Combining art and artifice
Rachel Kushner's debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008, alongside Marilynne Robinson (Home) and Peter Mathiessen, who won with Shadow Country. No small feat simply to have one's name printed next to those towering figures. She has also been an editor at the acclaimed magazine BOMB and the journal Soft Targets, and has published frequently in Artforum.
This month marks the release of her second novel, The Flamethrowers, about a young woman artist in 1970s New York. With Kushner's high-profile career, her sophomore effort will no doubt gain plenty of attention. But the charm and force of the novel stands clearly on its own. Following is an interview based on an email exchange with the author.
This novel is expertly assembled. You weave together some complex stories, develop rich characters and give them great names. How much fun was it to have a character named Reno?
Oh, well thanks. I did think about names quite a bit. I love to have fun with a good name. But the actual name of the narrator, who you refer to as Reno, is never revealed—the reader never learns it. Early on she gets called Reno by another character who is something of a wise-ass and calls her that because she is from Reno, Nevada. And later in the book, I think on just a single occasion, her former lover, Sandro, refers to her privately as young Reno, but really she’s nameless. Which, yes, was fun. It presented certain technical challenges and also kept me closer to her perceptions, to the inside of her mind, and less close to how she was being perceived by the others around her. That said, names are a great tool for characterization. But for the center of consciousness, I wanted a person without one, in that her name is simply never mentioned, even as every other character in the book knows it.
Though they do embody some of the typical SoHo artist clichés, I found myself really liking the characters who populate your SoHo. How did you pull that off?
Oh, thanks. I’ve been around a lot of older artists who were on that scene then, and I spent some time in that milieu as a child. Probably it’s inevitable that something has been gleaned from that exposure. Also, there is plenty to read about SoHo in the 1970s—not just in books whose aim is to narrate that history, but in artists’ documents, critical writings, etc. As far as clichés are concerned, I built characters who could enliven aspects of 1970s SoHo that I find amusing or strange or uniquely gone. It would be a different kind of cliché probably to make them wackily non-coherent with our basic impressions of the era. But maybe more importantly, I related to them, if not on a directly personal level. I identified or at least empathized with each of them and their hang-ups, egos, joy, obsessions, bluntness, dissimulations, and so forth.
You're no stranger to writing about art. What was it like writing about art in the voice of a fictional artist character, as opposed to using your own cultivated, art-critical voice?
Since it was a novel, it was totally different. The idea of a novel written in a cultivated art critical voice seems deadly boring, even disastrous; also, artists don’t think in that voice, and a novel is meant to be narrated in something like thought. There is, of course, plenty of room in fiction for “cultivated” characters to speak their minds and present ideas, but it’s just utterly different than writing something in an art-critical voice: it has to be good as dialogue. I can’t imagine an interesting or engaging novel that has a lot of art criticism in it, unless it was a parody, and even then . . . I kept art speak to a minimum. But I’m sure it helped in writing the book and setting up exchanges among the artists who populate it that I know a little about contemporary art, so that the reduced or shorthand ways people have of speaking about art and about the art world would not seem false.
Art is a way of leaving a trace. All traces erode, eventually. Still, it’s far better to leave something than nothing.
You wrote in the Paris Review that you "wanted to conjure New York as an environment of energies, sounds, sensations" so that it would be irreducible, a character of its own. And yet you can't motivate a city, or have it make choices. What problems did you encounter in that process?
Yes, that’s from the text that accompanied a suite of images that relate to the novel. I wanted the city to be a place that would not easily resolve into history and sociology and urbanism—the city would a character, but in the specific sense that a fully complex character in fiction is not reducible to cause, reasons, event. Of course I was not suggesting that a city has an individual’s consciousness. A city is a mesh of people who move about in a structure, and the city is that structure, too, and history, and chance. I wanted the backdrop of the city to affect my characters, to be a place in flux, where an event, in the deeper sense, might take place—something unpredictable. A blackout, for instance, and inside that, a reaction to a chance event like a blackout—a riot? A new form of love and cooperation? Violence? Tragedy? The city, like people, can exhibit unpredictability—this is what I meant.
It seems to me there's a theme of masks buried throughout the novel—Burdmoore's war-protest mask, Helen's gazes, the masks Giddle wears in her "imitation of life," Reno's China Girl, even the death blow delivered in the opening chapter. What relationship do masks have to naiveté? To violence?
