My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.
I first met Rachel Kushner in Toronto McCarren airport in, I think, 2007. We were both there for the International Festival of Authors (IFOA). I’d just spent several hours in US immigration detention (the asshole border guard had opined that I “didn’t deserve” my visa) and I was heartily pissed off at missing a flight to New York. Rachel allowed me to rant at her for at least ten minutes, before heading off to catch her own plane to LA. Since then, I’ve gradually become aware that, not only is she a good listener, but our preoccupations as writers coincide in many ways—we share interests in art, politics, and using the novel to get a sort of multidisciplinary purchase on the world that other kinds of writing don’t allow. I was happy to have the opportunity to talk about some of this with her on Skype, on the occasion of the release of The Flamethrowers, her latest novel.
Hari Kunzru So what’s your story about how you got from being born to publishing a novel?
Rachel Kushner It would be something if I had a one-sentence answer to that, right? My parents were beatniks who had a lot books around the house, and it was instilled in me that I was going to be a writer of some kind from a young age. So I did what was expected of me, which is a bit lame, but there you have it: I have much more admiration for sui generis people who come from homes that don’t respect art. My trajectory did, however, have deviations to it. I ended up studying political economy at UC Berkeley, rather than English. I was politicized. I was 16 when I went to college and I had an antiauthority outlook and personality, and I couldn’t imagine going into academia and having a job. Eventually I realized that the only thing I was suited to was the novel, because it was the one project that could answer to my various interests, incorporate all the different aspects of life that I care about. After college I lived in San Francisco, a few “remedial years” that followed my accelerated education. I worked at nightclubs, rode a Moto Guzzi, and then finally got bored with that scene and wanted to be serious about writing. At 26 I enrolled in the fiction program at Columbia. I didn’t get the idea for my first novel, Telex from Cuba, until after I had finished my MFA. Then it took me six years to write it.
HK So your first interest in fiction as a project has to do with a way of talking about the complexity of the world that other disciplines don’t capture. That’s similar to my sense of why I do it. It allows me to connect lots of things together in a way that is not legitimate academically. That leads us both to these heavily researched books. Talk me through how the research sits alongside the writing.
RK Yes—“the complexity of the world.” My whole trajectory as a novelist is maybe about finding the form and through line of a constructed world that can hold in it what I really think about … everything. With Telex, it was funny to realize that I’d come full circle to write a book that took as its fictional context a mid-20th-century national liberation movement and American dominance. My emphasis in college had been American foreign policy in Latin America. Suddenly there I was doing all this research into the Cuban Revolution and the role the Americans played in their quasi-colonial society there. But I was new at figuring out how to balance research with the very delicate mechanism of character, the organic unity of fiction. I did a lot of research and then I had to de-cathect from it in order to actually write the novel. With my new novel, The Flamethrowers, I was merging different fields I sensed were connected, but not in overt ways. I did some research, but the various strands of the book were mostly realms I’d learned about over the years just by personal interest.
HK You probably already had the ’70s art world, the bikes, and Italy down in some sense.
RK I lived in Italy as an exchange student when I was 18, in the crass and conservative era that, as a reaction to the radical ’70s, paved the way for Berlusconi. I was astonished to learn that Italy almost had a revolution in the 1970s. Through my husband I got introduced to the Autonomists—he has written about that milieu. We know people who had been involved with that movement, and it seemed like it was ripe to be made into fiction, partly because of renewed interest. But it’s also very dramatic and complex, and full of intrigue that seems right for the novel. There is a darker armed side. There’s this great reader that Semiotext(e) reprinted that was originally published in 1980—
HK (Holds up the book.)
RK Exactly. I don’t claim to be an expert on Autonomia, I should say, especially the theoretical origins. As a fiction writer, in any case, I wanted to understand aspects of the movement that cannot be fully apprehended from reading about it. It was important to go to Italy and talk to people and get them to explain things to me—the difference between Autonomia as an open movement and the much more clandestine armed movements in Italy at that time, for instance. Did they overlap? There are a lot of gray areas that you won’t ever hear about without someone talking off the record.
