Today, we dip back into Tin House #59: Memory, for this conversation between Rachel Kushner and Dana Spiotta, both faculty at this year’s Summer Writer’s Workshop.
Dana Spiotta and Rachel Kushner mine our artistic and political history in a way that few contemporary novelists do. They are the descendents of DeLillo and Didion, but each has struck out on her own to stake claim on new fictional ground. Both writers’ work is characterized by their sharpness of language and their precise emotional registers, as well as their ambitious, politically charged themes. Spiotta is the author of three novels, Lightning Field, Eat the Document (a finalist for the National Book Award), and Stone Arabia (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Kushner is the author of two novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, both of which were finalists for the National Book Award.
In the fall of 2013, Kushner ventured east from her Los Angeles home and taught a seminar on Proust at Syracuse University, where Spiotta is on the faculty. On the occasion of these two great writers and thinkers being in the same place at the same time, we asked them to talk about process and cultural memory. Not only did they oblige, but they also went down a few surprising and inspiring avenues, including how to make a life out of one’s idiosyncratic strength and how to achieve “bravery from reading.”
Dana Spiotta: Can you describe your writing process? Where did you begin with each of your novels? How did you find your way into them?
Rachel Kushner: Because I’ve written only two novels, I don’t quite feel there is a system. Or maybe I don’t want to settle into the confidence of thinking there is one. The process was perhaps different with the first, Telex from Cuba, than with the second, The Flamethrowers. But there were elements of commonality. I’m drawn to images and seem to start with them. Or one. Something I imagine, a scene or detail, or even a photograph, something that has a charge of meaning that can’t be easily reduced. With the first book, I had gone to Cuba and spent almost a month there—just for a trip, not to write about it—and while visiting the newly renovated Castro family farmhouse, which is near Preston, a former American colony, I realized that the place had been recently painted the color that United Fruit painted all their company homes, a bright but chalky mustard yellow. I thought, Hmm. Perverse. The long answer to how Fidel’s revolutionary government could come to accidentally coat its leader’s boyhood home in the paint of the American occupier would probably require a whole novel. And yet I don’t get near trying to explain that specific thing in the actual book I wrote. Rather, I delved into the atmosphere that was imported and sustained by the Americans, the ways in which they witnessed and maybe sped up the oncoming revolution by their more or less colonial presence on the island.
With The Flamethrowers, I was thinking about New York City in the 1970s, the kind of classic image of the looters in the Bronx during the blackout of July 1977. And downtown at that time, the artists, the way their pieces were also sometimes a kind of looting, Gordon Matta-Clark breaking into an empty pier building and sawing a giant half-moon-shaped hole in it. So I started with that: New York as a blighted place of freedom and unpredictability. But very quickly, I made a kind of sharp left into what was going on in Italy in the 1970s. I was thinking of an image of one hundred thousand people pouring into the streets of Rome, also in 1977, just a few months before the blackout. And I had a photograph that I’d printed out and taped up, of a girl in theater makeup, singing, a playful act of defiance, countered by police with tear-gas canisters.
In short, I think, daydream, take notes, and, finally, try to find the tone. That can take a very long time. I don’t really move forward until I’ve found the tone, the register, of the telling. I’m sad to be reminded that the tone of both books took me quite a while to locate. But once it was located, then things moved along swiftly. There was no middle for me, somehow, with either of those novels. There was a long beginning, a rooting in the dark, and then a hurtling toward the end.
DS: We are very happy to have you teaching Proust in the Syracuse MFA program this fall. Can you tell me how your work has been influenced and inspired by Proust? I find I return to the novels that help me feel brave and take bigger risks. What does reading Proust permit you to do in your own work? Which other writers (fiction and nonfiction) do you return to for inspiration?
