You need not have read Rachel Kushner’s novels to appreciate her prismatic essay collection, The Hard Crowd. If you have, though, it’s not hard to see the material preoccupations of her fiction refracted in the 19 essays here. Written over two decades, these pieces seem to cover a lot of territory: motorcycles, a refugee camp, truckers, prisons, art, cinema, rock ’n’ roll, and literary criticism. Yet all of them are vehicles for the spirits of people on the fringes. Kushner writes with equal verve about the self’s ecstatic movement into the world and the world’s permeation of self.
Rachel Kushner discusses The Mars Room with the California Book Club on Thursday, May 20 at 5 p.m. Pacific time.
The Hard Crowd opens with “Girl on a Motorcycle,” which recalls a one-day motorcycle race down Highway 1. Kushner was 24, and her boyfriend at the time was an older man whose motto, tellingly, was “Ride aggressively or die in the saddle.” This echoes the second chapter in her novel The Flamethrowers, where an artist named Reno—also fascinated with motorcycles—asks, “What about going as fast as you possibly could?”
Kushner’s essays are about people driven to speed past the boundaries of even their own bodies. Her passion for motorcycles, and perhaps also for radical class politics and books, started with her father. When it grew too dark to work on his motorcycle, he went to the pub to read for the free electricity. “We had no religion or traditions in our house,” she writes in “Tramping in the Byways,” a lively piece about the essayist David Rattray, who was her father’s friend. “We had an assortment of characters who took up residence in our lives, and we had books.”
Throughout the collection, she sketches a “gallery of souls” with knowing lines. In “Bad Captains,” she gives us Captain Francesco Schettino, who jumped into a lifeboat and abandoned passengers on his capsizing cruise ship. Her talent is to home in on his charisma—“a full-blooded and virile affect”—before cutting him with dry wit: “Vanity pours in where intelligence might be absent or might have vacated itself, at least temporarily.” Her own intelligence emerges most fiercely in literary essays about Denis Johnson, Marguerite Duras, and Clarice Lispector: novelists whose books share rough kinship with her own. A self-described Johnson acolyte, she argues in “Earth Angel” for his lasting relevance. “Denis Johnson understood,” she tells us, “…the contradictory nature of truth.”
Kushner’s attention to precise contradictions lends texture to her prose. In “Happy Hour,” she marks Jeff Koons’s voice as carrying “so much doubt and rasp to it that I could not match it to the beaming, gleaming, schoolboy face of the world’s most famous artist.” “Is Prison Necessary?,” meanwhile, offers a profile of California prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who believes that it’s easy to sympathize with nonviolent offenders but harder to question organized violence against those more criminalized.
This embrace of paradox raises the grain of Kushner’s thinking. “Later I told myself and everyone else how wonderful it was in the Shuafat camp,” she writes in “We Are Orphans Here” about her visit to a Palestinian refugee camp. “How safe I felt. How positive Baha was. All of that still feels true. But I also insisted, to myself and everyone else, that Baha never expressed any fears for his own safety. In looking at my notes, I see now that my insistence on this point was sheer will.” She is implicating no one so much as herself.
Earlier this year, Kushner published The Mayor of Leipzig, a winking, self-referential novella about an artist who has contempt for “art world types”—especially the author Rachel Kushner. It seems right, then, that we learn in “Made to Burn” how Kushner used images to write The Flamethrowers. Images spur the writing of novels; they also unlock feeling. She writes: “An appeal to images is a demand for love. We want something more than just their mute glory. We want them to give up a clue, a key.”
Each piece leaves traces in others, dissolving from ferocity into yearning. The indelible title essay is about leaving San Francisco, its million stories that stay with her, a past that “seeps and stains instead of fades.” Kushner muses that she didn’t write about most of the people at the Blue Lamp, a Tenderloin dive bar where she once bartended. “If I transformed them into fiction,” she writes, “I might lose my grasp on the real place, the evidence of which has otherwise evaporated.” She stayed out late, but she was the soft one, always at a remove, absorbing events. “To become a writer,” she continues, “is to have left early no matter what time you got home.” Still, or yet again, a paradox glints under these recollections. Electric with life, they suggest she never quite left.
In “Not with the Band,” Kushner recalls her youth in the Bay Area rock scene. Like her other essays, it’s full of keen insights about art, money, and capitalism. She describes a party given in Van Morrison’s honor. He showed up late in the rain and, assumed to be a hobo, wasn’t invited inside. “This seemed right to me,” Kushner writes, in what feels like a defining observation. “To make the art, and disappoint those who want to put you in their limelight.”