The Cool in Her

Photo: Graeme Mitchell. Makeup by Courtney Perkins at Tracey Mattingly; Hair by Josue Perez at Tracey Mattingly.

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.”

Kushner on a Moto Guzzi in San Francisco, 1991.Photo: Pinky Kushner

Yet it’s the coolly observant narrator, whom Kushner’s friend Wayne Koestenbaum called “an existential ingenue”—a meandering, wallflower witness to flamboyant anti-bourgeois attacks both artistic and political—that made The Flamethrowers so compelling and, occasionally, polarizing. In the opening pages, Reno races a motorcycle over salt flats with the aim of photographing the etched lines; she winds up both crashing horrifically and breaking a land-speed record. She muses over arty films like Wanda and Model Shop. Occasionally, she cedes the narrative to a World War I motorcycle warrior turned industrialist, a group of New York anarchists called the Motherfuckers, and a gone-to-seed artist discoursing for pages on euphemisms. The result is such a palimpsest of ready-made cultural signifiers that critics who didn’t fall instantly in love (as most did, including James Wood and Dwight Garner) tweaked Kushner for trying too hard, for writing about industrialization and sculpture and working-class mores and the art of motorcycle maintenance as though building a social novel were simply a matter of picking through a gallery of fashionable objets.

Critics of the critics cried gender foul. Salon’s Laura Miller accused skeptics of being intimidated by a woman who dared to write with power and ambition, and it’s undeniably true that those critics were condescending. But questions of authenticity do course through The Flamethrowers: Artists lie, bloviate, and shirk accountability in the name of self-expression, while activists cheat, steal, and kill in the name of the proletariat. No one is quite who he seems to be. It’s another reason the novel feels so delectably au courant today, with Jay Z printing Occupy T-shirts and Kickstarter embracing revolutionary rhetoric. But given that landscape, the same landscape in which The Flamethrowers became an Oprah favorite, it’s tempting to ask just how transgressive a novel, especially a best-selling novel, can be—and whether taking a stand against mainstream values makes you subversive or just modern. In other words: Is Kushner the flamethrower for real?

The answer is, basically, yes, in both senses of the phrase: She knows what she writes about, and she’s dead serious about her ideals. There’s plenty of room in The Flamethrowers for the dark side of that idealism—murdered businessmen, casually discarded girlfriends, movements warped by violence. In many ways it’s the subject of the book. But if something ardent and glamorizing blazes through, like the flashy World War I brigade of the title, that’s because Kushner herself is a believer, a genuine and unself-conscious exponent of what she might call the radical gesture—even if those gestures are more common now among academics and art stars than any genuine underclass. In a forthcoming interview with Tin House, she calls her shimmering mosaic of a second novel a “paean, maybe, to things that have long interested me. Nothing is in the book that I had to learn about. Instead, it is filled with things I already knew … drawn from my taste, my life, my sensibility.”

The day before the Guggenheim visit and the National Book Awards, Kushner and her husband, a philosophy professor named Jason Smith, came down for a tour of the recently restored Spring Street building once occupied by Judd, the Minimalist giant. Kushner, who’s spending the year in Ithaca, where Smith has a fellowship, had asked me to help arrange it. But from the minute we met our guide, Madeleine Hoffmann, it was clear that the author was the one with the in. Immediately, she and Hoffmann were sorting out art-world connections—like Judd’s longtime assistant, Ellie Meyer, whose daughter had been Kushner’s best friend, and Kushner’s aunt, DeeDee Halleck, a filmmaker who had worked for Richard Serra. Kushner had even visited the loft in the early eighties, as a young teen.

A more casual visitor might have simply marveled at the five-story universe. But Kushner played compare and contrast, sketching her own upbringing as a West Coast doppelgänger to what went on here in this fussily curated home. Judd designed and sold tables and chairs; Kushner’s mother built “less aestheticized” benches, because they couldn’t afford anything else. Judd had a massive Sony TV; the Kushners only briefly had one: It “never seems to bring in the grit of real existence,” she told me, trying to explain why she’d only watched a single episode of Portlandia. Peeking into the former bedroom of Judd’s daughter, Kushner spotted a small painting, all jazzy angles, by Stuart Davis. “I had a Stuart Davis poster growing up,” she said with a sideways smile, half-envious and half-proud. “She had a real Stuart Davis.” Smith, the only Ph.D. in the room, chimed in: “I didn’t know who Stuart Davis was.”

All childhoods are formative, but Kushner considers hers essential to the writer she became. When she was 3, her mother, an expert skier, showed her how to use the rope tow on a bunny slope. “She did it once with me, and then they left me there.” Kushner figured it out, but as she moved up to slopes with lifts—skiing alone until age 7—things got complicated. “You’d yell ‘Single!’ ” she remembers, “and then someone else would yell ‘Single!’ I was so shy that it was painful for me to say the word. I would stand at the bottom of the run trying to gear up the courage to yell ‘Single!’ I would just stand there for hours.” (In a beautifully rendered scene in The Flamethrowers, solitary Reno waits for hours at the foot of Mont Blanc.)

