On the day of the National Book Awards, the novelist Rachel Kushner strolled through the Guggenheim’s retrospective on “post-conceptual” painter Christopher Wool, whose big exhibit had coincided tidily with an astronomical spike in the value of his work. In a few hours, Kushner would have her own shot at posterity, her second; The Flamethrowers, probably the most heatedly discussed book of the year, was a finalist, making Kushner the first writer ever nominated for her first two novels. But as we sauntered past Wool’s monumental silk-screened canvases of squiggles, splotches, and inscrutable directives, she didn’t seem particularly eager to talk about conventional notions of success, hers or Wool’s. “I don’t pay attention to auction prices,” she said. “Nothing interests me less. One of the benefits of not being an artist is I don’t have to navigate the social hierarchies of the art world as a person of desire. I don’t need anything. I live in a different way.”
The Flamethrowers is set largely among the downtown artists of the seventies, and though Kushner is now based in L.A., New York’s art world—its rarefied air, jargon, and unresolved contradictions over money and legitimacy—is her home turf. Auburn-haired, 45, and vaguely resembling Patti Smith, Kushner thinks, talks, and even writes like a visual artist: performative statements of purpose in place of irony or self-deprecation; allusions and digressions that break up her narratives with patches of abstraction; accounts of raw experience—backwoods skiing, illegal motorcycle racing, preteen drug use—that betray a strikingly earnest romanticism about the radicals and misfits with whom she identifies.
Kushner speaks fluidly but is sometimes hard to parse. Category distinctions are very important to her, and she gives no quarter to the gray areas that are unavoidable in discussing her work. She can seem impossibly sophisticated and then incongruously naïve, like an excited conversationalist occasionally trapped at a cruising altitude of lofty ideas. Or maybe we’re the ones stuck at ground level? Ask her when she’s felt out of her depth, unsure of how to navigate the codes of an alien world—like The Flamethrowers’ young arriviste—and the answer she gives, eventually, is: Always.
Before we met, Kushner had written that she was “sort of removed” from “the prize thing—which is much more abstract and random than trying to give someone a view into who I am.” Over the week of her visit, she took to that mission with great seriousness. In a hushed room off the Guggenheim spiral, near a Wool painting that reads THE HARDER YOU LOOK THE HARDER YOU LOOK, she tried to explain her notion of an ideal reader, characteristically sounding both esoteric and spontaneous. That perfect reader, she said, was not a sympathetic critic or fan but an internal and thoroughly theorized version of herself, living with her in the close quarters of her own brain. “We’re all performing for someone,” she said softly. “But maybe because I subscribe to something along the lines of a Lacanian psychoanalytic construction, I think there’s an other with a capital O that’s not God. It’s the Other within the self in you but separate from you and unapproachable. But placing demands on the ego to create a kind of ego ideal, so that you want to please the Other. It’s the thing in you that’s greater than yourself.”
The National Book Awards represented a very different Other—a form of acclaim that might intrude on her hard-won integrity. That boundary is vital to her, but if she were to win that night, “I would let it mean something,” she decided. “It does probably increase the chances that the writer will have posterity. I think that’s kind of noble. It’s okay to want that.” Waiting to retrieve her coat in the museum lobby, she thought for a minute about an acceptance speech. “It would be nice to pull out a Malcolm X quote,” she said. “But that would seem too overdetermined.” Then she had another idea, and unfurled it for me: “Writing is a way of living. It doesn’t quite matter that there are too many books for the number of readers in the world to read them. It’s a way of being alive, for the writer.”
Kushner’s celebrated first book, 2008’s Telex From Cuba, was a relatively straightforward historical novel, a politically charged montage of American expat life in Batista’s Cuba. The Flamethrowers, published last April, is a stranger and rarer beast. The novel tracks an unnamed girl, nicknamed Reno after her hometown, who stumbles purposefully into postindustrial Nolita and then riot-roiled Rome. Set in 1977, it feels strangely contemporary, its protests evoking Occupy and its peacocking artists summoning today’s baffling art scene alongside the salad days of Donald Judd and Brice Marden. It also contains some of the year’s best sentences: “I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky.”