Transcending the Political: The Millions Interviews Rachel Kushner

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It’s rare for a writer of only two novels to get the critical acclaim bestowed upon Rachel Kushner. In 2005, her debut novel Telex From Cuba, about the Cuban revolution, landed the cover of The New York Times Book Review and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her second novel The Flamethrowers, published earlier this year, tells a sweeping story about the New York art world during the Italian factory protests of the 1970s. Both her novels are stylish and rigorously intelligent, as she describes characters and nations alike on the brink of collapse. She spoke with me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, where, she says, her neighbors think she’s “a housewife who doesn’t sweep her porch enough.”

The Millions: Both of your novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, deal explicitly with foreign politics. What is your relationship as an American novelist to political responsibility?

Rachel Kushner: I don’t see the artist as necessarily political. I think if a novel is polemical, it’s prevented from doing its transcendent work as art. If it’s successful, it transcends the political. That said, you’re correct in pointing out that both novels deal with political material, but I think there’s a deep tradition of this inside of storytelling. If you look at the novels of Balzac and Victor Hugo, and even the moderns — Proust, Céline, to name favorites — the characters are always people situated inside the processes and effects of history. I guess I’m a writer who is interested in the way that the world and historical events and processes pressure characters, and the way characters interrelate and situate themselves in their social milieu, political milieu, and so forth. And whether I’m writing something contemporary or in the past does not change this — it’s an outlook. A work of art can have a political emanation to it, but it cannot be the thrust or reducible point of the work.

TM: For the Italian factory workers in The Flamethrowers, political protest is always potential for imprisonment. Meanwhile in America, what’s most at stake for artists appears to be whether or not they’ll get represented by a gallery. What do you think is politically at stake (if anything) for American artists today? Is it the same for writers?

RK: The stakes in politics and art are obviously different. There is plenty at stake for writers and artists, politically, but as I said above, art, in my opinion, cannot be polemical. It can’t be reduced to political stakes. But by making art, the writer/poet/artist is choosing to do something special, which can possibly, I mean perhaps, speak outside the logical of the marketplace.

About the artist just, you know, wanting a good gallery, in a sense I think it’s unfair to compare the stakes of art and the stakes of protest. The implication is that art is sillier, that the stakes are about ego and money and hierarchies, or about these kind of esoteric and febrile conceptual debates. But we are not choosing between a world without exploitation and a world without culture. They are not in a direct competition with each other, where one must be prioritized, and the other overshadowed or shamed for its insignificance. Anyhow, there may be many lines of connection between culture and questions of governance, of capitalism, violence, and so forth, that are worth exploring by putting those two different worlds of art and politics in play, side by side.

TM: Your novel feels very rooted in today’s world, largely because of the way the Italian protests hover over the lives of your American characters in the way that the Arab Spring does so for Americans today. How do you think the Italian protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s compare to the Arab Spring?

RK: When I was writing The Flamethrowers it wasn’t just the Arab Spring that loomed but Occupy, and aunt-austerity protests all over Europe and in Greece. Looting in London. There was a lot happening in the world, and the world is what I respond to, even if I am writing about Italy and New York in the 1970s. But those are really difficult things to compare, the Arab Spring, or so-called Spring, and the Autonomist movement in Italy in the 1970s. In Italy, there were various circles of philosophers who were writing political/theoretical texts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and what they were writing, along a spectrum of militancy, streamed into and joined with a rejection of bourgeois values that occurred among very disparate groups of people, students, factory workers, and people from the south who were something like a sub-proletariat group. The movement had to do with, of course, history, and the economy, factory politics, a failed nationalism, and the culture of the time. I guess in merging various interest groups it does share something with what happened in Tahrir Square [in Egypt]. Some of the more striking arguments about why the revolution was successful — to the degree that it overthrew Mubarak — have been about the heterogeneity of the population that occupied the Square: all different kinds of people rejected the Egyptian state. In this sense something similar perhaps occurred in Italy, except it did not result in a revolution. The most significant gain from the Autonomist movement has probably been in the form of advances for women.  Which might make it quite different from what ends up happening in Egypt.

TM: Reno, of the novel The Flamethrowers, is hyper aware of her surroundings in the immediate present, yet she continually falls in love with the people, cities, and art around her in a way that has nothing to do with her naiveté. What is it about Reno that makes her so trusting?

