The National Book Award finalist on what makes a great sentence, channeling Roberto Bolaño, and the “mastery and artistry” that womanhood requires.
Image by Anne Summa, The New York Times
There’s a moment in Rachel Kushner’s much-praised second novel, The Flamethrowers, when her narrator reflects on an article in Time magazine about a housewife who’s been hit by a meteorite. “What were the chances?” Kushner’s narrator asks herself, before coming to the following conclusion:
“There were practically no chances. The chance was almost zero, and yet it happened… The thing about news was that it never touched you. You could turn off the radio mid-urgent warning and know the escapee was not going to be in your bushes, not going to be peeping in on you in your shower. The news never reached anybody in a real way. The meteorite did…”
These lines resonate because The Flamethrowers, now out in paperback, is in part a book about the search for felt experience. It concerns itself with the human longing to be touched by something real, even if that something happens to be a hot, hulking mass from outer space, or political riots in Rome. Kushner’s protagonist, a young motorcyclist known as Reno, travels to New York in 1975. Her aim is to turn speed into art and also, perhaps, to find some sense of forward motion in her life. She will end up photographing the tracks her tires leave on the land, and meeting a man she thinks she loves, but the pictures she creates will always exist at a remove from reality, and her notion of intimacy will shift to accommodate the idea that no one is ever fully knowable. (“Isn’t that what intimacy so often is?” Kushner writes. “Supposing you understand, conveying that you do, because you feel in theory that you could…?”) The book insists, ultimately, on the opacity of people and events, and offers, in place of easy knowledge, a spirit of interrogation and adventure. Reno arrives in the novel without the fleshed-out background we’ve come to expect from protagonists in so-called “realist” fiction. She comes to us, like the meteorite, as an unexplained surprise. We know next to nothing of her family, or her past. We do not know what successes and failures have shaped her. Even the name she’s known by is only a nickname, a stranger’s casual act of invention. The basics of identity become the stuff of fiction, and Kushner leaves us to reflect on what one character calls “the uselessness of the truth.”
Reno is a manifestation of Kushner’s belief, expressed in the interview that follows, conducted via email, that “standard pyschologizing in novels” can often leave a book feeling less, not more, authentic. “I don’t really believe that the backstory is the story you need,” Kushner says. “I don’t believe it’s more like life to get it… People in real life so often do not know what they want. People trick themselves, lie to themselves, fool themselves. It’s called survival, and self-mythology.” She was similarly candid when asked about her own self-mythologies, explaining that—in the wake of her novel’s success—she feels “numbed and disconnected” from whatever public persona she projects, and detached also from any concept of a “feminine” or “masculine” literary sensibility. “I’m happy to be a woman,” she told me. “But much of it was learned over the course of life… It’s a kind of mastery and artistry.”
—Jonathan Lee for Guernica
Guernica: At the beginning of The Flamethrowers, the character known as Reno says, in a past tense that may imply a subsequent shift of opinion, that she “thought art came from a brooding solitude. I felt it had to involve risk, some genuine risk.” Is that a credo you subscribe to in your own art?
Rachel Kushner: Not the brooding part or the solitude part… Well, maybe. I don’t know. I love to be alone, I find it necessary, but I don’t know if that’s just how I am or if it’s an essential ingredient to making, to art. Certainly on a practical level it is. But on the other hand, I think it’s a myth that the creative inspiration is locked up inside the person and just needs a quiet space and the right “serious” (brooding) moment to get released. I think art is much more about an engagement with the world, a way of being called upon and recognizing that the world is speaking to you. Which isn’t quite solitude, even if you’re alone when it happens.
The risk part I agree with, though.
Guernica: Do you remember how Reno as narrator took shape in your mind as you began to write the novel? Can you recall what you wanted to achieve with her—the risks you wanted to take?
Rachel Kushner: That was the hardest part of writing the book, to be honest. Keying her correctly. It’s hard to describe what I was looking for when I first set out to locate the tone of her. There’s something ineffable about it—a kind of, “I’d know it when I got it.”
I wanted her voice to feel like thought, not like spoken language. I wanted it to be particular but not too particular. Not a strong personality. Someone who sees as her presence in the book, while others act. This was important to me, for various reasons. I think I was strangely affected by The Savage Detectives. I’d read it a couple of times in a row when I was first trying to deal with the narrator and who she was, and I felt somehow more free to make her a watery presence—not diluted, but clear—when I started to look more closely at how Bolaño manages the presence of Arturo Belano. She reports on a world, and is subjected to it. Subjects herself to it. I relate to that, so I felt it was something I wanted to write about.
