Rachel Kushner’s American Gothic
The Bestselling Author And National Book Award Finalist (Twice) Is Building Characters
- Text: Ana Cecilia Alvarez
- Photography: Sam Muller
The image on the cover of Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is Nan Goldin’s “Amanda in the Mirror” taken in Berlin in 1992. Amanda is looking at herself through a mirror, sallow and severe, holding a cosmetic case—her face etched over by the novel’s title in handwritten neon like a Tracey Emin sculpture. Kushner is the first novelist to receive consecutive National Book Awards nominations —in 2008 for Telex From Cuba and in 2013 for The Flamethrowers. The Mars Room, published earlier this year was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. The novel is as much about prison as it is about the economic and terrestrial aridity of the Central Valley, about the grimy nihilism of youth living in pre-Silicon Valley San Francisco, about the negotiations and refusals inherent to sex work, and about the misunderstandings and contradictions inherent to liberal imaginings of “innocence” and “guilt.” It is also a darkly hilarious book, and a true page-turner.
Actress Rose McGowan recently offered an ekphrastic channeling of Amanda’s interior world: “I came in here for a fix. I stare in the mirror, perhaps for the fifth or sixth time today. I am stripping myself bare to inject the dark whispers that weigh on my mind. Every time I look in a mirror, a challenge to myself and every time a challenge I lose. Who is it staring back? Am I looking at myself with my own eyes or is it society I see? Am I seeing myself as me? Who is me? Goddamnit these overhead lights. I’m losing again. More powder. I challenge you.”.
While reading The Mars Room, Amanda became my Romy Leslie Hall, the novel’s protagonist. Romy is a stripper and single mother from San Francisco’s Sunset District, who, in the book’s first pages, is staring through the metal-gridded windows of a bus, headed to serve two life sentences in a women’s prison in California’s Central Valley in the first years of the twenty-first century. In her past novels, Kushner flexed her intellectual and narrative faculty on historical landscapes—Cuba in the 1950s, Italy and New York City in 1970s—but with the The Mars Room, Kushner deploys her prowess on the near-present, echoing the prescient social perception of John Steinbeck, another Californian author.
She has a book of Steinbeck’s resting on her coffee table—Of Mice and Men, her son’s copy—as well as catalogues of Cy Twombly and Austrian artist, Valie Export. We met in October at her home in Echo Park to talk, a half-mile, she tells me, from Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, where she occasionally goes to watch arraignments and study the theatricality of court. Kushner is as cool and erudite as her novels, and her face somehow reminds me of PJ Harvey’s or Sofia Coppola’s. She tells me she’s recently finished writing a profile for The New York Times Magazine of geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, whose academic research studies how global and local economic and political forces produced the Californian prison boom. She’s also recently finished an essay for a Gagosian catalogue of Richard Prince, a “kind of friend,” about her adolescent years, which she later shares with me. It’s an inside-joke, of sorts, with Prince. “I am talking about my life,” she writes in it. “Which not only can’t matter to you, it might bore you. Get your own gig, and you can bore me.”
Ana Cecilia Alvarez
You’ve said that your latest novel, The Mars Room, is about California, which felt very true while reading it. Why were you drawn to write about California? And why did you choose to live to Los Angeles?
I love Los Angeles for a lot of different reasons. First would be its unknowability. The vastness of the place, and not just spatially. It contains many worlds. So many that I will never know them all. The beauty here can be subtle. A person has to learn how to appreciate less obvious forms of it. Also, Los Angeles reflects the brutality of the very near future, and for better or worse, I find the ability to see, and to live in dialogue with this brutality, useful. California currently has the highest poverty rate in the nation. Los Angeles also has a very high poverty rate. But if you are involved in life here, involved with people around you, who live here, you know that by what you see around you. L.A. is somehow a forecast of what things are going to be like. Drought, heat, concentrations of wealth in real estate, an economy built and shaped by the relentless pace of global capitalism, people spit out onto the streets, it’s all here. We are the manufacturing capital of the US (although it’s not steel and automobiles like it used to be – it’s T-shirts and underpants). And we bring in 40% of goods by shipping container through our two ports. L.A. as a city functions in an economy that basically includes 30 million people, if you consider that the surrounding southland counties are so interconnected, all the way down to Tijuana. L.A. is huge, and hugely diverse, and has no order, and very little civility. It’s a fucked up place and if you’re engaged in the fuckedupness of the world, it IS the world, and a very interesting one.