RK: It’s been a lot of fun and also a real honor being an interloper at your program. I like that idea, of getting bravery from reading, instead of from whiskey (which I don’t drink). It changes for me what writers and books I go to. For boldness, with The Flamethrowers, it was perhaps Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, and Gaddis—but specifically the first novel, The Recognitions, which for me is something singular and apart from his later work. With Telex, it was Duras, and Alejo Carpentier, and maybe Baudelaire and Genet. Also Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, which is crazy, on account of its long prologue. No one would get away with that now. We have absolutely no equivalent to Victor Hugo. Proust is always an inspiration to me, and teaching him has been exhilarating: it’s the only word that can describe the experience of rereading him as a teacher, the one who is supposed to walk into class with a structure, a theory, and help form a bridge between the practice of writing and Proust’s literature. His book is a wonderful laboratory on the formation of an artist, and as a rumination on the properties of art, and of genius, and, of course, on all the earthly stuff of daily life, jealousy, love, memory, egos, ambition, loss, the social world, Second Empire and turn-of-the-century France, and so on and so forth. I think when I first read him I felt inspired to take my time with each sentence, letting it flow to its needed length, with phrases that take little trips, become tributaries that then rejoin the main point, all in the interest not of indulgence but of precision, to render a truth that has an exact and full meaning. Sometimes language, rhetorically called into service, can clip or reduce, for its effect. With Proust, that never happens. The rhetorical structure is bigger, more complicated, initially more difficult to navigate than a lot of literature, because it is fully in service to meaning: it is meaning. In Proust, the sentence is never a trick of language.
He had an unparalleled command of language and an otherworldly gift at putting it to use telling the secrets about what it’s like to be alive. It’s hard to express all this briefly without sounding both corny and kind of reductive. He’s the master. The more I read him, the more convinced of this I am.
DS: Can you tell me about your early writing? Did you work on short stories? If so, what were they like?
RK: My early writing is poetry. Then the poems became prose and I decided to try to get an MFA in fiction, so I wrote “stories” in order to apply, and then when I went to Columbia, I worked on stories because that was what everyone else was doing, and I felt out of my depth and wanted to go along to get along. It’s probably not that simple, but it’s hard for me to think back, now, and recall ever wanting to be a writer of short stories. The goals, the arc, the structure, the pressure on the sentence, the need for an epiphany: I don’t relate to it even remotely. My earliest writing, from elementary school, is strangely not all that different from how I write now. There is something about the tone that is the same. I wrote a novel in first grade. It’s very short and has, you know, illustrations. It’s called, “The Richest Cat in Hestery” [sic]. It’s about a “plutocat” who flaunts his wealth and thinks he’s superior and goes around putting down the other cats. By the end of the book, needless to say, he is mauled and driven off by them. Maybe my endings are less predictable now. I hope so.
DS: Did you ever have a breakthrough moment in your writing? What helped you develop into the writer you are today?
RK: I guess finding the right tone for Telex was a breakthrough. There are parts of it—the prologue, and a late chapter in which an American social club is bombed—that were, initially, more like prose poems, and I decided, just . . . that’s who I am. I don’t have to approach the novel as other people do. Now that idea seems like, Well, of course. The idea is to use your secret idiosyncratic strength, just exploit the hell out of it, make of it a life, a synthetic reality. But initially, I did not have the confidence in myself to do that. Once you do do that, there is really no risk, I don’t think, of being overly affected by influence, because anything you read goes into the brew, the brew of one. A solipsism that takes in the world, but remains itself.
DS: You built The Flamethrowers with two primary intercut lines: a third-person strand in Italy that follows the fortune of the Valera family beginning in 1917 and a first-person strand that follows a young woman called Reno as she navigates the art world in 1970s New York. Eventually the strands come together in the Autonomist actions in Italy. How do you think these threads work together and why did you organize the novel this way? Did you have a clear idea of how they would connect as you wrote or did that emerge from the process?