Guernica: We know very little about Reno’s past and the moments that have shaped her. The traditional filler of twenty-first century realist fiction is absent, and even the name readers have come to call her by is mentioned, I think, only two or three times in the book. Was it important to you that she be resistant to interpretation, or open to every interpretation, like the China girl in a film leader? She has this voice that feels lively but somehow quite neutral—able to accommodate these Proustian first-person swerves between scenes and characters.
I don’t relate to standard psychologizing in novels. I don’t really believe that the backstory is the story you need. And I don’t believe it’s more like life to get it.
Rachel Kushner: It’s true, she has no name. And that she’s perhaps more resistant to interpretation than the other characters. But there’s one fairly obvious reason for this: she is interpreting the other characters for us. And she is not interpreting herself, which only a certain kind of personality, and at that, a certain kind of narrative voice, will have a tendency to do. She is something like a medium, the reader’s witness to see and interpret what goes on around her. This was just how I wanted the book to be. I feel it might be a mistake for me to try to explain it. The narrator’s focus on what is around her, reading others, and seeing, is what produces the effect of the book.
As to the “traditional filler of twenty-first century realist fiction,” maybe that is something I avoid. I don’t relate to standard psychologizing in novels. I don’t really believe that the backstory is the story you need. And I don’t believe it’s more like life to get it—the buildup of “character” through psychological and family history, the whole idea of “knowing what the character wants.” People in real life so often do not know what they want. People trick themselves, lie to themselves, fool themselves. It’s called survival, and self-mythology. I wanted to create a person who felt in her thinking how I think a person might actually think, but through literary language, mine, not stream of consciousness (with all due respect for those experiments), and maybe that’s one trick of it. I don’t do the big hand of God placing people around the Kriegspiel board and claiming to see into their deeper motivations. Even Freud would not do that. He would probably just listen to what they are saying, and let the reader interpret.
I do study Proust, for multiple technical virtuosities but also his swerve, as you say, between characters and in scenes. Certain films can help for that, too, in terms of understanding how multiple conversations at a table, or in a room, can take place and remain separate, and dissonant, and also gather themselves, accidentally, into a collective rhythm and an affect. Altman is very good at that, for instance. So is Jean Renoir. I compared her voice to water above but really it’s about neutrality, as you say. About the tone of the whole, every part has to kind of vibrate on the same internal register. It’s impossible to describe or name that register but I know when something is off from it.
Guernica: What drew you to writing about the New York art world in the ’70s, and to tangling that narrative up with events in Italy, and rubber plantations, and a wonderfully described moment in which a meteorite comes through a roof?
Rachel Kushner: If I knew the answer I would not have had to go through with the novel, maybe? I mean, I embark with some originary spark. In this case, it was the context of the New York art world in the 1970s. But I realized that part of what interested me about it was the death of manufacturing in America. So I knew I wanted factories to play a role, since the absence of them in New York is part of the undercurrent allowing artists to take over Soho.
I encountered the world of the Autonomist 1970s through Jason, my husband, who had been reading about it since he was nineteen years old, as a student of Michael Hardt. Jason knows a lot of people in Italy and so do I and between the two of us, whenever we would go there, I got to witness these amazing anecdotes about the time. This is aside from having read a bunch about the politics and theories of the era. It was hearing people talk, coming to understand the issues, the feel of life for a moment in 1977, that led me to believe it should be recreated in a novel.
It was all happening at the same time as the world I was trying to depict in New York. There were some interesting connections between them, too. Like the Living Theatre, which moved to Italy and got mixed up with Autonomists. I had been thinking about rubber all along, as a kind of image for the book. Like as the novel’s element, or base material. A lot of artists in the late ’60s and early ’70s worked with rubber and other forms that seemed like they connoted industrial detritus. Robert Morris, Eva Hesse. So I decided the negative image of that would be a rubber factory in Italy. It wasn’t until after I had written all kinds of stuff about rubber—the factory, the managers, the family, and the rubber plantations in Brazil—that I learned the Red Brigades had gotten their start in the Pirelli plants, outside Milan. That’s just what happens when you write a novel, though.
Guernica: And the meteorite?
Rachel Kushner: Well, the book is partly about images, and some of the artists in the book are of a newer generation that was thinking about the logic of images, the power of advertising. This new idiom was a real transition from minimalism and from any stress on objects, and the role and use of the photo of the woman [whose home has been hit by a meteorite] is partly about that—she’s “material” (appropriation) for one of the artists in the book. But also, I’d seen a photograph of a woman who was hit by a meteorite when I was little and I never forgot it. The book allowed me to correctly and precisely misremember it in just the way I had as a child. Way after I wrote the scene, just before my book was published, I went online and found the real photo. It was a grainy black and white image of a traumatized and half-destroyed-looking person in a barren hospital room, not at all like what I’d conjured—a proud woman in a cheerful kitchen. But that’s fine. I told it my way and what’s wrong is right because it is about the unconscious.
