Rachel Kushner is best known for her National Book Award nominated novel, The Flamethrowers, which so polarized critics they all but joined teams and sported jerseys. James Wood, the occasionally cranky New Yorker critic and, some would say, the best English-speaking critic alive today, went intellectually coocoo for the novel; one would think he’d finally found his CocoaPuffs. Yet other cranky men, such as Christian Lorentzen and the poet Frederick Seidell, seemed genuinely pissed off by Kushner’s unladylike ambition. In retort, Salon’s Laura Miller, an altogether more reasonable critic, wrote “Rachel Kushner’s ambitious new novel scares male critics." And the rest, I’m tempted to say, because it sounds nice, is history. But of course it’s not history, since this trend, or dialectic, or whatever you want to call it, of old white guys either loving or hating a younger woman’s ambitious work and then a younger and more nuanced woman coming along to sort out what’s what and why, repeats today (see reviews of Patricia Lockwood), and will repeat tomorrow, and probably for years afterward, unless patriarchy and capitalism die, or the apocalypse kills everyone, or something equally extreme.
This is a review of an earlier Kushner book, or rather not an earlier Kushner book—it’s set to appear this February—but a book made up of earlier works: The Strange Case of Rachel K (New Directions), a collection of three stories plus an introduction by the author. This book likely won’t get much attention, except from lit nerds like me, and readers like you, I’ll assume, since you’re reading this (thank you). Generally, readers who pick up and read such humble and hard-to-find works as The Strange Case of Rachel K do so either because they’re loyal fans of the author or they’re invested in reading widely and unevenly; they want to read both the good and the bad, and maybe also the ugly. The Strange Case of Rachel K offers all of the above.
The Kushner of The Strange Case of Rachel K is interested primarily in myth, sex, epistemology and rhetoric, the boundaries of what can be known and how, the female and male gaze, and infinity. She draws from (or appropriates?) Latin American modes such as magic realism, and she explores, à la Borges and Bolaño, the boundaries between rational and irrational, real and dream. In “The Strange Case of Rachel K” (the story) the protagonist, a courtesan of dubious origin, contemplates her reflection in a mirror; she lives, in a way, in a dreamy Borgesian labyrinth, here in the form of a mise-en-abyme:
Sometimes it seemed that her entire adolescence had been lived in the dressing room mirrors of the Caba-ret Tokio. She’d spent hours gazing into them, locked out and wanting to get inside, where the world was the same, but silvery and greenish, doubled and reversed. The same, but different. When she was alone in the dressing room she’d sidle up and press her cheek to the silver and look sidelong into the mirror, hoping to catch a glimpse—of what?—whatever its invisible secret was….(55-56).
All three of Kushner’s stories are set, mostly, in Latin America; one, “The Great Exception,” is set partly in Portugal, the abusive colonial father of Brazil, who doesn’t give a shit about consent. In the introduction to her book, which reads more like a statement of purpose to an artwork than a preamble to a literary work (Kushner has much experience as an art critic), Kushner explains the genesis of this story:
One day ten years ago I sat down and for approximately twenty hours read an enormous book on the history of so-called civilization, a work of seductive details (the Peruvians believed the world was a box with a ridged top, the Egyptians that it was an egg) and an Occidental outlook, critical of every religion and ideology except the dogma of progress itself. Its successive assertions— “People who could agree on few other facts about the remote regions of the Earth somehow agreed on the geography of the afterworld” and “More appealing than knowledge itself was the feeling of knowing”—were like the galloping of horses to me. My heart beat with their hooves. I wanted to run alongside, but with my own version of discovery and progress. I did so, by writing “The Great Exception.”
“The Great Exception” gets at the feeling of knowing, which is different from actually knowing. “If a writer is always trying to keep a narrator emitting a tone of complete knowingness, it can become false,” Kushner said in an interview with The New York Times. Yet, that’s precisely what the narrator succeeds at doing in “The Great Exception." Statements that are factually false or impossible are told as though true; lies are cloaked in a rhetoric so confident as to believable, for a second at least. In “The Great Exception,” a Cuban “Tribe Taster” says, “in a language now lost, that the Admiral tasted like rubber bands,” and this, of course, is impossible. If the Tribe Taster’s language is now lost, then how does the narrator know what he said? But the narrator delivers this line with such conviction that you feel that you know it, before you really think about it, and by that point it doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
But as I said, the book is also at times bad and even ugly. Young Kushner is a streaky writer. There’s something stilted about her writing, something timid. The drive to analyse is distinct from the drive to create, and Kushner is too analytic here to write, for example, believable characters who seem to live outside the text. I once had a philosophy professor confess to his Bambi-eyed admirers (myself included) that he doesn’t care for concept art. “I’m a philosopher,” he said. “I deal with enough concepts already. When I go to a museum, I want to experience something else.” My problem with The Strange Case of Rachel K is that it’s more conceptual than artful. Read, again, the first passage I quoted, “Sometimes it seemed that her entire adolescence…” This reads like a summary of a character, the type you’d read in a book review; the character is more conceptual than breathing, more two-dimensional than three. Prose seems to be a vehicle through which Kushner explores ideas, which is fine, but unfortunately she’s so caught up in exploring ideas that she forgets, or maybe even doesn’t care to, create believable fictions: believable settings, sounds, voices, moods.
The Strange Case of Rachel K is out via New Directions on February 15, 2015.