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The Oregonian
Thursday, July 2nd, 2009
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by Kate Christensen

Social Satire

A review by Katherine Dunn

[Editor's note: We'd like to welcome the Oregonian as our new Review-a-Day partner. Look for a new Oregonian review every Thursday.]

The term "Chick Lit" gives me hives. It reeks of patronizing scorn, but what's worse, a lot of the stuff that wears this label is mush-brained glop and deserves the scorn. I'm a tad exercised on this subject for the moment, because Kate Christensen's sleek new novel Trouble could easily, if mistakenly, be tarred with the "Chick Lit" brush.

One reviewer described Trouble as "a coming-of-middle-age novel that explores the sexual lives of three women in their 40s." By itself this description would send me fleeing to the mayhem section of the bookstore in search of an emetic. But there is a major mitigating factor. This is Kate Christensen, which means crackling prose, sharp dialogue, and a sly, fanged humor calculated to make Jane Austen sit up and grin.

Christensen's bent is social satire. She sees our silliness in all its giddy glory, but is wise enough to be merciful. Her 1999 debut was In the Drink, the tale of a slacker non-career woman who finds her true identity in liquor.

Jeremy Thrane (2001)is the secret live-in lover of a closeted gay movie star. Booted onto the street in his mid-30s, Thane finds his gentle, bewildered way in a hilariously hostile world.

My favorite is The Epicure's Lament, in which the irascible anti-hero is a failed man of letters and suicidal misanthrope who is drawn relentlessly back to life by the same irritating relatives and ex-lovers he's trying to avoid.

Christensen's last novel, The Great Man, won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for its laceration of the romantic delusions of the art world in waves of drama, farce and probing wit. The great man in this case is a prominent but recently dead painter, and the title is sledgehammer sarcasm. The real stars of the book are the ferocious women who survive the painter and wage pitched battles with his would-be biographers.

Trouble turns that laser on a smaller specimen. The tight focus here is the far from omniscient narrator, Josie, a successful New York psychotherapist who catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror as she flirts with a jerk at a cocktail party and suddenly realizes that she's not dead yet, but her marriage is.

After a quickie hook-up in a bar on the way home, Josie wakes the following morning hungover but unrepentant. She announces her escape plan first to her passive husband and alienated teenage daughter. Meeting with no real resistance (a clue to the reality of Josie), she blithely confesses all to one of her two closest friends, Indrani, a single college professor who has a conventional attitude despite her exotic name. Indrani is in love with the idea of marriage and hates the idea of Josie throwing it away.

Miffed, Josie turns to her other oldest pal, Raquel, an aging rock star who thinks it's long past time for Josie to shed her drab spouse. But Raquel has problems of her own. She's being savaged by the blogarazzi for stealing a much younger actor from his pregnant girlfriend. She begs Josie to run away and hide out with her in Mexico City. Josie jumps at the chance, and the book takes off in a fresh direction.

With Raquel to guide her through this exotic and disturbing new environment, Josie has fun and demonstrates, if we had any doubt, that she is not the sharpest shrink in the Orgone Box. From the sad peso-a-dance hall to the heated gore of the bull ring, Josie tiptoes in coyly but is soon swept away. Busy rediscovering her own penchant for booze, partying and feral sex, Josie is oblivious to Raquel's nosedive into serious peril.

Christensen's characters are not evil but they are foolish in ways all too familiar to many of us. If they aren't exactly admirable, they are complex and ultimately likeable. And whatever dingbat shenanigans they get up to, Christensen lights them with generous affection.

Katherine Dunn is the author of the National Book Award finalist Geek Love. Her new book is One Ring Circus.

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