- An Interview With Rachel Kushner
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These are the days of the insta-celeb, the ravening trend. Literary reputations can be launched with one novel (Jonathan Safran Foer, Chad Harbach) or even part of an unpublished book (Zadie Smith). Literature has always had its early-born heroes and precocious divines; Byron is said to have awakened one day to find himself famous, while This Side of Paradise won F. Scott Fitzgerald both fame and a wife. But who would suggest that literary stardom today more often comes more quickly than most ever before? Even the language of overinflation is overinflated.
In such a fervid atmosphere, there’s something reassuring about the rise to prominence of Rachel Kushner (b. 1968). It’s not that Kushner is somehow immune to the logic of celebrity—far from it. She is fascinated by the cultivation of legends and the circulation of spectacular commodities; this theme, as much as the overt topic of imperialism in the Caribbean, links the three stories of her most recent book, a slim and beautifully designed New Directions volume titled The Strange Case of Rachel K (2015). A certain kind of celebrity now surrounds Kushner, too. Her two novels are published by Fitzgerald’s old press, Charles Scribner’s Sons, and were the subject of often-breathless reviews in major venues. She is the only novelist to have been nominated for a National Book Award for her first two books. Google “Rachel Kushner” and you’ll find hundreds of features and reviews cutting a swath across desirable literary real estate such as The Paris Review, New York Magazine, and The New Yorker. You’ll also find photos of the author sitting astride [End Page 193] a motorbike or standing in dappled California sunlight, posing in front of her 1964 Ford Galaxie automobile. You’ll turn up interviews in which Kushner admits that, like the protagonist of The Flame-throwers (2013), she knows what it feels like to crash a motorcycle at 140 miles per hour. This is an author who understands something about the collapsing borders between art and life, about the glamour inherent in that collapse, and about how the manipulation of the human image for aesthetic or revolutionary purposes can prove a double-edged sword.
All of this lies at the heart of The Flamethrowers. The novel begins in 1917 with the wartime adventures of T. P. Valera. Later an industrial magnate, the young Valera is a motorcycle rider in an Italian army unit of shock troops called the Arditi (the daring ones) and a fellow traveler among a group of technology-obsessed artists and intellectuals strongly reminiscent of F. T. Marinetti’s futurists. From the novel’s first chapter, we are thrown into a revolutionary milieu that assaults—so Peter Bürger has it in his classic Theory of the Avant-Garde—the autonomy of the aesthetic as a distinct realm of value. Likewise, when in chapter 2 The Flamethrowers crosses time and space to the New York art world of the 1970s, we meet person after person for whom the boundary between art and life is indistinct. There’s our unnamed narrator-protagonist, a young motorcycle enthusiast who briefly holds the land speed record for women, thinks of her bike as an instrument for drawing, and is deeply influenced by Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty—a well-known work of land art that throws into question the relation between artistic object and natural environment. There’s Giddle, who might just be a waitress but who might also be playing that role. There are dancers whose work is “so subtle … that one was left unsure if the thing observed was performance or plain life” (47). And there’s the man who simply carries a striped pole around Lower Manhattan. Giddle describes him: “There goes Henri-Jean. … He lives in the neighborhood. It’s his thing, that pole. No sellable works, just disruption. Goes to gallery openings, bonks people on the head by accident” (48). As the novel moves back and forth between 1970s New York and Italy...