You are interested, as you write in an essay about Richard Hambleton, whom you knew as Red, for Harper’s, in “lives lived otherwise,” and not only unconventional or eccentric lives, but socially marginal lives—
I think that depending on what you’re used to, one’s awareness of less conventional approaches to life is relative. I don’t actively focus on socially marginal lives. It’s not conscious. I am and feel far away from the literary world and perhaps that distance has something to do with what I write about. In any case, I am not interested in judging people or categorizing them because I won’t understand anything about them by doing that.
Right. You’ve said in a talk you gave on prison abolition for Triple Canopy that you are, “trying to think compassionately about people who are invisible.” I suspect this is a reason your fiction is never generic. It doesn’t fall into the trap, or the stereotypical failure of contemporary literature, which is to just reproduce generic, bourgeois values, or to recapitulate the worries of the rich. Is there anything about you that draws you to, or even helps you recognize, the marginality in people like Red, or in the characters that you create?
I cannot help but have compassion because I am sure that every person has a soul. But what we need is a new society where rich people don’t get to wring their hands and feel pious with their compassion, while continuing to be rich. But I don’t know how we get there. It’s going to be a long and complicated struggle and I will not see the outcome in my lifetime.
In terms of literature, to write you have to find a way to activate your own sensibility and I try to do that. Maybe I was shaped by my childhood, which was populated by a mix of unconventional people. Red was like the kind of people my parents always had around. My comfort zone is I guess kind of broad. But there is nothing deliberate or intentional about that. It’s not something that even occurred to me until you asked. I don’t seek out “characters”—I just … live. But I was born into a family full of characters so my sense of normalcy might be different from someone else’s. My mom and I collected bottles and cans on weekends when I was a kid. We hitchhiked everywhere when all my parents had was their hippy bus and the bus was broken anyway. Later, as a teenager, I was instructed by my mother to ride Greyhound because she felt it would build my character, though maybe it was also that she couldn’t afford an Amtrak ticket.
My mom’s older sister DeeDee Halleck is a video-activist and artist, and tireless anticapitalist. She has always been a big influence. She’s the hippest person I know, at 80. I was just with her in New York City last week. We went to see James Benning’s first film together. It was my birthday and that’s how I wanted to spend it, sitting with my aunt in James’s 1977 movie, 11 by 14. It turned out the star of the film, Serafina Bathrick, had also worked on projects with my aunt. We hung out with James and then drove upstate to visit my cousin who is a farmer in Delaware County. I said, “DeeDee, the car smells,” and she said, “I have my compost in the back but I brought sage so we can cover up the smell.” [Laughs] I’m an uptight princess compared to the rest of my family.
What do you refuse to spend money on? And what will you spend irrational scores of money on?
I have a classic, a ’64 Ford Galaxie 500, two door, but my daily driver is a 2000 Honda, and it looks so bad. The UV coating on the paint is peeling off. Someone stole the Honda emblem from the front. But it runs perfectly. I take pride in driving a “bucket” as some might call it. I even thought there is a certain caché to it, because any jerk can have a new car, but other people have told me it just looks bad instead of cool. [Laughs] But buying a new car could be a whole year of my son’s college tuition, and I just can’t imagine doing that.
On what will I spare no expense? Probably my Galaxie. I got the interior redone and a high quality paint job and some rechroming. And I’d like to get new rims for it. So, that’s, in a way, contradictory, because the sky is the limit for my classic, but I won’t ever worry about the shabbiness of the Honda. I’ll just say now though that if I did cave in and get a new car even if I got some dull practical car like a Subaru I might have to dress it up with gold tint windows and a neon under-car kit. I don’t have a reason why, I just know what’s what I’d do.
