Landesman wasn’t the only art aficionado who told me Kushner is the rare writer who’s gotten downtown artists right—rendered their grand personalities without resorting to Tom Wolfe–style caricature. But many readers of The Flamethrowers did see shades of satire, because almost every artist in the novel evinces a whiff of hypocrisy or corruption. Sandro Valera, who builds Judd-like aluminum boxes, relies on the fortune of his ruthless industrialist father. Ronnie Fontaine, who photographs oven interiors and bruised women, makes his true art out of amusing and confusing lies. Stanley Kastle, a Dan Flavin–esque light artist, lives off assistants who “arranged the tubes according to an algorithm he’d invented long ago.”
“I get the feeling,” Kushner says, “that people from outside the world of contemporary art see it as deserving of mockery, in an emperor’s-new-clothes sort of way. I think that’s not right and that it’s just because they don’t understand the discourse. The art world is filled with vibrancy. I wanted the conversations to be entertaining to people, to have life in them and be funny, and that’s really the extent of it.” One of her detractors called The Flamethrowers “too cool, too stylish.” Kushner speculates that “it made him feel inadequate, maybe.” She adds, “Maybe I just have really cool friends,” and laughs. “I’m sort of kidding, but I’m also kind of not.”
In 2003, Kushner moved to L.A. in order to concentrate on fiction. There, at an Echo Park party, she met Smith, whose expertise in Continental philosophy is “like a living library tailored to my deep personal needs.” (To watch their courageously arcane but teasing exchanges is to understand how lucky they are to have met.) Kushner’s current life, as a mother and a writer, is more solitary than it had been, and she now considers skiing, once her loneliest activity, one of the most social things she does. Whenever the snow falls heavy on Mammoth Mountain and Kushner can get away, she joins her friend Benjamin Weissman in a cabin there, which the artist and writer shares with the sculptor Paul McCarthy. The house is festooned with hundreds of drawings, made by an expanding clique of skier-artists in their whiskey-drinking downtime.
As a member of Berkeley’s ski team, Kushner had hit the slopes four times a week. After college, she’d “really had enough of mountain culture,” but meeting Weissman and his artist friends “was a revelation. I thought, ‘Gosh, you can ski super-steep, launching off cornices, and then in the gondola talk about Eduardo Paolozzi,’ ” the British pop artist.
Weissman brings up those conversations unprompted—“definitely the headiest, funnest experience I could have”—but he defines Kushner’s skiing as an artistic act of its own. “A friend once described her as a metronome,” he says. “She hits the fall line absolutely, directly down, no pussyfooting around. Once she initiates, it’s like she’s writing a full paragraph.”
On the page, where her actual paragraphs go, Kushner has the same assurance, integrating research and experience without wavering or gawking at the landscape. “She calmly subdues her material,” James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, “inhabits it as a true novelist should.” That solitary, undistracted rush might be part of what she meant, in that speech she imagined giving at the book awards, by saying that writing is a way of being alive.
Up on the mezzanine of Cipriani Wall Street, Kushner makes a game attempt to schmooze away the cocktail hour that precedes the National Book Awards. Gaudy arches rise above, recalling the building’s history as a bank. Poets in stiff tuxedos shout small talk at agents in black dresses. Kushner, still and again, is worried about conveying enough of her best self—this time in a place where she doesn’t feel so comfortable being herself. “I don’t really know anyone here,” she says. “Publishing is not my world.” A reporter for the Jerusalem Post, clocking her name, asks if she considers herself Jewish. “I don’t at all, actually, though my father is of Jewish heritage.” Separated from her husband, she anxiously scans the horizon for him. Don’t they split off sometimes at parties? “Sure, at a normal party, but this isn’t exactly what you’d call a normal party.”
Soon reunited, they head toward the dinner tables, Kushner visibly nervous about being entertaining. I ask her if she’s ever performed music. Not really, though she toys with a ukulele, and she did sing a song from that digressive artist’s speech in The Flamethrowers into a friend’s voice-mail, so that it could be performed with the right melody at an L.A. gallery. “I’d love to hear you do that, but not now,” Smith says, kindly. With a little more prodding from me, she relents and launches into it. “Oh, dreams coming true, in Quintana Roo …” she warbles, shaky but on key. “Now, this is like—I should be wasted. But it has to be delivered very straight,” she says, “and not like I’m a good singer, which would embarrass people.”
A couple of hours later, Kushner’s nerves seem to have given way to a slightly keyed-up serenity. It’s only minutes after the last presenter announced the fiction winner: James McBride, widely considered the underdog in this contest. “I had a psychic flash earlier that I wouldn’t win,” she says. Neither surprised nor disappointed, she’s keeping in mind something Toni Morrison said in presenting an award to Maya Angelou—that she is a “balm” against “so much toxicity around in this world.”
The next day, Kushner e-mails to clarify her attitude toward losing, worried that she came off either disingenuous or superior. “Everyone at the Scribner table was staring at me while I beamed like a stunned idiot,” she writes. “It wasn’t cockiness, just that I didn’t really have an ego-horse in the race for some reason, and so I felt this curious but intense elation.” She may as well have been racing obliviously down a slope, or gliding above it all in a gondola. “Success is a completely abstract thing—it has no bearing on daily life, family matters, the matter of artistic creation, but it can affect grace, and if I lose that I really have gained nothing from success.”