With the publication in 2013 of her celebrated second novel, The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner earned the rare distinction of becoming a crossover novelist embraced by the art world. It helped that The Flamethrowers focused on a group of struggling artists in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s, back when one could afford to be such a thing, before the rows and rows of commercial white cubes invaded the city. Among the novel’s artist cameos are Walter De Maria and an inebriated John Chamberlain. One character shares a name with John Dogg, the alter ego of Richard Prince. The fictional art dealer Helen Hellenberger, a ruthless businesswoman, gradually capitalizing on the more talented people around her, is the book’s ur-gallerist and has quite a lot in common with Mary Boone, the real-life stalwart of the Manhattan art scene who started the careers and fortunes of many a market darling years before contemporary art would become a truly big business. Ultimately, the novel is so beloved because it transcends the guest appearances and veiled allusions, instead holding a dark mirror to New York’s former downtown scene, offering an alternate history of the metastasizing tumor of wealth and mediocrity that the scene was to become.
Her follow-up, The Strange Case of Rachel K (New Directions, 2015), a collection of early stories published this winter, would feel like a minor release if it weren’t so timely. I’m writing this on the same day that President Obama’s new rules for visiting Cuba have been enacted, easing travel restrictions to the country, further dismantling 50 years of Cold War freeze-out that began to thaw with the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in December last year.
The work collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K provided the basis for Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, about Americans in Cuba before Castro’s revolution. Telex from Cuba is a remarkable first book, a historical novel in the tradition of Hilary Mantel, in which the narrative’s closeness to the actual past is not a mere platter on which to serve up a heavy dose of dramatic irony. Taking the Marxist view of the historical novel literally, it presents a malleable vision of the past as a kind of corrective to open up the possibility of change in the present.
Telex from Cuba weaves two separate threads together—one featuring the idyllic but ultimately empty lives of the families of company men working for the American government in Cuba’s Oriente province. The men, overseeing acres of sugarcane and nickel mines, drink martinis in white suits while the women try to make the best out of La Epoca, “a middle brow department store in Holguin,” which takes two hours of travel to reach. The other story is of Rachel K, a popular burlesque dancer and escort in Havana, who counts among her most loyal customers President Carlos Prío Socarrás, recently deposed in a military coup by Fulgencio Batista, a self-proclaimed “dictator with the people,” Kushner writes. The French journalist Christian de la Mazière, who had previously defected to the Nazis during his home country’s so-called “liberation,” enlists Rachel K, with the help of Fidel and Raul Castro, both quietly planning in the mountains, to convince Prío to fund a war to overthrow Batista’s dictatorship. These stories—the prelapsarian soap opera and the war between good and evil—converge when one of the Americans’ sons heads to the mountains to join the cause.
Kushner gets away with a lot in this novel simply by not overplaying her hand. She maintains a striking level of ambiguity in the morality of the Castro brothers, casting them as more or less neutral, not quite the heroes of the story, but not exactly villains either. “Of the two brothers,” Rachel K thinks, “she secretly preferred Raul, partly because of his homosexual put-on. Fidel was more likely, she guessed, to go that way. Too bristlingly macho to be truly interested in women.” (Later on in the book, we possibly witness Fidel “go that way,” up in the mountains.) When a drunk Ernest Hemingway makes his inevitable arrival, Kushner twists the romantic notion of the Great Novelist gleaning inspiration from this violent paradise: he’s drunk at the Pan-American club, trying to talk up another patron who would rather be left alone, eventually offering a toast before blacking out: “To humping,” he says. I think Telex from Cuba should be sold at any airport offering direct flights to Havana.
The name Rachel K is a knowing wink toward Kushner’s own authority over her story. Rachel K is the catalyst through which history enters the otherwise imagined events of the novel, quite directly connecting the historical figures—the Castros, Batista, Prío, Mazière—and anointing them into the story, a paratextual reference to Kushner bending history to her will. In the introduction to The Strange Case of Rachel K, Kushner describes this editorial decision further, saying the title comes from a Cuban film from the 1970s about a “1930s courtesan found murdered in a hotel room” that Kushner admits to never having seen. “You might notice that she shares my name,” she writes. “I did too. Writers who have rejected logic and science, those galloping horses, take a different path, through coincidence, the cunning of reason, and mystical signs pointing in the direction that is to be taken.”
I wouldn’t say that Kushner has rejected logic—indeed, her two novels are meticulously plotted, their tragic conclusions nearly forewarned—but these early stories do map out Kushner’s future direction. The first story here, “The Great Exception,” is a mythological retelling of Cuba’s founding. A character referred to only as “the Admiral,” searching for “the Orient,” lands instead in a place the natives call “Kuba.” His moment of discovery resembles a stranger walking into a house, peering through a curtain to see if anyone’s home: “He anchored in one of its eastern harbors, whose shore was paved with pulverized white diamonds. Beyond the white diamond shore was a thick curtain of monochrome green vines. The Admiral parted the vines and called out, ‘Hello?’ ” Kushner cuts to the Admiral’s body simmering “over a fire of mangrove charcoal, in a soup that bubbled and steamed.” The story is a sinister preamble, eventually giving way to the Havana of the title story, the one that is the backdrop for Kushner’s novel, “a metropolis ringed in desperation,” aglow in the light of “smokily typhoid trash fires” with “flesh and decadence masking some kind of horror, like makeup over a bruise.” We all know what happened in the half century between when this story is set and when this book was published, but even history can offer occasional surprises. The past will repeat itself over and over, until it stops.
M.H. Miller is senior editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 20 under the title “See You in Havana.”