RK: I think that some people have no other choice than to be open; it’s just an instinctual manner of proceeding. Perhaps this is a fundamental division among people, a tendency  to react to people and ideas and works of art without suspicion, a way of submitting oneself fully to other people’s codes, beliefs, modes of being, in order to understand them, and to have an experience. I think of it as a kind of enchantment with the world, rather than as naiveté, and to be honest, it’s an orientation that I relate to, personally.

TM: James Wood compared your novel to Flaubert, who’s sort of credited as the father of modern realism. Your prose is realistic in the sense that it’s grounded in physical detail, though what happens in the novel isn’t always “true.” Do you consider yourself as working in a realist tradition?

RK: I am still mulling the fact that Flaubert created a seminal mode of realism (emulated by most writers since), in order to skewer bourgeois values (a topic only taken up by some). I am also still grappling with the hallucinogenic effect of Salammbo. In any case, I probably do hew to certain key markers of realism. I don’t strive to create a sense of un-reality, and in that, I guess, I tend toward something that some people would call realism. But I don’t call it realism. I wonder, is Marguerite Duras a realist writer? In a way, yes? But what does that say about the category?

To satisfy my own instincts, I need to have a form that allows me to incorporate writing that runs the spectrum between detailed and accurate renderings of spaces, places, moments that seem “real,” and a kind of poetic density or oddity. I like to be able to shift tones, and densities. I see the narrative strands of my own novel — the opening sequence of with Valera, the sequences in which other characters speak, and the first person narrator as simply a recording witness — all as having different densities. I’m interested in having a narrative through-line, but also in finding mischievous ways of disrupting that through-line. But I don’t know if that’s realism, or not. The term doesn’t enter my mind as something I need to either adhere to or disobey.

TM: In addition to writing two acclaimed novels, you’ve also written for both BOMB Magazine and Artforum, which gave you an intimate understanding of both the contemporary worlds of art and literature. How do you think they compare with one another?

RK: The truth is I know the art world much better than I know the “literary world” — which, well, what is that? The publishing world? I don’t circulate in a social sphere of novelists, so much. But more importantly, I wish there were more intellectual crossover between the worlds of art and literature, which, historically, had been the case.

If I have to compare, well, the art world is obviously more self-referential, in that you can’t really participate in the conversation of contemporary art unless you’re inside the discourse. Literature is not self-referential in the same way at all. Which makes it more open, less exclusive, but is deriving from the fact that it’s a more conservative and rigid form. They’re almost completely different. The art world has a lively and dynamic social component to it, whereas the publishing world is, er, not that dynamic of a place, and it doesn’t have to be, it’s not motored the same way. There are no biennials, and there isn’t an obscene pile of money at stake. And finally, maybe writers are less open to the culture than artists for some reason. Artists truck in culture. I don’t feel that’s necessarily the case with writers. Some are following the culture, of course, and their work is in response. But there are also these quiet psychological insights that writers pursue, which are different.

TM: What do you think is the most interesting thing happening in American fiction right now?

RK: I hope for a lot of possibilities with American fiction. There are some writers I really love. I was just on a panel the other night with Rivka Galchen and Hari Kunzru (who is not American, but he lives in New York City), and those are two writers I admire. Also Salvatore Scibona, whose novel The End stands out for me as a rare work of beauty and complexity. I think Bret Easton Ellis is a great writer — a very different writer than myself — but one who will have been a really important stylist, a singular American writer. DeLillo continues to produce good work — I think Point Omega was a near-perfect novel. But in truth, I am not that knowledgeable about contemporary fiction. I read a lot of Europeans. Modernist ones. Among younger American writers, I read more poets. There are some smart and fearless and funny and insouciant poets out there. That’s maybe where the energy is for me right now.

Gold Mine: The Rugged Love Stories of Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn

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Joan Didion writes in her essay “The White Album” that the cultural paranoia known as “the Sixties” had ended — or rather been fulfilled — on August 9, 1969. That night, four members of Charles Manson’s “Family” broke into 10050 Cielo Drive and stabbed Sharon Tate Polanski, eight months pregnant, a total of sixteen times. Shortly after, as Paul Watkins and other members of the Manson Family watched a television report of the murders, somebody turned to him and said, “Wouldn’t it be somethin’ if old Charlie did that?”

Paul Watkins had been just out of high school when he joined the Manson Family. He was a former class president with a handsome face, and a smile sweet enough to recruit young girls to the commune. After the Manson murders, Watkins would ultimately testify against Charles Manson. He would outlive the Sixties. He would become president of the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce, appear on CNN, raise two daughters. On his deathbed, he would tape a video for his daughters, beginning with, “Here I am, my girls. I want you to know how much I loved you. I want you to know who I was.”