Early in the The Mars Room, Romy is retelling memories from her past. She notes, “A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book.” What worlds, otherwise unknown to history, reside in you?
Writing this book clarified for me that one thing a writer is doing when making fiction is making a space to give voice and documentation to things that otherwise will be lost to time. I was thinking of all these scenes, places, moments, from my youth in San Francisco. It’s all gone now, as it is for everyone who has left childhood to become an adult. The older you get, the more you live part of your reality in the storehouse of those places. There was something about the activity of writing this book and the loss for Romy of her freedom that heightened the importance of some of these scenes, and people, and places, because everything is gone for her, and at the end of that chapter, she asks, where is everybody, and what has happened to them? And I feel that way all the time. Don DeLillo said that when he wrote Underworld there was a period of time when he was the world’s leading expert on four square blocks off Arthur Avenue. I felt that gave me permission to do that for the Sunset district, which is where I spent my youth, and that this was important work, not objectively to other people, but for this book and for me, just to see what it would produce, to recreate that place in fiction.
Speaking of the past, tell me about 23-year-old Rachel Kushner.
That time is kind of a blur. I wasn’t trying to become a writer yet, I don’t think. I had wanted to be a writer when I was young. After I graduated from college—I was 21—I moved home to San Francisco. My friends from growing up were still there. I’d gone across the Bay to college, which some people consider the start of your “real” life, after which you go and do something grand. And I went home and just hung out with my hometown friends and was a bohemian in a bar scene. It had been considered a disloyalty that I had gone to college; that wasn’t something you did. Being smart and good in school did not get you any points in my crew.
They just gave you some side-eyes.
More like open contempt.
You laugh, but I cry. Anyhow, there was a recession in 1991 and it was really hard to get a job. The other obstacle for me to getting a job is that I didn’t want a job and wasn’t willing to try to be, and to appear, employable. The US had just invaded Iraq. For the previous decade the US government had been engaged in illegal wars in El Salvador and Guatemala and Honduras, was training a counterinsurgency to invade Nicaragua, and I was just very disillusioned and also nihilistic. I had no intention of joining the straight world. I had no plans for the future. I got a job making sandwiches in a brewery and did that until I got my first bartending job in the Tenderloin—a lot of those bars are gone now—called The Blue Lamp. There was a whole constellation of bars people went to who lived in the Tenderloin SRO’s: The Coral Sea, Cinnebar, Jolene’s, the Driftwood. It was a derelict scene but there were some interesting people that I got to know really quite well. The bar owner used to ride his Harley Davidson right into the bar. My first shift there was the morning. I worked from 7 A.M. to 2 P.M. I was treated like an idiot by these old drunks because I didn’t know how to make their Harvey Wallbanger or how to reset the poker machine or whatever. I didn’t know the codes, and the only way to acquire them was to listen to people and let them teach me, and that’s a dynamic I’ve always gravitated toward for some reason, the feeling that knowledge can’t be acquired except by life practice. I also rode and worked on motorcycles. I would park my Guzzi in front of The Blue Lamp and the girls who worked that street corner watched my bike for me.
So, I was a bohemian who was from and lived in San Francisco, which in a lot of ways is a provincial place. The city didn’t extend my imagining of what life could be. It was frowned upon to do something ambitious, like to become a writer or artist. Nobody tried; that would have made you a sellout. It was the early 90s. We all worked in cash jobs. No one had a bank account. Everyone slept all day. Et cetera.
Right, like a Slacker mentality.
That was a real thing that Richard Linklater was capturing. I mean those people were a little more nerdy, more wholesome than what San Francisco was like, which was not at all wholesome. It was just my reality at the time. I didn’t know anybody there who really had any ambitions so I wanted to leave and go to New York City.
Where all the people with ambitions go.
