By 9, Kushner had worked three jobs, which she needed in order to buy new clothes. She had worked at a radical feminist bookstore, had a paper route, and handled the register at the Humble Bagel Company in return for food and pennies. (“My hands always smelled like money.”) “She was very independent,” says her mother, Pinky Kushner. “She liked doing things by herself, and she had a great imagination.”
Kushner agrees, to a point. In preschool, she got second-degree burns from a pancake skillet. Severe strep throat left her home from fourth grade for long stretches, nurturing a reading habit just like the young, sickly Marcel Proust (who’d become her favorite author). But she also wound up vomiting blood and spending days in the hospital. Walking home from school around age 7, she was nearly kidnapped by a man circling the block in a car. The incident led to recurring nightmares. Trying to make sense of them, Kushner eventually sought treatment—that Lacanian psychoanalysis, a highly intellectualized practice that overlays Freudian theory with postmodern philosophical inquiries.
Eugene “was a sweet little town,” Kushner says now, “but it was the seventies. I feel like there was a certain kind of evil lurking around the edges.” She and Smith are raising their own 6-year-old son very differently. “We actually take him to school and make his lunch. We dress him in clothes.” In L.A., he attends a French school that follows that country’s strict national curriculum.
It’s hard not to see that as a kind of rebuke to Kushner’s own education, which followed the opposite course. After the Kushners finished their graduate work, they moved to San Francisco’s working-class Sunset district, not far from the hippie Haight. Kushner skipped a grade and found herself too young in a tough crowd. Her middle school was shut down for a week, she says, in anticipation of a “race war.” She dropped acid at 11, got beaten up, partied in a flophouse, and went downtown to search for her friend’s sister, a prostitute. (The Kushners sometimes housed friends in trouble.) She even broke the single rule of the house: No smoking. “But I always got good grades,” she says, “even at the nadir of my delinquency.”
Early-eighties New York was famously not much of a picnic, either, but to Kushner, it was a glorious other place. She spent a summer in the Mulberry Street apartment of Judd’s assistant Meyer (the same building where Reno lives) and later tagged along with a cousin to Danceteria and Mars Bar. In The Flamethrowers, she gave those encounters a high intellectual gloss. “It’s the death of the manufacturing age,” she says now. “There’s a certain innocence to it. It’s the moment before this kind of darker time of the era of neoliberalism whose crisis we live within commenced.” That is, what strikes many as the stuff of urban nightmares is, to Kushner, a pre-consumerist refuge: menacing but oddly pure.
Perched on a slender stool in the Guggenheim café, Kushner tried to explain her politics—or rather, the ways in which she believes she transcends politics. “My political opinions, they’re made irrelevant by my position in society,” she said. “Artists are political in the sense that they’ve subtracted themselves from the structure of the marketplace and are contributing something that’s not utilitarian. Even though books get sold, and I get advances, I get to look at society and think for a living. I’m not thinking about making an app. I’m not part of the technocracy.”
Kushner’s sympathies are with Occupy, and she says her next novel will be set in a present-day women’s prison. The Flamethrowers lays out a full spectrum of charismatic radicals: futurist proto-Fascists, Leninist Red Brigades, and the anarchist Motherfuckers, who rob banks, terrorize the Man, and feed the poor. “That is something that’s more heroic, I think, than the violence that I imply vis-à-vis the Fascists, because there’s no way they’re going to overthrow the government.” When I point out that they do kill someone, she responds, “Well, they stab a landlord, not a stranger. To them, a New York City landlord is a kind of Dickensian enemy.” When her mother tells me Kushner is herself a landlord (renting out an L.A. duplex acquired with her first advance), Kushner explains that the tenants are former students of her husband.