Greater women in Kate Christensen’s The Great Man

Terrible title, but I picked it up because there was a paint brush on the cover. I didn’t know about Kate Christensen’s other novels or that this one had won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Instead of the light trash I imagined, I’m in the midst of the lives of some intriguing women as they sort themselves out as the great (dead) man’s biographers stir up their static lives. On knowing this, the title becomes amusing, especially because the book is about the not-so-great, great man’s many women.

The dead artist, Oscar Feldman, binds his wife Abigail, his sister Maxine, and his mistress Teddy together, and not always in ways they enjoy. These very different and complex women are complex and passionate. Oh, they happen to be old. That’s by no means a focus of the story, but I find it interesting to see old women as active characters. The fact the Oscar was a selfish womanizer who got everything he wanted makes their stories a bit more poignant.

The male biographers who come to interview these women think of Oscar as a great painter, a great man. As the women see it, Oscar was a good painter rather than a great man, and a closely guarded secret bears them out. The Great Man theory, according to Wikipedia, is a theory that aims to explain history by the impact of “Great men”, or heroes; that is, highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence and wisdom or Machiavellianism, used power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. Examples would be Stalin or Napoleon, my image left, or Oscar Feldman. Except the novel snips away at the Great Man theory with curt comment after snide remark. A purely feminist approach to this novel would be limiting, but it is satisfying to see the women come into their own in the wake of Oscar’s death. It certainly beats cats and knitting.

Christensen captures the competitiveness of the art world and its strikingly different personalities with tongue-in-cheek humor. The character Maxine provides a stringent perspective on all art (besides her own), like

the dinner party where she criticizes the artist across the table and her dealer in a sweep of faux pauxs. Oscar’s paintings get ripped apart women by women to the starry-eyed biographers dismay. A question of authenticity arises about some important paintings, and the art world buzz is so strong the book hums a bit in the reader’s hands.

Vibrant women and art transforms this book on the great man into a delightful dialogue that would be a home Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Chicago, who created the art installtion of a triangular table with 39 places for iconic women, stated that its purpose was to “end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.” Appropriately enough, The Great Man is the story of women writing themselves into history.

I’m 2/3rds of the way through, which is the perfect time to review a book: I can’t give away the ending, but I know quite well what I think. The characters are delightful, and the plot well-constructed. I got more swept up in it than I expected, despite having reservations about the writing itself. Obviously it’s well-written enough to convey characters that are sweeping me along, yet the language itself is predictable and non-distinct. Don’t let my nit-picks or this sketchy plot outline dissuade you though; Christensen is onto something quite delightful.

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