The Great Man
by Kate Christensen
Published by Doubleday
320 pages, 2007
We Are What We Say
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
When we read a novel, what we’re really doing is entrusting our precious time to a storyteller. Sometimes, that storyteller is a narrator; sometimes, it’s the novelist him- or herself. Often enough, the storyteller isn’t as trustworthy as we would like. So be it. That’s what we sign up for, isn’t it? In the case of The Great Man, the wonderful new novel by Kate Christensen, the whole tale is based upon the idea of the trustworthy narrator. By design, this is a book about a man, Oscar Feldman, who cannot speak for himself because he’s dead. His work, perhaps, speaks for him, but far more eloquent are those who knew him, specifically the three women closest to him: his wife Abigail, his lover Teddy, and his sister Maxine, each of a certain age and locked into the lives they have created for themselves.
As much as this novel serves to illuminate Oscar, using the often conflicting snippets of his life as recounted by the three women, this is also a novel about the women themselves. We are what we eat, as they say, but isn’t it possible that we are also what we say? In this book, that is certainly true. So much so, in fact, that while it purports to be about Oscar, it isn’t really about him at all. By having at its center a man who lived his life with almost no regard for how his actions affected those around him -- Ayn Rand, I think, would have loved the guy -- The Great Man is less about the great man himself than it is about those who knew him.
The action here begins when two biographers set about writing about Oscar and his work as a contemporary artist. They start sniffing around, approaching Abigail, Teddy and Maxine for eyewitness-type interviews. At first, the women love the attention, finding it remarkable that two such different men would be interested in committing Oscar’s life to paper. But then they begin to see that the stories they know and tell about Oscar will quickly conflict with one another. Soon enough, this leads to what amounts to historic meetings and unexpected alliances that both surprise and delight each of them.
This, in turn, transforms The Great Man yet again, from a novel about one man becoming a novel about three women, to, finally, a novel about the power of story -- and storytelling -- itself. Each woman’s life becomes a version of Oscar’s own, and so a version, too, of his biography. In a way, by gathering their stories, Christensen has created the ultimate biography of Oscar, a Rashomon version of his life. It reminded me of the sort of employee performance reviews that are gained by interviewing those one works with every day; it is their feelings, their assessments, that matter most. Same here: The essential bit isn’t so much what Oscar did during his marriage to Abigail, but how what he did shifted the course of her own life and the life of their child. Not that he had a lifelong affair with Teddy, but how and why that affair shaped Teddy’s own life choices. Not that he was a gifted and appreciated painter, but how that appreciation both eclipsed and empowered Maxine’s own career, also as a painter.
Christensen’s writing is luminous and enviably informed. I found things to love on every page. Using the telling detail, the thought, the gesture, she builds characters -- but even more impressive, she builds character. Reading about these people, you like them. You feel warmed by them, entertained by them. You can see yourself sitting down for dinner with them and delighted to say not one word for hours, listening to their every reminiscence.
By the end of this novel, I found myself completely smitten with these women and more than a little sorry to say goodbye to them. Each is an unforgettable creation -- any one of them would make a fascinating book on her own -- and while a case could be made that each in her power diminishes the others, it can also be said that each in her own personal truth expands and illuminates the others.
The Great Man is sly: Its dust-jacket will say that it is about Oscar Feldman, who was great in one way and not so great in every other. The truth is, though, this extraordinary book is about the three far greater women in his life. | August 2007
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.