RK: I’m realizing only in reading your question that the strands flow together in the late chapter in Italy. I didn’t think of them as doing that, for some reason. I started the novel with the thread of the elder Valera, his encounter with a motorcycle in Egypt and this “primal scene” of an erotic preoccupation being wound up with a machine, its mystification. I had that part of the book pretty thought out—the futurist who fights in World War I, then later becomes an industrialist. I didn’t know he would be the father of the boyfriend, Sandro, but pretty quickly, I realized that this was who he was, and in realizing it, I knew a great deal more about Sandro and what he was, what he was repressing. Adjacent stories in the novel sometimes gather as if by the tightening of a cord, suddenly, by their proximity one to the next. The final installment of the Valera story is Sandro’s, when he speaks, near the end. But the book is a bit more messy, as I see it anyway, than just those two threads. There is also Burdmoore’s chapter, and Ronnie’s chapter (one page, just his memoir titles), and the chapter told from the perspective of a slave laborer in the Brazil rubber forest. I reserve the right to leave everything a little ragged, as if it (“everything”) knows better than I do how to be a book. If I tuck in all the corners, make it too tidy, it strains for perfection without allowing for the real perfection of the irreducible. I’m not saying I achieved that. But one must have goals.
DS: Is the Italian futurists’ attraction to machines and modernity and velocity the same thing as Reno’s American affection for motorcycles and speed? If not, how are they different and why is this important in the book?
RK: Different, but related, perhaps. They cannot be the same, since they come out of different historical contexts, with Reno and the futurists of course alive in different segments of the one century. Valera’s and the futurists’ attraction to machines is, as you say, partly about modernity, a moment when the world was changing so drastically. Actually—I got this from Marinetti, really—it was a form of terror for them. Marinetti was horrified by the rapidly industrializing Milan. It was his nightmare and horror, and—let’s go full psychoanalytic—he overcame his terror by eroticizing and monumentalizing the very thing that was the source of his trauma. Then they all went off to World War I and half came back missing limbs, or as corpses. The early futurists were also really great artists. Machines and modernity had to be traumatic for them or they would not have been able to use them as such a source of inspiration, probably. The narrator has a natural interest in speed, sure enough. And there’s no reason to think it’s not related to Valera’s natural interest in speed, but hers is contextualized differently. But maybe riding a two-wheeled chassis with an engine is the same feeling for both. About the book, that’s hard to answer. It required the novel in order to explore that question.
DS: I read that you took two years to write Reno’s opening chapter. What did you want to do with Reno’s narrative voice? Did you have early versions that sounded wrong, or did you try it in third person at first? I read that you didn’t want her first person to be too “voicey.” You wanted an uninflected first person. What do you mean by “voicey”? Does her voice change after she goes to Italy?
RK: It took me a long time to find the tone of her voice, which was going to be the tone of the book, for the most part, so without it, I had nothing. It’s hard to explain what I wanted to “do with it” beyond use it as a vehicle for the telling. The tone for me is like . . . I’ll know when I hear it. And I was not hearing it. I tried and tried. I wrote the first long chapter of her in Nevada, and then on the Bonneville Salt Flats, for those long two years. I just told and told it and retold it. Yes, I tried third person. But mostly I was in the first. By “voicey,” I mean a spoken first person who speaks in a distinct or, oftentimes, an idiomatic way. I wanted her voice not to be spoken. To be more like her thought. So that her thought was the reader’s experience of her, and not her in a room, as a personality. I wanted her, also, not to speak much, so that the reader knew her as interior thought, and not, almost ever, as a performance, which is what people are when they speak. I didn’t consciously intend for her voice to change after she goes to Italy. But hey, maybe you’re right. Maybe it does. She is changed, to some degree, and she is withholding information from the reader, in a semideliberate way, and that puts different conditions on her telling.
DS: Reno’s attraction to Sandro’s success as an artist makes sense, but she is also interested in his money and class in a more ambiguous way. Although Sandro insists sex is not an exchange, Reno senses there is something she can get from him. She finds it hard to resist being “kept” and she is curious about leveraging her attractiveness to her advantage. Is she experimenting with different kinds of power?
RK: I see relationships, maybe in particular those that one pursues when young, as a particular kind of possibility: the promise of expanding the world, making it bigger and more dynamic. People are agents for that. Love is an agent for that. That was mostly what I was thinking of, the way that someone can come along and offer access to experience.
DS: I love the movies you describe in the book, particularly Barbara Loden’s film Wanda. It is a great artifact of the era, quietly subversive in form as well as subject. It is also a great meditation on female power/powerlessness. We get a long riff on Reno watching and remembering the film. Reno says it is a movie about being a woman and “not really caring” what happens to you. Wanda is driven to destroy herself and “because of her beauty, free to do so.” Did you see Wanda as a version of Reno? And if so, how? Or is Reno more connected to the filmmaker herself, who also plays Wanda?
