture’s allergies to the darker truths of sexual life. The emergence of certain facts about Oscar that his devoted women would rather see kept under wraps is the nominal plot of this marvelous story, but its true concerns are the laughable foolishness of our pretences and our mistaken ideas about what constitutes true greatness.