Guernica: Have any aspects of the reception of The Flamethrowers—the praise, the sheer amount of coverage, the debate over whether it “shocks” male critics—surprised you?
Rachel Kushner: Well, if I say I was surprised it logically implies that I had some idea of how things were supposed to go, and that there might be some manner of reception that could be expected, within a range of “normalcy.” And it just wasn’t something I had thought about. I understand the reception of my book was outside a normal range, I was incredibly lucky, but I feel alien and removed from the whole public experience of being an author. Every aspect of it feels a bit strange and bewildering, even when it’s good.
What has surprised me the most is how much my interior life and my private life with my family and with my friends have come to seem like the only things that actually matter. I just told a friend this morning, or rather we agreed on something this morning, which is that [you] know who you are when you do something for a child in your life, or for a friend. Whereas to be in the newspaper, to get wind of some kind of public impact from my book, I don’t know what that means. It doesn’t contribute to my sense of myself, of who I am, or how to proceed. But taking my son to his ski race practice does. And that surprised me, that I would come to feel that way, so numbed and disconnected from a public image, and so attached to a private one.
Guernica: The rubber plantation scene in the book is hard to forget. The image of these anonymous slaves working away, suffering in private, and the money being funneled elsewhere. When you write a scene like that, is it an expression of your interest in political thinking—a kind of literary activism or awareness-raising of some sort, however subtle?
Rachel Kushner: Thanks for mentioning that scene. It’s probably one of my favorites. Or for better or worse it reflects what I can do, as a writer.
I think the scene could be read the way you describe it—as political. Certainly. But it was not written with that kind of premeditated intent at all. I wrote it in a rush one day, just in that kind of trance-like mood that is required to pull something off in the second person singular. I was just thinking about a kind of terrible homesickness, the worst kind, which is to be in a position of terrible suffering, and to be surrounded by people (in this case overseers) who not only don’t care that you suffer but depend on it. And to be deliriously hot, and working in inhuman conditions.
I’d read about how they tap rubber and just wanted to see if I could get myself into the mental space of a tapper. Or rather, I didn’t try. I just woke up one day and that was what happened on the page. I think any time you deal with humans and the way they exploit one another and cause pain you are in the realm of politics, on some level. How can you write about human beings and avoid it, though?
Guernica: In that case, is it odd that so few of the dominant novelists in America today seem to address issues of, say, race, factory politics, and societal violence in their work?
Rachel Kushner: While it might be true that our reality would suggest that more writers would address these elemental issues of modern life—work, the marketplace, brutality, race—I’m not sure I have enough of a sense in aggregate of what the dominant novelists are doing to comment on why less do, or if less do. Maybe that’s partly because I don’t feel woven into any kind of fabric of contemporaries; I just read what I read, and do what I do.
Race is an enormous issue and what I hope to focus on next. Violence, factory politics—these things simply form some bedrock of what interests me, but I’m a child of the twentieth century. And I don’t see reality and its violence, wars, oppression, etc., and fiction as counterposed. And historically, they have not been. Jonathan Littell is American. Just kidding…
Cormac McCarthy has written some good books that deal with violent histories—Blood Meridian, for instance. So have DeLillo and Didion. And there is Toni Morrison, a towering figure, as it’s put. But hey, I like to think each writer is doing his or her part. Feeding the lake, as Jean Rhys said. And maybe there are different lakes.
The London riots, the anti-austerity movements, the brutal battles with cops on the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki, the clearing of Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland—all this was going on as I wrote the book. And yes, it occupied my thoughts.
Guernica: You were quoted in The New Yorker as saying that you’re “interested in the lost potential of Italy’s Movement of ’77.” Could you talk a little about that lost potential? When you were writing this book, or since, have the uprisings in the Arab world and the Occupy movement impacted on your thoughts?
Rachel Kushner: In brief, the lost potential is about what, in that movement that swept Italy in ’77, still holds meaning as a set of ideas, tactics, and strategies. The whole after-affect of May ’68 is dead. It was a movement centered on a huge sector of industrial workers, an industrial working class, while the Movement of 1977 was historically the first large-scale movement to take place in the wake of the demise of industry.
In Italy, especially in Rome, there were tons of young people who neither had jobs nor were students. They were sub-proles who got together and started to realize they could have a movement that was formed of desire—a rejection of boredom, of bourgeois values, of alienation, of misogyny and patriarchy. (The women’s movement was a huge part of the Movement of ’77—perhaps that was the part that was not lost.) People wanted to be together and live a life with some kind of meaning beyond money, bills, and bureaucracy.