RK: When I was growing up, my mother always told me that her favorite film was called Wanda. This was before VCRs, and that film never aired on television, too obscure. My mother had seen it in the theater in Eugene, Oregon, shortly after it came out, when I was about two (too young to see it). It was a revelation to finally see it. It’s a perfect film. It is totally profound and brilliantly acted and scripted and so gorgeously filmed, in 16 mm. You know all this, of course—just saying for the reader. Maybe I see Wanda as being a particular kind of woman who is separate from the world, deep inside herself and yet open to being subjected to the world in a way I relate to. And so I was after the creation of a female who could embody something of what it is about Wanda that I recognize.
From what I understand, Barbara Loden said the film was more or less autobiographical, not directly, but indirectly, in terms of her marriage to Elia Kazan. But I don’t think much on that. The film she created is so full of life, an independent existence, that I am tempted not to look beyond it to the frame of its making and maker. Wanda is real for me, in other words.
DS: Why didn’t you mention the title of the film? Did not naming it help to make it your own literary object? You use a still from the film as well. Tell me your thought process about how you approach films in the book. Is it unnamed simply because Reno is watching it on TV and doesn’t recall the title? Or do you withhold Wanda’s name in the same way Reno’s actual name is withheld?
RK: Hmm, very good questions. Yes, maybe it was just as you say, that not naming it helped to transform it into my own literary object. At least that was surely one motivation for that decision. But also, it’s somehow not my instinct to use much name recognition from the era in which I set the narrative, unless I see some formal, poetic reason for doing so. Like at the end I have a kind of riff on Jox tennis shoes because that word, Jox, is charged for me, from childhood, and it’s so strange. Jox. But often, I don’t want names or brands or period descriptions. I don’t know quite why, except that everything that ends up in the book has to kind of reverberate under the sign of the book. It can’t have its own separate signification, if that makes sense. On a practical note, as I think you suggest, my character would not have been focused on the name of the film. There is another reason, one that is more important, and yet I don’t know what it is.
DS: You give us an astute description of Karen Black’s cross-eyed sex appeal: “some breach in symmetry suggesting another kind of breach, in judgment or morals.” In Five Easy Pieces she plays Rayette, a woman whose fate is determined by her attractiveness to men (and by her name, I suspect). Again, you don’t mention the movie by name, but you do describe the scene in which the outmatched Rayette is cruelly abandoned by Jack Nicholson’s character. Rayette makes the mistake of caring, as opposed to Wanda’s “not caring” that somewhat liberates Wanda from the power of men. Reno sees these cinematic women clearly; she unsentimentally grasps the terms of a woman tied to a man. Yet she can’t help attaching herself to Sandro even though on some level she knows betrayal will come. Does she need this to happen, this disillusionment with men, before she can leave it behind? Why then the move to another man immediately after Sandro? Is it that she intellectually knows better, but the emotion of it compels her?
RK: I forgot that Karen Black’s character’s name is Rayette, so great. Her quintessential scene for me is when she spends the day crying and listening to Tammy Wynette. I relate to that, somehow. Just wanting something with total abandon. It is reckless and brave to want. Rayette wants. She is so in love with Bobby and honestly, hell, who wouldn’t be? He’s sexy and remote and intelligent and rebellious and he cannot give her what she needs: a perfect formula for the perpetuation of desire. I wanted the narrator to see clearly, as you say, but in terms of the decisions she makes regarding men, to me she is somewhat existential. She’s not overly invested in Sandro. She is simply young, and looking to experience her life. He activates it in a way she cannot. This, for me, is somehow less gendered than other people have interpreted it to be. I consider passivity to be a kind of radical bravery and “strong, active” people with agency to be something more, well, rigid, even as I don’t disrespect that. Not by any means. But releasing yourself into life, letting it have its way with you, is an education of a kind. That’s really all I can say about that without going too far, and having then to go further, in order to explain myself. Someday I might write a treatise about it. Or I might not. But I could.