HK When I was researching My Revolutions, I realized that, being a novelist, I wasn’t going to be able to represent anybody’s political stance in a way that was accurate or faithful to some way they’d want to be represented. There were issues, you know—people had done things that are illegal, people’s lives had been very much changed by their participation in social movements … I decided not to do interviews even though there were people I could easily have gone to. I was spending a lot of days in a squatted café near my house, which had been occupied as part of a local antigentrification campaign. At the time I was researching the Angry Brigade [1970s UK terrorist group], and I realized one of the guys in the café with me was one of the people I’d been obsessively reading about. I knew every publicly available fact about him, and I had this issue: Should I confess that I was doing this work? I ended up scrupulously not mentioning it to him and never talking to him about the past until the book was finished. Then I took him for a drink and came clean. Thank goodness I did, because he would have been suspicious of my motives otherwise. How did you approach people when you’re basically saying, “I’m going to confect a set of stories around what you tell me”?
RK Perhaps optimistically or foolishly I always told people that I was writing a novel—it was probably a defensive measure, because it meant I was just a kind of dreamer type who was not expected to have an expert’s grasp of the minor but absolute differences among various groups or theoretical strands. People in Italy were not so inhibited by the idea that I was interested in Autonomia for the purposes of confecting stories, as you say. Maybe because the general sense among those who care about it in Italy is that the history of Autonomia has not been told of nearly enough, especially there.
Some people’s silence is a kind of information, too. One learns to interpret doublespeak. Mario Moretti of the Red Brigades [who went to prison for the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the former prime minister Aldo Moro] has never given a straight answer, for instance. I didn’t interview him—there’s a book-length interview done by Carla Mosca and Rossana Rossanda, where he turns the tables on them and speaks in this persuasively ambiguous way. I think I learned from that. Sometimes you have to pretend to understand, even when you don’t, in order to have any purchase. You have to nod and agree when someone’s being cryptic, go back later and try to parse what they said.
HK People often, in my experience, talk in generalities rather than saying, “On a certain day somebody picked up a certain package … ”
RK Yeah, totally. Moretti and the other Red Brigades leader, Renato Curcio, talk like priests, in poetic aphorisms, and they neither confess nor regret nor ask for any redemption.
HK I suppose most of the people who are interested in talking about this end up in a sort of basement-dweller headspace about who took what line at what meeting, you know. As a novelist, what do you feel the approach of writing fiction brings? What does the novelist bring to that situation?
RK Cliché? Crude oversimplification? And melodrama, of course. Also sex and humor, hopefully. But seriously, a couple of things come to mind. There is this line from Cheever’s journals: “I think that the task of the American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe four hundred people under the lights reaching for a foul ball.” A challenge taken up by DeLillo, of course, in Underworld and echoed, earlier, in Mao II. I think it’s perfectly legitimate for the novel to attempt to capture the sense of a large-scale event, of lots of people being involved in a political moment, an art movement, a march, a kind of collective aesthetic or illegality, by something like electricity or feeling. But the novel is also pretty effective at bringing the individual experience into relief precisely because of what you say: The novelist isn’t fixing little embattled splices of historical accuracy, fighting old battles, or offering an anarchist cookbook but instead is trying to recreate a feel and texture of a time. There is a great Italian novel about Autonomia by Nanni Balestrini called The Unseen—
HK Which I read for the first time very recently and admired. It’s a wonderful novel. I’m hoping they’ll translate some more of his work; there’s not very much available.
RK There’s an earlier novel by him called Vogliamo tutto (We Want Everything) about the “Hot Autumn” of 1969. The Unseen is a potent example of what can be done in fiction with this specific history. Balestrini based it on the oral history of Sergio Bianchi, who lived the experience that the book outlines. So it’s fiction and also probably nonfiction, but it’s written like literature and so it becomes irrelevant, in a way, whether its details follow a real life or an imagined one. Does it say something true of the time? Does it utilize history in a meaningful way? Those are the salient issues to me. The novel puts people in motion and, in that, tries to render invisible things visible and deal with questions that don’t have easy answers. I think fiction is a space in which you can use naïveté to bump up against ambiguities.
HK Which is a structure you’ve used in both novels. There’s a sense of an innocent or several innocents being inducted into some space of political experience. Either they’re the kids of the American managers experiencing the Cuban revolution or the young American woman getting involved in Autonomia. Are you a political writer? What would that phrase mean?
RK I am a bit hesitant to use that phrase even though yes, sure, maybe I am. But I qualify. The polemical work is not a work of art; it’s something lower. It doesn’t transcend its objective to influence and explain.
HK It’s instrumentalized writing.