Yes, I tried to move there in 1991 when I was 22. I got an apartment with my friend Dave on Clinton Street. I think our apartment was $600 a month, which seemed like a lot of money, and I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t have any connections in the bar world there, and bartending was my only skill. We left, defeated and broke, and went back to San Francisco. Everyone I knew back at home was into quasi-criminal enterprises, or welfare scams or other forms of creative unemployment. Sometimes I think that if I didn’t live the life I lived when I was young, maybe my fiction would be better, because I would have been training to do it from much earlier. Then again, maybe it would be worse.
Where do you locate glamour?
I am not sure; it’s not something I am used to being asked. But looking around, I am kind of into my stuff, although not everyone might find it glamorous — my husband and son say it’s like living in a flea market in this place. It’s all treasures I’ve collected over the years. Like that rattan chair with the tall back and the bow, and the way it’s the color of burlap, is pretty glamorous to me. Old things are not just about amassing stuff. They are storehouses of history. There’s a passage in Proust about the narrator’s grandmother’s taste for items whose “long desuetude had effaced from them any semblance of utility and fitted them rather to instruct us in the lives of the men of other days than to serve the common requirements of our own.” This house is full of that. And I’m like the grandmother, whose gift-giving is never a banal and useful and brand new chair, but instead an interesting ancient one that will likely fall apart when you go to sit on it. I am a nostalgic person, so thrift stores are a weakness—I don’t go that much anymore because I am busy—but there are certain towns I don’t want to name —
Because you don’t want to spoil them!
I respect withholding that information.
My mom shopped at Goodwill; her entire house, her kitchen, it’s all stuff she collected there, and mine is too. We still go to Goodwill together. And one day around the corner from here she found a beautiful wool blanket on the street and we dry-cleaned it and it’s my favorite blanket. Someone had hand-sewn a velvet border on it. My son and I go to antique stalls and look at old tools, odd objects whose meaning has been lost to time. I often am just looking at the things in the background of scenes in old movies and asking, "Where are those things?" Both gone and present at the same time. Like that little suitcase that Grace Kelly pops open in Rear Window that has her little pink nightgown in it. I am not especially into Grace Kelly, but I thought of that because it’s an obvious example of an object where you think, well the object exists on celluloid and everybody can watch this movie, and it marks her deliberate intention to spend the night at his house, as she has come prepared. But in real life that little suitcase has been obliterated in the holocaust of time.
That reminds of a section from Practicalities by Marguerite Duras—
Oh that’s one of my favorite books. She says women who don’t attend to household repairs are useless, so I am one of the useless.
Same! She writes about this chest of drawers. One of the drawers is stuck and she eventually jostles it out and finds a decades-old silk slip of the woman who previously owned the drawer that got caught in the back. And when Duras finds it, she’s almost communing with that woman, and the frustration she must have felt rummaging for her lost slip in the chest of drawers all those years ago.
Los Angeles is glamorous. Even just the quality of light. Almost every night, there’s glamour to the Los Angeles sky. Just cruising down Santa Monica Blvd, heading west at dusk, near the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where Rudolph Valentino is buried, with the taco shacks and strip malls, people hustling, on foot, in cars—that’s a glamorous slice of city life.
I agree, there is a very specific glamour to L.A. that can’t quite be separated from what we talked about before—the density of information that it holds about what is wrong with the world.
Did you see that movie Tangerine?
I felt like Sean Baker made L.A. look like what L.A. really looks like and also its hallucinated version of itself. And for me as a piece of fiction, Tangerine is very high in terms of its achievement because it does both. It makes the city look like itself and then it adds this mythical envelope to it. I watched the film while I was writing The Mars Room and thought, that’s what you want to do—you want to render the place and also the magic of the place. Like the way the sky looks in Tangerine. That is glamour as artistic achievement. Serious artistic achievement.
Ana Cecilia Alvarez is a writer from Mexico City.
- Text: Ana Cecilia Alvarez
- Photography: Sam Muller