Sandro is gone and the narrator is free to be a girl in the world again. She’s not actively deciding, “I need to have no relationships right now.” When you’re young, you go from one person to the next person, the way I see things and remember what it’s like to be young. You don’t decide, “I could use some downtime.” No. There is no downtime. There are bodies in space. People. Nights to fill, et cetera. But, on a factual level, she is not with anyone after Sandro in the book. She wonders about Ronnie, and is rebuffed. Nothing happens between her and Gianni. She’s his driver and accomplice of a kind—that’s it.
DS: Though she looks to others for help, Reno is deeply alone in the book. The men around her have an ease—an entitlement—about their place in the world that she doesn’t have, and the women often compete with each other for refracted male power. As with Wanda or Rayette or the main character in Anna—another film about an isolated, unknown woman that you refer to in the book—once the male gaze is gone, the woman loses her identity. How does this tie in to the idea of the Italian Autonomists in the last part of the book? Does power come from embracing being alone, even within a group? Is there a way to move from anonymity to a kind of autonomy? After all, Reno’s most powerful moments are when she is on her own on a motorcycle or carving her lines into a mountain with her skis.
RK: Wow, you really are an ideal reader. Beyond being a writer I admired so greatly before I ever had the chance to meet you, let alone . . . become friends.
Everything you say is somehow true. In particular, that the women in the book compete for refracted male power. Which is pretty dark, I suppose. I don’t believe that I intended to critique the era, or gender dynamics, even as I was doing those things, and directly. I think I wanted to be unafraid of extremes and of cruelty. I wanted the main character to navigate a world that starts to seem, for the reader, increasingly cruel. I wanted the main character to have nowhere to turn. It was simply an instinct. That was actually the way I was guided to build the narrative structure: by the end, there would be no place for her to turn. Life is like that, to some degree. You turn toward yourself, a lifelong relation you can count on. The women in Italy exist in a social space that is, I guess, objectively superior to what the narrator has encountered in New York, though the novel was not intended to contrast them as counterparts. But the women in Italy are pretty self-realized, just as they were in actual 1970s Italy. Italian feminism of that time has been the most lasting achievement of the movement of autonomia, without question. In terms of transitioning from one to the other, anonymity to autonomy, yes, perhaps. Certainly. But I’m not sure what that transition means, how it works. The anonymous woman is somehow a very charged idea for me. Autonomy as a social organization, a way of life, is probably anonymity plus care. It’s not allowed, under capitalism. But there is a longing for it. With the Occupy movement, these plodding and cretinizing questions kept coming up: What is the list of demands? What is the point? While the point was, to me anyhow, simply a question: Can people take care of one another?
DS: One of my favorite riffs in the book is about Reno’s job as a leader girl—a model for testing film color, whose image will be skipped if the projectionist knows what he is doing. She will disappear, essentially. Do you remember where that idea came from? What are the ways that you see it working in the novel?
RK: That’s a great way of putting it—that she’ll disappear if the film is loaded correctly by the projectionist. I don’t recall when I first learned about “china girls,” who appear on leader for color correction. But the artist Morgan Fisher made a film that is in part about them, called Standard Gauge, and I had a copy that I would watch over and over when I was first working on the book. Film processing labs in the ’70s in New York were a sort of fact of life for the conceptual artist. I was thinking maybe of Jack Goldstein, and of work he made in the ’70s—these short, perfect, strange little films that to me encapsulates the era. So I created a lab where I imagined artists like Goldstein would go to get their work processed (now, one can do it all on her computer, of course). And somehow, the namelessness of the narrator, her marginal status in the art world of New York City, fit with the absurdity of appearing on film, but unseen. Although it was not any kind of overdetermined meaning like that. She, like all of us, needed a job.
DS: Did you want to make a connection between different kinds of disappearing? The china leader film girls; Anna, the documentary film subject who disappears and remains unknown; Wanda in a bar among strangers; and Reno, who is never actually named, all experience various kinds of invisibility. It is erasure, in a sense, but it is also a kind of power. The fact that Reno is an unknown artist means that Reno can be almost anything. And her lack of a name gives her a kind of freedom that Sandro, with all the burdens of his Valera name, can never know. Her passivity can be viewed as a strategy for taking it all in, for making her way.