RK Precisely. The novel ideally is not reducible to the political. It’s a journey toward meaning that transcends the frame of politics. Blood Meridian—just to think of a great novel that traverses the political—is not simply a book about the violent policies of the American government paying out for scalps on the Western frontier. It takes up subject matter that is inescapably political, but it builds of systemic violence a work that comes to rest only in the territory of art, where the thing built is so elegant and strange that it cannot be justified or even really explained.
HK I always get muddled between intention and effect. The author’s intention is never visible in a text—we know this as good poststructuralists. Also, we can read anything politically; we can read things that are silent about political issues against the grain. Maybe engagé is a useful word. I think the novel has to hold things open rather than close things down or collapse things onto a single polemic point of view.
RK I always thought I aspired to that engagé tradition, but Sartre’s conception of the novel was not a model for me. I find Céline, his foe, much more attractive as a writer in his disregard for an obligation to the common good and for his searing high style. I prefer to read the despicable stylists, but I am not like them in the most crucial of ways. I love people instead of hate them. I care about struggle. Yet I also sort of detest the idea of moral fiction.
Back to this matter of politics: If the novelistic canvas is the broader scope, in terms of time, diachronically, and also in terms of society’s classes and milieus, the novel is inevitably going to be to some degree political. I tend to write in the broader scope, so my work, in the sense of subject matter, is political. But the political also inheres in the very basic matter of “character” and cannot really be avoided by those who keep their fiction to the house and the yard, so to speak, even by writers who think they are avoiding it. Character is sometimes talked about in these pious terms of timeless, essential human traits, but people are bundles of meaning that relate to the time in which they live, their race, their class … It’s like this quote in an interview with you when Gods without Men came out. You rhetorically ask, in reference to people living in these tiny towns in the desert with one gas station, “What is your outlook, if that is your milieu?” I love that question not only because it makes clear that understanding their outlook is imperative to you, but also because implicit in it is the fact that outlook is shaped by milieu. And milieu is shaped by structure, history. Who is Emma Bovary if the reader ignores Flaubert’s utter disdain for the petite bourgeoisie? This idea that you can get to intrinsic qualities that transcend time or politics or class is a naïve by-product of liberal humanism.
HK It’s the most highly ideological position imaginable, isn’t it? Despite all the many troubles with this model, I’ve always been very interested in the old ’70s project of linking Freud and Marx—this notion that your subjectivity is in some way constructed by large social forces. That’s certainly there in my project as a novelist.
This is a kind of back-route into this question of the art world. The tools you and I are using to interrogate these things are in some ways the tools of the traditional novel. We make plots and we put characters in those plots. I’ve noticed there’s a disjunction between the conversations that are going on in contemporary art and the conversations that are going on in fiction, at least English-language fiction. In some ways, I’m much more engaged in the cultural conversations of contemporary art. They’re reading the books I’m interested in. There’s a way of talking that I find congenial. You’re one of the very few people that seem to exist in both worlds. How do you see that divide?
RK There is such a divide. Lynne Tillman and Wayne Koestenbaum always seemed like heroes to me because they are intellectually engaged writers who thrive in the art world. When I moved to New York to get an MFA, I found there weren’t commonalities that aspiring writers circled around that could connect us as a group of people. I hung out with artists, not writers. They had one common discourse, and it was rich—it incorporated a lot of ideas, and they really cared about art, philosophy, music, all kinds of culture. They wanted to stay up late talking about Freud and Lacan (via Žižek, it was the late 1990s), Brian Eno, Benjamin Buchloh, the question of politics in art … The writers I knew then, from school, didn’t have one set of discursive connections. There were some overlaps in what fiction people read—Jane Austen or, say, Barthelme, more hip, you know—but that’s not a position in the world. And so I hung around with artists and read what they read and participated in their conversations, even the gossip about the market context and the power hierarchies that are so endemic to the art world, which is sometimes interesting if you get to be a voyeur, like I was, and aren’t scrapping for a place at the table. All that said, you address a funny contradiction: The art world is all change and reflexivity and the dematerialization of forms, while the novel is stiff, fairly unchanging, and conservative as a form. There is a divide between the way the avant-garde works in art and the way that it works in fiction. In art the search for ever-newness continues to be the paradigm of what’s valid. This is not the case with the novel. For whatever reason, none of the postmodern experiments in fiction really “succeeded” to the degree that they one-upped everything. The novel is somehow not on that axis; it keeps being recognizable.