This is not the story his daughter Claire Vaye Watkins tells in “Ghost, Cowboys,” which opens her sweeping debut story collection Battleborn. Instead, “Ghost, Cowboys” explores the stories from Death Valley as a whole, in which her own family history plays only a small episode.

The narrator begins her story in 1859, when a man named Charles Fuller builds a toll bridge that was to become Reno decades later. Then, the narrator flashes forward to 1941, when George Spahn converts his ranch into a lucrative movie set. And yet again to 1968, when a group of ten hitchhikers offer George to “help” with chores if he gives them permission to “camp out” in the empty set buildings. Two of those ten are the characters Charles Manson and Paul Watkins.

At this point, the narrator reveals herself to be the writer’s fictional namesake. The character Claire Watkins lives alone in Reno after both her parents have passed. She lives a mostly stoned, humdrum life, save for the various movie producers who seek her out for her thoughts on a possible Manson movie. They take her out to dinner, and the dinners often go like this:

“How are you?” they say.

“I’m a receptionist,” I say.

“Good,” they say, long and slow, nodding as though my being a receptionist has given them everything they came for.

It isn’t a stretch to say that anyone familiar with the Manson Family legacy is also wondering how the daughter of Paul Watkins is doing. Battleborn is the answer to that question: she became a storyteller.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. That line, which opens Didion’s essay “The White Album,” may very well serve as the epigraph for every story in Claire Vaye Watkins’ collection. The stories include a wild teenage girl who drives to Las Vegas with her best friend to find a group of collegiate boys to sleep with; a false prophet who lies to keep from losing his brother, an emaciated 49’er, to gold rush fever; a group of jaded hipsters who roam the deserted graveyards of Virginia City.

Each of these stories, set in a different part of Nevada, feature vagrants — whether traveling to Nevada in search for gold, or attending an out-of-state college — and the shameful stories they tell to themselves and the people they love. As if Watkins’ prose embodies the desert landscape of Nevada itself, the stories are stony, unkind, and harsh, though never unattractive. And as I read through the collection, I kept asking myself why I didn’t find her stories unattractive.

“Rondine Al Nido” confronts the reasons why one is drawn to the dark and the morbid. We’re first introduced to a couple who takes to candle-lit confessions in bed after sex. The man, a former social worker, tells her about the cases he’s seen: the father who made his son live under the floorboards of their porch, the snack bar employee who lured a retarded girl into the men’s bathroom with a lemonade. The woman, a typist, tells him about the terrible things she’s done: the tropical lizards she begged for, then abandoned in a field once she bored of them; the wretched, ring-wormed boy she asked to meet her for a kiss at the flagpole, and how she laughed when he actually showed up.

Beneath these confessions runs a spiritual undertow — that salvific beauty can arise when brutality is brought to light. It’s the same masochistic quality I find in the female gothic writers that precede her, such as Flannery O’Connor, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro.

Here, Watkins describes the couple with emotional acuity:

It will be as though she’s finally found someone else willing to see the worst in the world…For the first time in her life, she will feel understood.

While Watkins exposes her characters’ darker moments, she also indulges in the need for cinematic escapism. In “The Past Perfect,” a story previously excerpted in The Paris Review, Watkins tells of a twisted, tragic love triangle.

The story opens with an underage Italian tourist who frequents a brothel as his missing friend starves to death in a desert. As he waits for results from the search teams, he falls in love with an escort, a former gymnast who plays up the “good girl” look amongst her bustier counterparts. Meanwhile, the brothel’s gay “madam” watches their relationship form as he’s unable to prune his own growing feelings for the Italian. All of this is rendered with references to film noir tropes, and the pacing is as entertaining as a Hollywood classic.

Not every story is as gripping. “The Archivist” ultimately gets swallowed up by Battleborn’s more obvious showstoppers. “Wish You Were Here” could easily stand out in a different kind of collection, but following “The Past Perfect,” it feels off-beat. However, the collection does exhibit an ambitious diversity as a result. The final story “Graceland,” which in part explores the suicide of Watkins’ own mother, is quietly devastating in all the ways that “The Past Perfect” is flamboyant. All of her stories left me feeling purged and oddly cleansed, easily making Battleborn one of the strongest collections I’ve read in years.