From the first time I read Rachel Kushner’s novels, I thought about nonfiction. The biting yet elegant voices of her narrators reminded me of literary criticism, and the detailed renderings of people and places I thought resembled journalism. I was evidently not alone in this response: James Woods praised her fiction as possessing “the authenticity of the reportorial, the solidity of the historical.” Other reviewers, responding negatively to her work, called these same qualities into question. They conceded the works were interesting, but they challenged Kushner’s authenticity, her right to depict such worlds.
In retrospect, both the boosters and skeptics of her work shared the assumption that Kushner’s subject material was separate from her own life. Motorcycles, the art world, revolution, prisons: all of these things were insinuated to be outside of the experience of a female novelist, especially one assumed to be middle-class. Looking back, so much of the criticism was struggling with the same, loaded question: what type of woman writes like this?
In Kushner’s latest book—her first collection of nonfiction, called The Hard Crowd—she answers this question at length, on her own terms. The Hard Crowd collects writing that Kushner has done outside of her career as a novelist, and in doing so fleshes out the story of how Kushner the novelist came to be. The Hard Crowd will doubtlessly appeal to fans of her fiction, especially because the writing often explicitly deals with the novels, photographs, and movies that inspired her own work. But the book’s appeal is not limited to existing fans, or even readers who share her interests; Kushner can spin a compelling story out of the most esoteric subjects or minute details (One of my favorite essays, “Flying Cars,” begins with several paragraphs about which vintage cars Kushner wants to buy). Versions of most of the book’s nineteen essays have previously been published, originally appearing in anthologies, magazines, exhibition catalogues, and reissued literary collections. But the book’s acknowledgements note that many essays were also edited or extended for their inclusion here, and the result is a satisfyingly cohesive collection, even as the works span two decades and a vast array of subjects.
Much of the work in The Hard Crowd revolves around the question of life experience and its relationship to the development of a literary voice. Kushner, for much of her life, has weaved her way through various scenes and subcultures. Beatniks from her parents’ generation, San Francisco punks, barflies, bikers, New York downtown artists, even aged Italian left-feminists appear in The Hard Crowd as groups that Kushner was a part of, learned from—and to varying degrees, incorporated into her writing.
In one essay, also titled “The Hard Crowd,” the author looks back and takes stock of her influences, saying that now in her career it is time to “turn reflective, interior, to examine and sort and tally.” This essay, the final one in the collection, is a depiction of the people she knew growing up in San Francisco. Kushner tells of tattoo artists, early professional skaters, hustlers, and musicians; people who are self-assured, yet vulnerable.
Kushner’s third and latest novel The Mars Room, is in part a portrayal of the bar scene in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, and in “The Hard Crowd,” Kushner explains that this was not just a choice made out of inspiration, but a mission to preserve a culture that she knew would never pass into literature otherwise. What’s implicit in the essay is the fact that now many of those bars and venues have been replaced through gentrification, and the people Kushner knew have either been priced out of San Francisco, or met worse fates: incarceration or premature death.
Kushner, the writer, survived. In 1996 she quit bartending and moved to New York, where she replaced one scene for another: she entered the “art world” in part through her friend Alex Brown, who she eulogizes in another essay, called “Bunny.” Through all of these worlds, Kushner is both participant and observer, less hardcore and knowledgeable than the people she runs with, and yet unmistakably within the culture. “I was the weak link, the mind always at some remove: watching myself and other people, absorbing the events of their lives and mine.” It is a writerly trait, to be sure, but in The Hard Crowd, Kushner makes the case that she was not simply participating as research for writing. Rather, writing for her is a process of capturing on the page some of the liveliness of the people she admires.
Evaluating this relationship between experience and what one commits to paper is the concern of much of Kushner’s literary criticism in this volume as well. About Denis Johnson, the poet and novelist, Kushner looks past the cult following and legend of his life and writes about him as a literary force. For Marguerite Duras, Kushner does the opposite. She grounds her discussion of Duras’ elemental, sui generis writing in a depiction of Duras the person, to better understand how her class and womanhood influenced her art.
But the standout piece of literary criticism in the collection, to my mind, is Kushner’s essay on late Italian leftist writer Nanni Balestrini. The first half of this essay was originally published as a preface to Balestrini’s novel We Want Everything; in this part of the essay, Kushner recounts how the book channels the anger and revolutionary potential of masses of laborers from South Italy who moved to the North in the 1960s and 70s to work in factories.
The later half of Kushner’s essay was published as an obituary for Balestrini, who passed away in May 2019, and zeroes in on what made his voice so different from other novelists. As an activist, Balestrini practiced “inchiesta,” interviewing factory workers to produce “a movement of their voices and direct experience.” He marshaled this collage of voices in his novel, merging the subjectivity of individual characters with that of their peers, to capture the voice of a class that is conscious of its own exploited position.
The description of Balestrini’s work is striking in how it recalls Kushner’s own attempts at capturing the subcultures of her youth. But there is a difference between a “subculture” and a “class.” Even as her protagonists venture deeper into various scenes (be it the New York art scene in The Flamethrowers, or the culture of the women’s prison in The Mars Room), their voices are still singular in their novels.
After reading Kushner describe Balestrini’s project in such positive terms, I wondered what this signals for her later work. There are other indications that Kushner’s writing might be moving in a more explicitly political direction. One of the later essays in the collection is a profile of activist-scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore. In calm and nuanced language, the essay uses Gilmore’s words to make the case for abolition, and grounds the revolutionary idea in both a history of prisons and the contemporary context of mass incarceration in the US. The piece was one of the first nuanced explanations of abolition that I can remember appearing in a mainstream outlet, until a year later, when massive protests rendered the subject unavoidable for the media.
Although the dominant mode of The Hard Crowd is reflective, it also paints Kushner as a writer attuned to the present, even the future. The Hard Crowd is an engaging collection that demonstrates Kushner’s skill at weaving together the anecdotes, personalities, art, and literature she has absorbed through her life. I wonder though if, years down the line, it will be remembered in the arc of her career not just as a moment of introspection, but as a pivot towards something more radical.
The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020
by Rachel Kushner
Published on April 6th, 2021