by Kate Christensen
In the opening chapter of THE GREAT MAN, Kate Christensen’s writing was so powerful I thought I was at the entrance to a great novel by a phenomenal writer. Teddy, the seeming protagonist, tells us at the outset why this novel is entitled THE GREAT MAN, who it turns out was her deceased, life-long lover, a totally self-centered portrait painter.
Teddy engages one of the painter's biographer’s in that first chapter in a conversation that is so rich and so revealing of personal lives that it could never had taken place in our real, dull world. But this is a novel and the conversation is entrancing. Kate Christensen can really write—especially about food. Description of the scent, texture and tastes of the food is as exotic as the dialogue.
My anticipation at the prospect of this novel quickly dulled as the writing became more mundane. So Christensen was not a genius of a writer, but a startling first chapter creator. Aside from that disappointment THE GREAT MAN carried me along. There were dead times as there quite often are in ordinary, but decently-done novels. We get to meet all of the women in the artist’s life and I would argue that he is the protagonist not Teddy or the several others used as devices to explore his relationships.
Christensen provides some interesting aspects of the continued sexuality and creativity of the elderly (those over 70) and focuses on the sensuality of food. And, she offers a nice twist about the authenticity of a work of art in the story.
The power of Christensen’s first chapter made me realize how ingrained that performance has become in a writer’s campaign to find a publisher, an agent, or a reader. In recent weeks, I have purchased novels by two indieauthors based on a reading of their first chapters and discovered that their writings fell so quickly flat and incompetent that I couldn’t finish the books. At the 1996 Sewanee Writers Conference, one of the lecturers suggested that a means of determining whether a novel might be worth reading was to read page 84. I’ve tried that many times and have been rewarded in the process. Obviously, it is a better test than a first chapter.