El Divorce

by Kate Christensen
Doubleday, 311 pp., $26

Trouble, Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, opens with a man calling Madonna “a maggot.” Moments after this declaration, Josie—the novel’s middle-aged narrator, who laughingly agrees that Madonna is “vile”—decides to leave her husband. The singer is a tidy semaphore for what initially appear to be the major concerns of the novel: Aging, particularly how women negotiate their worth in the sexual marketplace as they mature, is one; gossip, or the way we judge celebrities and friends alike, is another.

While Josie prepares to divorce her husband, to the dismay of her best friend, Indrani, their mutual friend Raquel—famous pop singer, former heroin addict—is attacked by bloggers for her affair with a younger actor. Raquel and Josie flee to Mexico, but the ever-watchful eye of the Internet soon spies them, and paparazzi descend on their hotel.

The Internet is a tricky topic, and one Ms. Christensen must be commended for confronting. Many authors elide its existence out of what seems defensive self-interest, timidly deferring to the tyranny of the transitive property: If writing emails and checking blogs are frivolous activities, then novels containing descriptions of these activities are themselves frivolous, and therefore writers of literary fiction ought to avoid such descriptions. But novelists, for whom no subject ought to be too base or banal, make the familiar world unfamiliar, asking us to think about what we do thoughtlessly. To send Josie to the Internet cafe, then, is a courageous move, and a necessary one: Novelists, if their ambition is realism, must engage with the endless, invisible world that floats aside our own.

INITIALLY, Ms. Christensen’s analysis of this world intrigues. “She has power,” Raquel says of a character named Mina Boriqua, who seems modeled after the gossip blogger Perez Hilton. “Whatever she writes, millions of people read. She serves us up to them, and they eat us like nothing, like we’re potato chips.” In changing how we speak about other human beings, the Internet has altered our ability to comprehend their very humanity, at once celebrating subjectivity—no thought is too tiny to be tweeted—and denying it. Famous people become personas: There is you, the human being, and there is you, the character created and crucified by commenters. You are not simply who we say you are, you are a who only because we say you are.

Raquel’s celebrity allows Ms. Christensen to contrast the anonymous scorn of millions with private judgment. When Indrani discourages her divorce, Josie complains to Raquel, who calls Indrani a narcissist. Josie is pleased: “I was happy to hear Raquel bad-mouth Indrani, because for the first time, I agreed with her. Now that Indrani had judged me, I was free to judge her right back. The floodgates were open. She could be a bit of a narcissist, come to think of it.” Our imaginations, always restless, invent even the people we know, and fantasies, Ms. Christensen suggests, are always fueled by contact with others. Whether two or two million in size, the group dreams the world. Yet because someone answers us when we cry out, and confirms our complaint, we never know we are talking in our sleep, and that the people we judge are but shadows of our own making. Neither Perez Hilton nor Gawker’s Nick Denton invented the concept of passing judgment on other people; what they did was make a private pleasure profitable.

Unfortunately, Ms. Christensen’s attention wanders, and soon after the women arrive in Mexico, Trouble becomes a standard sun-dappled, sub-interesting travel romance. Potentially rich conflicts—the boundaries between public and private speech, the economy of attention—are supplanted by gauzy odes to the churches, food and people of Mexico (Josie hears a song she “didn’t understand but was sure must have to do with longing and loss and other dark Latin emotions”), and to love, which arrives, for Josie, in the form of handsome Felipe. Ms. Christensen obediently studs their courtship with perfunctory platitudes about class and racial dynamics, but a solemn subplot about deforestation, and scenes like the one in which Jose senses an “icky First World/Third World schism” after buying a painting with a credit card, are as clumsy and weightless as a college student’s report on his semester abroad.

Madonna is forgotten, and events that one would assume the author of that first scene to be interested in—one character’s death, a much-publicized photograph of the corpse, the interview Josie gives to People magazine—rush by. Whether because she failed to trust in the legitimacy of her earlier material, or feared that others would not, Christensen ends up writing the oldest story in the world, one that quite literally involves Josie riding off into the sunset. Here’s hoping her creator returns to earth.

Elizabeth Gumport is a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University. She can be reached at books@observer.com. El Divorce