That’s a beautiful question. Yes, I suppose there is something to that. But these kinds of themes starting to echo one another are never intentional, in the sense that I would embed meaning and hope to “say” something about masks. Nevertheless, the face—and I have an entire long chapter titled “Faces”—is a mask of real mystery to me. I’m entranced and also horrified by the concept of the face. There are characters in my novel who operate under cover of theatrics, falsity or semblance, and so the face becomes a mask, since it does not present an unadorned honesty. In any case, in the larger sense, reality—“the real”—is never how it appears, ethically, politically, emotionally. The entire structure of modern late-capitalist civilization is a structure of appearances, in which war wears the mask of protecting and ensuring peace and freedom, prisons wear the mask of safety and security, greed wears a mask of choice and opportunity, and so forth. And yet the real function of the mask remains unclear. The question is not, Why do we need to lie? But rather, what’s the relationship between our need for semblance, and the things we mask? This difficult question aside, to unmask, which is sometimes necessary, can be an act of violence and destruction.
Your characters find meaning in the act of creating (and sometimes destroying) things. They also each have a special relationship with time. Do you think entropy and art are inextricably linked?
The earthworks artist Robert Smithson famously made a huge impact on conceptual art pursuing that logic. I’m not sure what I myself think, to be honest. A lot of artists are interested in entropy, and Smithson is one who made incredible gestures that involved that idea—like the Spiral Jetty, which appears and disappears depending on the water level in that part of the Great Salt Lake. Smithson understood something about industrial waste and time and the vast and abstract future. So did the Egyptians, maybe. Art is a way of leaving a trace. All traces erode, eventually. Still, it’s far better to leave something than nothing.
F.T. Marinetti is one of many historical figures with a ghost-like presence in this novel. What was your research like, and how did it inform the characters?
That’s true, about Marinetti—none of the characters are him, but he has what you say, a ghostlike presence. I was interested in his early years, around 1909, in Milan. I read the excellent collection of futurist manifestos that FSG published a few years ago, and did other bits of research on other futurists and of the time in which they acted. I saw exhibits, looked at catalogues, read books, lurked in certain parts of northern Italy. But research and character have a delicate relation. When I am in an early stage of things, I read and make notes on details that I think have potential, a kind of dynamism, or a hidden or secret meaning. I compile those notes and details, and try to make for myself some organized frame of reference—of a time, and of a number of agents who might pass through it. But once I’m into writing, the characters have to breathe the breath of whatever I know and understand by instinct, inside the trance of writing. They can’t be constructed from research. They have to come from something a bit more sullied and complicated—the writer’s unconscious. That said, knowledge is maybe underrated. It’s a writer’s friend. But not as a direct resource when she’s writing.
Two of your characters ask "what it means to call a magazine Time. The latent heaviness there. Infinity parceled into the integers of humans, the integers of death." What does it mean to call a magazine BOMB or Soft Targets?
Bomb is, I believe, named after Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis’s Blast, according to its founder and editor in chief, Betsy Sussler. I can’t say what it means. I’m too accustomed to the name. Something vanguard and jarring, I guess. My parents had Bomb magazine in the living room, and then I worked there, as an editor, which must be the reason you ask. Soft Targets journal, with which I was involved, was named by Daniel Feinberg and Dan Hoy, two poets who founded it together. The name is a military term referring to an undefended target, relatively easy to destroy. Maybe the name, as a literary/art/poetry journal refers to a readership? And to destroy, in that case, means to seduce and convert?
Meanings aside, “Soft Targets” is catchy. It sounds good. “Time” is much stranger as a name, and for a magazine, which—unlike those two you ask about—has a readership of millions and a longevity of eons, or at least decades. Time. It’s simply called Time. I find that haunting and mysterious. Time is the water in which we live and die, are remembered or forgotten. A heavy concept that was chosen for a very popular weekly magazine with a friendly if slightly lurid red border whose focus is topical issues. Not death, eternity, ontology, as one might think.
Feel free to take this literally: What guns do you own?
Did you say guns? That I own? I did just write a novel in which there is a bit of posturing with, in one case, a Civil War reproduction cap-and-ball pistol, and, in another case, a handgun loaded only with blanks. But this is obviously fiction, and the characters who do the posturing are not real. They are invented. Also, they are all men. As for me, I don’t even have a proper kitchen knife. Which is fine because I don’t like to cook. I can’t imagine ever using an implement to hurt a person, much less owning one that was specifically designed for that purpose. Next question?
What are you working on?
A novel about warehoused and forgotten people. People who are all women. Women who would love to get their hands on guns, and might deservedly turn them on you and me when they finally get their chance, somewhere midway through the book.
Read our review of The Flamethrowers.