RK: I agree with all of this. Her passivity as a strategy, and the burden of a name. Not just a family name and the baggage it implies, but names, period. The specificity of performing the self, being a fixed identity for the reassurance of others, and so forth. I don’t know, it’s complicated terrain for me to explain this. When I was young, I would have these traumatic episodes of total disassociation. And I think that is natural, not psychosis. I think it’s a rebellion against the formation of the self as an occupied whole, one totality. About erasure, as I said before, there is something about disappearance and anonymity that is of great interest to me. I can’t say what. I just realized that a book that was an inspiration for the Italian parts of my novel is called Gli invisibili—The Unseen. It’s about the autonomists, and by the end, they are all in prison.
DS: I’m curious about Ronnie’s monologues, particularly the very long absurd one at the end of the book—a performance that mixes the real and the fake. I like that it resists an obvious relationship to the present action. I like that it goes on uncomfortably long. I like that I don’t quite know what it is doing there. Tell me about it. Does it work in the way that fiction is a lie that also reaches for a special kind of truth? Self-storytelling is also a way to disappear and yet assert yourself. Ronnie mines the way a person exploited—a prostitute, a kept woman, an actress, a cabin boy—can reconfigure his situation with the right story. “Who isn’t a slave?” he says, and he calls the ship Reno. Is it a message to Reno? A benediction?
RK: Wow, I love these statements. Yes—what Dana says. It’s so hard, as you know, to encapsulate the meaning and affects of one’s own novel. That long monologue of his was important to the book—I know that. I wrote it fairly early, and yet I knew that it could not appear early in the book. It is a late-stage, kind of metastasis of his charisma, his influence, over the narrator, and maybe over the reader, too. Otherwise, it’s just a long strange tale, and one would be compelled to wonder if it’s true or not. At the end, where it is, as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Its truth is in the fact of its telling. He is saying something, activating something true, about himself and about the other people in the room, by telling that story. I knew he was going to be a teller of tales and I have always been interested in at-sea narratives, Conrad, Stevenson, and the story of Robin Lee Graham, who sailed around the world at the age of sixteen. Maybe I was encouraged to do it when I reread The Savage Detectives while I was working on the book. Bolaño gets away with a lot. I wanted to push that direction, for myself, of erasing the narrator while she narrates, and have this other voice go on for as long as he needs to. Everything and nothing that other people say is a message for us. Their address is a vessel for our projection. The narrator is infatuated with Ronnie, more or less, over the entire arc of the book. When the miasma of attraction surrounds someone, it is very hard to know what is, and is not, “for you” in what they say.
DS: At the end of the book we don’t know what will become of Reno. We don’t know if she will be an artist finally or find a place in the world. She is not resolved. She does recognize that she was “the girl on layaway,” though, and she put herself there. The personal is swept up in something larger, the blackout. The very end also has a section close to Sandro and then the lonely moment in Italy that actually occurred before the blackout. Can you tell me about the decision to hear from Sandro? And the dyschronology? Did you have it another way at one point? How did you work it out? I think the last scene in Italy is very haunting, and I like how it comes back to snow. Can you talk a little about endings in novels and what you strive to achieve?
RK: About two-thirds of the way through the book, I knew how it would end. Not the entire series of events, but the final scene. I knew the feel of the final scene, and I knew it would be late in the day, at the bottom of the run-out into Chamonix, from Courmayeur, at the foot of Mont Blanc. A waiting. I had to get there, but I didn’t want to force any causality, in order to “stick” the end. It’s not gymnastics. You can’t just execute, and perfectly. Things you can’t predict must happen, in order to open out the full space of the novel. So I had to let things be in flux, and hope that I naturally ended up where I knew the book really needed to go. I guess I also knew there was going to be the blackout, since it was an early inspiration, an image of the era itself, the real one. About Sandro, that was a late decision. It was actually my husband’s suggestion. He simply said, Let’s hear from Sandro. I said, Directly? He’ll just suddenly, without explanation, speak? And he said yes, and the next day I wrote that whole chapter. It came easily, compared to much else, as if it was waiting to be written. In terms of time, the way the end unfolds, the resonant end point of the book is at the base of the mountain. Reno does go back to New York after, which we have already seen. But the revolving point of her narrative is that moment of waiting, and so it should be the moment of closure, or ellipses, a dot-dot-dot, even if we were already present for some of what followed. The effect of experience, of trauma, the recollection of time, these things are simply not linear.