HK It comes down to this: there’s something about the novel that will never be fully assimilated into the modernist project. Novels are messy. They are always embarrassing, to a certain degree. They can never be hermetic in the way that Malevich is hermetic. Words refer. Novels are baggy monsters. What you say about the new is important. Approaching fiction as a modernist is still the most interesting thing to do, but many people who present themselves as being committed to modernism end up identifying with an extremely conservative mid-20th-century notion of formal experiment. Then they realize that the conditions of 1979 no longer pertain, declare literature over, and play in the ruins. That’s fine, but I don’t have that feeling of belatedness. The new seems to be breaking over our heads.
RK Proust’s novels were different from their forebears in some very subtle ways, and those shifts are still worth paying attention to and studying. I’d love to read a contemporary novel that ingenious; while the New Novel, important as it is to a 20th-century history, is not fresh in the same way, cannot be an enabling guide. Novels have emotional content. It’s hard to negate that totally and still get a work of meaning, which is maybe why Jealousy is the only Robbe-Grillet novel I can truly relate to. In art, an emotionless work can utterly be done, of course. Pleasure and being enchanted, transfixed, is often purely intellectual in contemporary art, but it’s hard to imagine a successfully original novel that has no emotional gravity, that is subtended only by idea.
HK You’ve also made the art world a context for your fiction. I wonder if you have anything to say as to why there are so few good art-world novels?
RK I hadn’t thought much about a lack of good art-world novels, somehow. I wanted to write one because the 1970s in the art world have a particular, slightly romantic glow. For me it was a time when nobody had any money and people could take over spaces and live in Manhattan and be poor and adventurous. It was the merging of art and life, to put it too simply. It was also the point at which the manufacturing age was coming to a close and artists were moving into former factories and warehouses, harbingers of change—
HK Before it became revealed as the probe head of gentrification.
RK Indeed. Back to the question of good art novels—it’s true there aren’t many. The Recognitions by William Gaddis is pretty astonishing in terms of his understanding of certain aspects of painting and the secondary market. His details are spot-on. There are certainly novels now in which the characters go to gallery openings—
HK Right, it’s a social landscape rather than actually taking the work seriously.
RK Yeah, a setting in which novelistic intrigues—love and power—can take place. The art world is a very particular place, and, like I said, what drew me socially was that it had a fully intact discourse. It’s hard to write about that discourse as fiction; it has to be done in a way that is not insular.
HK And hard to write without jargon, I suppose.
RK Another problem in making fiction about the art world is that it doesn’t really work to create fictional artworks and describe them. It comes off as precious. I kept that to a minimum in my novel. What I wanted to reference from real life were not art objects but gestures and attitudes—a way of parsing the culture of advertising, for instance, the way the Pictures Generation artists took John Berger and Marshall McLuhan and accelerated their ideas. You had this very deft shorthand in artworks whose humor had to do with an understanding of how images work.
HK Richard Prince’s entire career is based on making deft gags about just that, isn’t it?
RK Yeah, he was an inspiration to me. I named a character after John Dogg, an alter ego of his.
HK There’s a ’93 Paris Review interview with DeLillo where he says, “I construct sentences.” And then he goes on to say, “There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. One syllable too many […] I look for another word. There’s always another word that means nearly the same thing, and if it doesn’t then I’ll consider altering the meaning of a sentence to keep the rhythm. […] I’m completely willing to let language press meaning upon me.” A lot of the pleasure for me in making work is on this level of constructing sentences. Talk to me about how you actually make sentences.
RK There’s that line in Mao II where Bill Gray says, “I’m a sentence-maker, like a donut-maker only slower.” In that quote you read from the Paris Review, he makes his process sound much more runic than its effect. One of the magical things about DeLillo’s sentences is that he is letting you know in the very tissue of the sentence, in its cadence, that he’s right there. He is letting you know he’s alive to meaning and experience and, most importantly, that he’s in on the joke.
