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reed magazine logoSpring 2008
Of Art & Old Ladies

The Great Man, Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, has won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Kate Christensen ’86

Kate Christensen ’86 had to kill Oscar Feldman before she could start writing about him. She had no choice.

“He was successful. He got what he wanted in life,” she says of the larger-than-life, womanizing artist who inspired the title of her novel, The Great Man. “Characters who don’t suffer have no interest to me.” So Oscar was dead before page one.

Christensen is ladling out a bright-green pea soup in the kitchen of her century-old row-house while she talks about Oscar and his fondness for painting (and bedding) nude models. As she talks, I realize why the scene is so familiar. This is how her novel starts, in an old, peeling home in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. An interviewer not so unlike me (“this twerp in rumpled khakis”) is asking Oscar’s mistress, 74-year-old Teddy St. Cloud, about the dead painter’s legacy. Teddy quickly turns the tables on the young biographer, flirting with him, undermining his confidence, all the while seasoning an exquisite chicken tagine. It’s clear she could seduce him if she wanted to.

Christensen laughs when I tell her that, like my fictional counterpart, I’m a little intimidated.

“Now we’re even,” she grins.

It’s not that Christensen doesn’t appreciate the attention. But until recently, she wrote her darkly comic novels in near anonymity. Then the phone rang. She was puttering around the art-filled house she shares with her husband, Jon, and their dog, Dingo, when the caller said that she had won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Christensen was in shock. No one had told her she was even up for the prize.
“I always thought of it as this big award for literary lions,” she says. “I didn’t even know they gave it to women.”

She was almost right. The list of winners over the past 28 years includes legends like Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, John Updike, and Don DeLillo. But only four other women have won it (writer Annie Dillard was among this year’s finalists). Christensen says she doesn’t mean to launch a feminist critique of the prize, it’s just that: “Women write more character-driven fiction and it’s not taken as seriously as the show-offy, stylistic tour-de-force books that men seem to write more of.”

In fact, the fickleness of fame is a theme that’s central to The Great Man. Oscar—the philandering bad-boy painter—gets famous for his portraits of female nudes, while no one seems to raise an eyebrow that he keeps two separate families: the official one on the Upper West Side (with his legal wife and their autistic son), and the unofficial one in Brooklyn (with his mistress and their twin daughters). After Oscar’s death, two competing biographers try to unravel his story, providing a window on a remarkable trio of aging women: Abigail, Oscar’s long-suffering wife; Teddy, the Bohemian mistress; and Maxine, Oscar’s chain-smoking lesbian sister—a talented abstract painter who labored in the shadow of her more charismatic brother.

Christensen finds it frustrating that older women usually end up shoved to the sidelines of novels—as twittering old biddies or wise, sexless crones. “I don’t know many books where the older women get to be the protagonists and have sex and swear and strut around the stage,” she says. Oscar’s women do all that and more.

One of the PEN/Faulkner judges, Victor LaValle, wrote that the women of the novel stuck with him. “They’re defiant, infuriating and alive. And that’s what you ask of literature.”

Christensen became fascinated with characters on the fringe during her childhood. The daughter of a Marxist lawyer father who represented the Black Panthers and a cello-playing psychologist mother, she had a not-too-surprising upbringing, considering that they lived in Berkeley, California, in the ’60s. Then, Christensen’s mother uprooted the family to Arizona, ultimately landing in the old ghosttown of Jerome. And that, says Christensen, is when things got weird. All of a sudden, she felt like an outsider. It seems only logical in retrospect that she would have ended up at a place like Reed.

reed magazine logoSpring 2008