It’s really complicated and it’s difficult to summarize without banalizing. I think some of the sentiments of the Italian youth were and are shared by a lot of young people I know. What’s the point of even getting an education now? If you aren’t rich, if you will spend your life in debt for it, and get out of school and work some crap job, why bother? Of all the communists and anarchists I know, I think I could say that people want to have meaning in their lives. And that aspect of the Movement of ’77 is something like its lost potential. All that you mention and more—the London riots, the anti-austerity movements, the brutal battles with cops on the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki, the clearing of Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland—all this was going on as I wrote the book. And yes, it occupied my thoughts.
Guernica: Do you have any interest in consciously reclaiming, in your fiction, subjects that some readers will consider to be largely the preserve of male writers?
In fiction, you get to be it all. I’m as much the men in my book as I am the women.
Rachel Kushner: No. I do not consciously reclaim. I am not those “some readers” and so I think it would be impossible for me to see my work that way, as reclaiming a preserve.
I write in a way that is aimed at all levels—conscious and unconscious—at pleasing the kind of reader I am. Some of the authors I read are male, some are female, and some are even in between. And speaking of in between, maybe now is as good a moment as any to point out that there might be no “feminine” or “masculine” literary sensibility, or sensibility generally. I’m happy to be a woman but much of it was learned over the course of life. Really thudded into me. You learn it. It’s a kind of mastery and artistry. The deeper person underneath the scent of Diptyque Philosykos or whatever is much less gendered. Every person has a range. In fiction, you get to be it all. I’m as much the men in my book as I am the women. I write how I write and there is no mission to stake a claim.
Guernica: A lot of reviewers have commented on the pleasures of your prose, line by line. What makes a good sentence?
Rachel Kushner: There is no single formula. An invisible integument that gives the sentence wholeness and musicality, sometimes. But other times, the formula is almost purely one of context. And yet other times, of sheer precision of meaning. This is a good sentence: “Just as he was settling into the warm mud of alcoholic gloom, Shrike caught his arm.” “Warm mud of alcoholic gloom” is exact and right and accurate.
But then you have sentences that only become truly good in context, like these two, the second sentence making the first sing: “After a long night and morning, towards noon, Miss Lonelyhearts welcomed the arrival of fever. It promised heat and mentally unmotivated violence.”
And then there is a sentence that is good on its own, but great in connection with the next one: “He felt as though his heart were a bomb, a complicated bomb that would result in a simple explosion, wrecking the world without rocking it. He decided to go to Delehanty’s for a drink.”
Or there is a writer like Clarice Lispector, where each sentence is profound philosophy and can exist totally on its own, like this one: “Yet even amputated, the hand doesn’t scare me.”
And then there is this sentence, which goes to the very heights. But you have to read all of As I Lay Dying to get to it and understand and feel its greatness: “‘Meet Mrs. Bundren,’ he says.”
What does any of this tell us about the sentence? Very little.
Guernica: There’s a scene midway through the book in which Reno confronts the consummate self-promoting artist, John Dogg, who makes Reno—half disgusted, half admiring—think that the main stumbling block to great art might not be the problem of making it, but the problem of believing in it… Do you struggle with that self-belief, and with the promotional side of being a writer?
Rachel Kushner: John Dogg seems to have no problem believing in art and instead sees the only problem as getting it out there, getting a good gallerist. I agree with the narrator in her amusement at this. It is what the art world can be like. There are amazing talents at the top, but there is persistence up there, too.
In writing novels, you have to believe in yourself or there would be no way to sustain it. But you also have to give good evidence regularly for having that faith in self—either with quality goods or with, at least, “good efforts.” Working hard will do when inspiration is not forthcoming. I do not enjoy the promotional side of being a writer, to be blunt about it. Even with the little amount that is expected of me, which is nothing compared to the life of an artist. Writers can live in obscurity and come out of the woodwork with a book, then go back in. Artists don’t have that luxury.
Guernica: When Telex From Cuba came out, you talked about the importance of trying to find pleasure in the process of writing—suggesting, I think, that when a piece of writing is pleasurable to its author, it’s more likely to be good on the page. Do you still feel that way, and was it easy to find pleasure in writing The Flamethrowers?
Rachel Kushner: I don’t know the exact reference of where I said that, about Telex, or what the context was, but I believe you. I guess I still feel that way and yet I’m slightly hesitant to insist on that idea, that it “better be fun for the writer.” Or rather, that if it is, then the pleasure is a sign that it’s good. Maybe I feel I’ve read that somewhere, other writers saying it, and I just think there is possibly no formula, and I don’t like to read an interview with a writer where they just lay out the doxa of what quality is. It can seem brittle to do that.
All that said, under the assumption I’m releasing myself from the responsibility of claiming to know when something is good and when it isn’t, there was lots of pleasure in writing The Flamethrowers. Then again, what is pleasure? Some pleasure is easy and other kinds are never quite felt, existing only as the residue of hard work, or more as satisfaction than thrill.