Rachel Kushner’s collection of essays “Hard People” – Culture
In her collection of essays “Hard People” Rachel Kushner only cries once. They are tears of relief, and even for this admission she is ashamed. In the “Cabo 1000” motorcycle race, she rode 1,700 kilometers in one day, from San Ysidro, south of San Diego, to Cabo San Lucas at the end of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. She rolled over on the track and could have been dead. Thieves dragged the wrecked machine away while it was still writhing in pain in the dust. She bought them back from them and made it back to California with them. Most of her biker friends are not so lucky, one after the other they crash their bikes in the following years – wanton and senseless deaths, but they only shock the reader, not the author.
Kushner, born in 1968, rose to fame with the novel “The Flamethrowers”, which is set among Italian left-wing terrorists of the 1970s, the contemporary Soho and East Village art scene, and a group of racers who are setting speed records on their motorcycles on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Radicality, cold-bloodedness, revolutionary thinking and acting, an affinity for death and violence: these were the ideological and character-related denominators that connected these three distant milieus.
Your essays from the past 20 years are populated by other members of this “hard crowd” (the original title). They are tough, like the Italian workers around 1970, about whom the writer Nanni Balestrini reports in “We want everything”. Like her parents, who almost penniless started a family in a converted school bus. Like Kushner himself, who at 14 before the concert of The Who hanging around and smoking bad weed.
But they are also tough when it comes to serving, like the legendary rock impresario Bill Graham, in whose concert hall in San Francisco she worked for years as a bartender. Or the fellow racer at the “Cabo 1000” who simply leaves an injured competitor lying there (he loses his leg).
What concerns her above all is the mixture of both. She visits the notorious Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem, “falls in love” with its residents, but has to keep reminding herself that these warm people, living in such miserable conditions, all carry weapons. 15 days after her visit, the charismatic social worker who showed her around is shot dead. Why, she asks, do so many artists of the 1970s pose with guns? And even when eating fish in Venice she is concerned with the issue of violence. The “catch of the day” she orders consists of “little fish with criminal faces, bottom-feeders that looked like cartoon drawings of bank robbers, proletarian faces, fried.” And states: “Perhaps I was also hurt because these little lawbreakers had been caught with a trawl and felt sorry for them.”
Among Kushner’s essays are brilliant pieces on Cormac McCarthy, Jeff Koons and the American prison abolition movement. But her prose shines brightest when she does what she does best: tell stories. The term essay is broad here. Above all, it serves to give these texts the freedom not to have to march from A to B, but to be allowed to float. She exploits this most radically in “The Sinking of HMS Bounty”: an accidental near break-in by her boyfriend into one of the apartments of the killed Israeli athletes from the Olympic Games in Munich, an encounter with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the Hitchcock film “Lifeboat “, the art of Thomas Demand, industrial robots and a visit to the Doge’s Palace in Venice – she weaves all of this so casually into a web around the question of presence and absence, fiction and reality that one can hardly grasp it.
It’s just a pity that the translator almost willfully deflects Kushner’s artful, laconic texts again and again. Why does a passionate car enthusiast have to write a car be made into a “car” as if it were made of paper instead of tin, glass and rubber. communities are neither “municipalities” nor “municipalities”, and prankster are not “rascals”, especially when they live in a converted and wildly painted school bus in the early seventies. The Marian Goodman Gallery, one of New York’s premier contemporary art galleries, is not a “painting gallery.” In many American cities downtown the “downtown” – but not in New York, where downtown is known to refer to the south of Manhattan and the local cultural scene, which Kushner entered in a wonderful passage as a 16-year-old. She attends a reading by Allen Ginsberg, orders a White Russian and realizes after an hour: “Ginsberg is for chumps.”
Kushner’s literary and art criticism is embedded in a loose chain of autobiographical texts. She talks about her childhood on the hippie bus, her wild youth as a teenager in San Francisco’s aging rock scene, and her bohemian friends. It is as if she has the ability to live in multiple epochs at the same time, to absorb and fill more time with life than other humans. In a kind of permanent presence, she writes in the noughties and tens about driving cars from the sixties in the eighties and nineties, the clash and Cream and lives in San Francisco’s hippie epicenter of Haight and Ashbury, where Oliver Stone is shooting a film about Jim Morrison.
Kushner is present everywhere and yet she eludes to the point of vagueness. Kushner, the narrator, denies Kushner, the protagonist and fictional character, feelings, sentimentality, anger. And that’s exactly what creates the tension that doesn’t let up throughout the book. Only in the last stunning essay does she resolve this: “The writer seems to be the one who remembers, who saw, did and felt, but she is no longer that person. By writing things down, she becomes new born. And still remains influenced by her actions, even if she now distances herself.” Now she looks back at the “gallery of all the souls I’ve known,” like her missing friend Sandy, or the rent boy whose head was later found in a dumpster. And she understands what saved her from a similar end: “Being a writer means leaving earlier, no matter when you come home.”