In Eugene, Oregon, where the Kushners lived in a painted school bus like Ken Kesey’s, Rachel walked to her “totally hippie preschool” unaccompanied. Hard at work on their Ph.D.’s, the Kushners often left her and her brother at home alone, once for days with no sitter. “They left money in a jar,” Kushner says. “We spent it all on kites, and then we didn’t have any money to buy food.”

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.

Kushner’s political passion jelled at UC Berkeley, where she stayed on an extra year to write a thesis on U.S. policy in Nicaragua. She was encouraged to pursue a Ph.D. but instead tried moving to New York, only to return, “defeated by the city,” six months later. She went on to work at the Blue Lamp, a heroin-friendly dive in the Tenderloin, where she’d cross paths with Kreayshawn, now a rapper and then a toddler. Among the others she met then was someone who’d robbed banks—not as a radical but as a junkie. In a late moment of self-revelation in The Flamethrowers, Reno tells us, “I was shopping for experience.” But Kushner denies that she’s ever slummed it with any ulterior motive. “It’s important to me,” she e-mailed at one point, “that you understand that I do not have experiences in order to write about them. I live in order to live.”

Kushner’s Blue Lamp night shifts left her days free to ride motorcycles. Prodded by a mechanic she was dating, she entered an illegal race in Baja and crashed at 140 miles per hour, miraculously hobbling away, as Reno does on the Bonneville Salt Flats, with a sprained ankle and severe road rash. “I didn’t feel fear as much as humiliation,” she says. “When I read Céline, I think of that moment, because he’s just so self-deprecating: ‘Great, I die now.’ ”

Her parents don’t remember hearing about the crash for a decade. But they were worrying. Laissez-faire as they were, they prized accomplishment. Her father’s favorite question, Kushner recalls, was: “What’s your contribution to the world?” (He’s spent his life trying to cure breast cancer.)

“I wanted her to use her multidimensional talents in some way,” Peter Kushner says. “I just hoped she would find her career outside the bar.” Rachel floated the idea of graduate studies in English, but her mother—an English-department refugee—just said, “For God’s sake, learn how to write first.” Peter remembers giving her similar advice on a drive across the Bay Bridge. “I said, ‘You know, if you write a book of your own, it’s there for all time.’ ”

Having written some stories and poems in high school (along with a first-grade booklet about “the richest cat in hestery”), Kushner took a workshop at the New College of California. Her teacher, the poet Lyn Hejinian, took her out to coffee and shared her own past; she’d once run away to Mexico with a hot biker. “I felt acknowledged by her,” Kushner says. “She was saying you could be a serious person even though you’re a frivolous hipster on a motorcycle.”

Hejinian encouraged Kushner to go to Columbia for an M.F.A., because “you can make connections in the city itself.” And so she did, beginning with her workshop teacher, Jonathan Franzen.

“She was a happening person,” Franzen remembers. “She didn’t come in in an anxious, preprofessional way. She walked in like somebody who had been out in the real world until five minutes ago,” and “the work showed it. She wasn’t preoccupied with form. She wasn’t copying anybody. She wrote the most interesting stories of anyone in that class, but she wrote in a very artless way.” She turned in “semi-processed raw material,” he says. “As far as I can tell, she’s still teaching herself how to write.” Franzen referred her to his influential agent, Susan Golomb, who took her on.

Kushner made connections with writers in those years but not many friends. She found authors’ interests too domestic and disparate, stored up in separate silos according to style and subject matter. “I’ve never really been one for just hanging out,” she says. “I liked having a social life that had a kind of intellectual purpose.”

She found that life in the art world—not just what she calls its “one shared specific discourse” but the scene’s sense of itself, which felt like Kushner’s own: both above and below the “technocracy,” brainy one moment and outrageous the next, rebellious but eager to make lasting contributions, and full of people who fancied themselves a menace to bourgeois life even as they floated above the class structure. And like another of Kushner’s fascinations, utopian politics, it fed the fantasy that it might be possible to live outside the real world.

Through the painter Alex Brown, Kushner got to know artists affiliated with the Lower East Side’s Feature gallery. Some of her evenings were spent at a friend’s place back on Mulberry Street. “I didn’t really know that much about the art world at all,” she says. “Mostly it was people talking over my head.” But she was a quick study—she’d soon be writing for Artforum, a lot—and she wanted nothing from them but inspiration. “All of the people seemed so interesting to me. They were characters who kind of performed themselves for the audience of their friends.”

One of them, a key mentor, was Knight Landesman, the Artforum publisher. After finishing her M.F.A., Kushner interviewed to be Artforum’s managing editor, but Landesman steered her instead to a job at Bomb, a downtown quarterly with the mission statement “Revelations happen in conversations.” He spoke to me in his office, stark white except for mounds of loose papers and framed art, and wore orange from his collar down to his clogs. “She’s comfortable in the art world,” he said. “It’s a place that I think she enjoys looking at. It’s one of the few places in America where all the classes meet.”

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.”

The Cool in Her