DS: You seem to be as familiar with the art world as the literary world. What are the differences you see in how an artist conceives of herself and her project versus how a novelist does? I was recently reading an article about the late Mike Kelley, and I was struck by some of the iconoclastic/rebellious statements he had made about art and artists. Why is it that visual artists seem to take the obligation to “make it new” as a cri de coeur, yet young novelists don’t seem as willing to set fires? Does this point to some difference in the art world vs. the literary world? Maybe it is because visual artists are forced to make mission statements while novelists rarely are? Or is it because in most literary discussions the contents of novels upstage the formal concerns? Is part of it that we can’t really do anything purely conceptual or abstract because we have this connection to narrative? Do you think the novel is in some way more tethered to convention than other mediums are?
RK: Mike Kelley taught at Art Center with my husband, Jason. He was unique in being able to write so intelligently about his own work. He was a producer of both art and theory. But anyhow, as I’ve tried to say elsewhere, but maybe failed to give full nuance, I see art as operating, since the late nineteenth century, on a vanguard logic, by which the new must outpace the old, and continually, in a kind of everlasting oedipal struggle. You cannot be a relevant artist if you don’t read Artforum and go to galleries and look at what your contemporaries are doing. Art is a conversation, an homage, and a rebuke—always—of what came before it. Otherwise, it is naïve. It is “outsider art,” which is a world of wonder and a different kind of relevance, but it is not the (somewhat small, and closed) world of contemporary art. The novel is different on a lot of levels and for many reasons. The novel that destroys tradition formally looks something like an experiment, and it remains that: a novelty. The novel cannot dematerialize into gesture, unwatched performance, into nothing, as art can, and has. It remains a telling. It remains a book, written of sentences. Its newness then must operate in an entirely different way. Maybe part of this is because of narrative, as you say. It is a more conservative form than art or music. What is the John Cage of the novel? It doesn’t really exist, except you have someone like Kenneth Goldsmith, quite brilliant, but that work is almost not intended to be read. (I guess Goldsmith would be more like the “Disintegration Loops,” by William Basinski, if we are comparing texts to music.) We’ve had important leaps, of course—Modernism, for instance. Maybe the fact is we are still there, and that Faulkner and Woolf and Stein and Joyce and Proust are still radical literature. And in fact, most contemporary literature is a long way from that radicality, much less a contemporary analogue of it, in terms of aesthetic, formal “progress.”
Another difference between art and literature is that a writer can be in deep conversation with a seventeenth-century novel or with ancient Greece, with medieval poetry, and produce something “fresh” and “strange” and “unique.” A writer does not need to be in dialogue with her contemporaries. She does not need to destroy what came before in order to produce a work of originality. As I said above, more or less, the novel seems more conservative today than it did in 1922, when the Anglophone world was introduced to Proust, and to Joyce’s Ulysses, and to The Waste Land. If the logic of art is a linear trajectory of burn and rebuild, the novel is maybe circular, or zigzag, or it produces a psychotic pattern of no-pattern. Actually, I wish only for the no-pattern. I wish for a moment like 1922. Let’s be bold in our art, you and I.
Rachel Kushner is the author of The Flamethrowers, finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and a New York Times Top Five Novel of 2013. Her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a New York Times bestseller and finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times, and the Paris Review, among other places.
Dana Spiotta is the author of four novels: Innocents and Others; Stone Arabia, a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist in fiction; Eat the Document, a finalist for the National Book Award and a recipient of the Rosenthal Foundation Award; and Lightning Field. Spiotta was a Guggenheim Fellow and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow. She currently teaches in the Syracuse University MFA program.