For me, the sentence is the fundamental integer. But there is an ebb and flow in density, and the rhythms change. Tone is a ruling condition of possibility of life on planet fiction—every sentence must embed and embody a very particular tone and also further it, propel it. The sentence has to be doing something hidden, or coy, or openly funny, or odd. I use different tones in The Flamethrowers, so different parts of the book have different densities of sentence. Some of it is more conversational, while some of it is more thoroughly ruled by the language, which then creates the meaning rather than the reverse. I loved the phrase “the trembling of the leaves” and wrote a chapter based around what that image evoked (it’s actually a mistranslation—mine—of the name of Renato Curcio’s press, Sensibili alle foglie). In the parts that are more conversational, one of the fun challenges is to make people speak in the way that only people in this book speak: What is that global condition, or tone, which allows each voice to be different but gathers them all as distinctly belonging only in a particular novel? I couldn’t tell you, but I know when it’s there and when it’s not there.
HK Do you have any formal or informal rules on the level of the sentence? Do you have rhythms, like ta-tum-ta-tum-ta-tum? Is there anything you can point to which could be the reason to strike out a sentence and start again or the reason to be pleased?
RK It’s really intuitive, that rhythm, for me. It’s like music: you know when you hit an infelicity, and you fix it. Reason to strike out a sentence? If it’s not needed. I love to delete; I pare back a lot. Strangely the really early sentences that I make, like in notebooks, that I know I want to use, the ones that become like images in the mind around which to build something, those often remain. The only formal rule in fiction that I have is the reversal, as I think of it. If somebody reacts in a particular way or says something that’s logical and expected, then I make them say the exact opposite thing to—
HK —move it on, yeah.
RK But in terms of the structure of the sentence and cadence, no. Maybe I should have formal rules, but I don’t, really. They change.
HK My main guide for what’s working in a piece of fiction is “Am I having fun doing it?” And that seems, in a reasonably straightforward way, to translate onto the page—if I’m not having fun making it, why should anybody have fun reading it? But I’m beginning to suspect at this stage that there are things I enjoy doing as a writer that as a reader I might not appreciate in the same way. Is pleasure your main guide for what’s working for you?
RK A very particular kind of pleasure, born under the domain of tone. The tone tells me in some deep unconscious way how to build the cadence of the sentence and the kinds of words to use. Also, the writing has got to have this kind of energy where I think I’m onto something and I’ve figured out a track in the language to keep me onto that thing.
Is there a divide between the author’s and the reader’s pleasure? I’m keen on a type of writing where I can feel the pleasure of the author. It’s about the authors’ lightly handled awareness that they are, at least for a moment, doing something. Breaking through, somehow.
HK I’ve only really got one more area that I wanted to cover, which is sexual self-presentation. Hiding in the corner of Telex from Cuba is Rachel K, who is the desired female, the seducer of powerful men. There’s also a lot of stuff in The Flamethrowers about attempting to be a full subject as a woman, as opposed to being the “chick,” the “plus one.” There’s also a passage about Behind the Green Door, the porn movie. You seem very interested in the experience of women who perform this erotic self-presentation and the tension around it.
RK If my analyst were in the room, he’d laugh—or just sigh, maybe. I am indeed interested in the tension between being a subject and being an object, an irreconcilable state of existence known as “womanhood.” If we are all wandering around in the vestiges of courtly love, then desire is really the pursuit of finding a way to sustain desire rather than the capture of a love object. Love’s true object is absence. Women, in this game, must be alluring but not obtainable. A woman on a poster, Marilyn Chambers, for instance, is alluring and not obtainable. A girl with no loyalties, like the character you mention from Telex from Cuba (who, incidentally, was based on a real historical figure—Rachel K, a call girl found murdered and posthumously upheld as a victim/symbol of the late decadence of the Machado regime), is not obtainable by any of the men around her. She slips out of grasp, which in that novel was for me a rumination on, if not a solution to, the “female” problem. She’s an object, to be sure—but she cannot be fixed as such, she’s ungraspable on account of a seditious streak. There is a question that, for me, is not answerable: Does the object have more agency due to the power she has over men? Or is the subject more emancipated, while forgoing what men wish her to be? I don’t want a lecture about female agency. It’s a form of interior contemplation that I am trying to honestly render in fiction.
I admire Clarice Lispector for her total commitment to glamour, which seems to have nothing to do with her fierce intellectual drives. They are not at cross-purposes. She puts on full makeup and reads Spinoza. Do you have to be a Ukrainian Jew living in the Copacabana in the 1960s to enjoy the luxury of such a synthesis? I don’t think so, actually. Everyone knows that you cannot deny the question of sex, which is to say, the issue of objecthood. Real emancipation may incorporate the power of objectification. Or it will be rethought, possibly even dispensing with gender finally and altogether, and go by a new name.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.