Rachel Kushner recently became the only writer to be a National Book Award finalist for both her first and second novels. The Flamethrowers launches its protagonist, Reno, into the twin hothouses of the SoHo art scene and Italian radical politics in the 1970s. After several years in New York as an editor at Grand Street and Bomb, Kushner now lives in LA, where she talked to Richard Wirick, author of the new novel The Devil’s Water, about art, sentences and motorbikes.
Richard Wirick Flamethrowers opens, after its WW1 set piece, with these beautiful descriptions of velocity and danger. Reno is racing a bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats and remembers her hero, Flip, who’s obviously based on Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons, the land speed record holders (in jet-propelled cars) my cousins and I worshipped as kids. Do you race motorcycles?
Rachel Kushner I dabbled a bit. My first bike was a Moto Guzzi V50, a really quick 500 with a beautiful orange tank. I spent a few years immersed in motorcycle culture in San Francisco. I had grown up around them: my dad has a Vincent Black Shadow that was in our garage when I was a child. And then as an adult, I rode it more than he did. I once raced a Ninja in an illegal road race in Mexico called the Cabo One Thousand, where you span the entire length of Baja (1100 miles) in one day. But I no longer ride – too dangerous, I have a child.
RW Very few motorcycle-riding writers, I would observe. Maybe T.E. Lawrence.
RK He died on a Brough Superior, but I don’t think of him primarily as a writer. Hell’s Angels is a pretty great book, and Hunter Thompson rode with them, but not on a Harley. I think he had a BSA Lightning, but I can’t remember.
RW You shift so well between the ’70s downtown art scene, its politics, and the strife of the Years of Lead in Italy.
RK As you say, I shift from one to the other, rather than attempt to suggest parallels. Still, there was some interesting overlap. Gordon Matta-Clark’s half-brother was an Italian radical involved with the Metropolitan Indians. There is of course a lot more at stake in Italy in the 1970s than in the New York art world. Society was basically unravelling.
RW The ’70s was at first an underwritten decade: people assumed nothing significant could have happened in the shadow of a decade as tumultuous as its predecessor. What attracted you to that time besides the art and political scenes?
RK The book also includes a thread of machines, speed, war, technology, factories, the closure of the factory. It’s a hugely important decade historically, marking the end of the industrial age in the US. Plus, it’s culturally an interesting era, an important time for conceptual art. There were some great films made. And New York City was an actually cool place to live, where cheap rents and a cheap life could be had by creative people not looking to be professionalised.
RW Shifting back to the SoHo art world, you seem to have a reverence for some of the artists, as does Reno, which wasn’t shared by a lot of critics. Robert Hughes saw Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings as kind of fraudulent…
RK A lot of critics made their names championing the artists of the 1970s: Douglas Crimp, Rosalind Krauss and Lucy Lippard, just to name a few. And my god, seriously – Robert Hughes? He dismissed anything that came after the frescoes in Pompeii, and actually, I believe he said the whole Roman empire was arriviste. He knows nothing about modern or contemporary art. In any case the 1970s is a high time, critically. There is, coming out of minimalism, at the beginning of the decade, the great Eva Hesse and Richard Serra. Yvonne Rainer, Robert Morris. Land Art, Smithson, Heizer, Holt. There’s Gordon Matta-Clark. The hugely important moment of the dematerialisation of the art object, as a practice and a critical discourse. The “pictures generation” – Jack Goldstein, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince. I could go on and on.
RW Who guided your choice of art critics, and who guided Reno’s?
RK I’ve read the critics I just mentioned and I guess most of what was written about the 1970s, from the magazines and journals of the time – Artforum, Avalanche, October, several others – and it was a time when artists made their own discourse about their own work, so artists’ statements matter, too. Reno doesn’t include a discussion of art criticism in the novel though. That would be deadly.
RW In another interview you answered a question about how you sometimes focus on women who “perform a sort of erotic self-presentation, and the tension that surrounds that”. Where does Reno fit into that, if at all?
RK She fits into that, I think, in the way that all women perform a sort of erotic self-presentation, to lesser and more extreme degrees. Learning to be feminine is a lifelong project for women, even if no one admits it. But Reno’s also a less-gendered, not-performing, thinking mind encountering a world – the contrived sex on sale on 42nd Street in the book, the movie Behind the Green Door – a woman who sees other women’s games and put-ons and is impressed, wants to understand them. And in those realms she’s a baffled explorer, if astute enough to see the power plays, and is aware of an erotics of debasement.
RW James Wood said Reno reminded him of Frédéric Moreau in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. I thought that was misplaced because Moreau was full of guile, very manipulative, and bought into the whole disaster of French literary society being co-opted into the fashion world. He was a sell-out.
RK I don’t disagree with Wood, actually. Perhaps the moral overtones in Sentimental Education are absent in my book; I see my own work as a document shot through with ambivalence, and also affection, for everyone in it. Actually, I don’t see Reno as guileless. She’s no more naïve than I am. She has a lot to say about landscape, people, ideas, art. She knows to be quiet in order to learn something.
RW I wonder if you have any formal or informal rules on the composition of sentences? You like DeLillo, and he talks about being so controlled by a rhythm – much like a poet – that he’ll strike out nouns and substantive meanings to make a sentence march along to it.
RK The sentence is very intuitive for me; it’s about the sound and cadence. DeLillo conveys the notion he is always in control, and that no moment is too small to be perfect as a chain of words on a page. I don’t have any formal rules. Maybe I should. But I’ve internalised them, I think; the song of a chain of words for me is the same when I write it down as it is four or five years later in the final phase of editing and production, and I will notice if the tiniest thing gets messed with. Some sentences can be improved, of course. Others, the best ones, probably, arrive whole cloth, before I have written them down.
RW What do you look for when writing? Delight? As in “Energy is pure . . .”
RK Pleasure is important, but a very particular kind of pleasure. I look for tone; I have to find my way into the register of the work. Once I’m in, the tone guides me, and it is the energy, definitely; it becomes the sensibility of the book, its secret voice. Under the domain of tone, so many technical and logistical problems fall away. It’s not always easy to locate, and not always easy to sustain.
RW Do you like being around fellow writers? Are you like the photographer in DeLillo’s Mao II who says, “I have this disease called writers”? I’d assume you’re more interested in being with artists.
RK I don’t relate to the – or a – “literary world”. I don’t know why, exactly. I have some writer friends with whom I enjoy meaningful exchanges. We are all solitary people who write one another emails or letters. There’s no social life of that kind for me. No cocktail parties, etc. It’s easy for me to stay away from it because I don’t live in New York City. But even when I’m there, which is often, I don’t circulate in that world. Art and politics: I guess those are more my scenes. §