Blind curve in front
Life is a blind curve and a crash is inevitable. That’s why most of us can’t help but wait for the scream of tires and the clinking of shards of glass. Rachel Kushner’s brilliant collection of essays The Hard Crowd: Trials 2000-2020 offers numerous glimpses – tonic and tender elegies, maps of conceptual geometries where art meets commerce, and pithy tributes to writers whose gifts informed his thinking – Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Marguerite Duras, Nanni Balestrini and Clarice Lispector.
The pieces in this volume are united to address the strangest condition of our collective experience: that we resort to consciousness to probe both consciousness and its end. Many of us defuse the tension this problem creates by stepping back from the potential dangers. The characters that people The crowd lasts mainly rush towards their arrival. For Kushner, motorcycles, boats, cars and trucks are both vehicle and tenor. These transportation shines a light on the ways we give up and desire as we make our way to where ‘the pictures stop’, as a 96 year old friend of mine once wheezed in a delighted voice. that the heart failure had turned to gravel.
The images in this collection remain afterimages that the eye cannot easily blink: a faulty motorcycle engine “covered in orange sealant”, a boyfriend threaded to tell boring stories (“there were always meals rancid, needy women, absurd rules and jealous of less able men upset him ”), Ezra Pound in a cameo unloading on visitors a“ flood of fanatic spitting champagne ”.
Death creeps in and out of every essay like the face of Hitchcock in his films. In “Girl on a Motorcycle”, which opens this collection and acts as an opening, a rider dressed in “black racing leathers with the white bones of a skeleton sewn on” signals our collective terminus. Sean Crane is a walk-on as vividly accomplished as his namesake, Ichabod, and as impressive (despite his bad luck), as if he were beating high on the rigging of a pirate ship. Somewhere on the road between Los Angeles and Cabo San Lucas, Crane brakes a fellow traveler “in a blind curve over a cliff”. The rider leans over the edge and is airlifted to hospital, where he loses his leg. Crane, meanwhile, “continued”.
In “The Sinking of the HMS Bounty,” an essay that seamlessly shifts from the signifier to the real to memory to how we grasp and grip “what is objective and defined,” Kushner says an aside that only a reckless reader would see as a non sequitur: “I am not afraid to die. […] What I fear is to be dead.
Death is final. In “Bounty”, the end sounds like “[f]Eminine’s screams and the shattering glass. In “Flying Cars”, a tonic poem as gloomy as an Edward Hopper painting, twilight is the nickname for Death, the moment when one begins to notice the “occasional grace” that the glare of fireworks cast. signage. The light remains the same in its constant flow. We, the sensitive cargo that cars carry, carry dreams and are ultimately destroyed.
Kushner enjoys glancing at fate even as she examines it. The character she cultivates usually speaks with a cerebral breeze that is both boastful and unemotional. It is however necessary to distinguish this quality of voice of the writer who orchestrates his inflections. The “I” is as much the witness as the participant of this collection, and memories are not so much an end point as guns for much more tidy discussions. It would be reductive to weld together the speakers of various essays to advance a biographical simulacrum: Kushner the child of beatnik parents; Kushner on the cover of the book against the trunk of a classic car. These essays are more committed to investigating the choices people make in their circumscribed localities than to dwell on the small self-writing.
“Girl on a Motorcycle” is a good example. Readers of Flamethrowers will appreciate the essay for the way it brings them back to the field of the novel. But “Girl on a Motorcycle” brings together several of the major concerns that Kushner has long made of his bailiwick. There are thoughts of caring and apathy, equally inexplicable in their sudden onset. And there are multiple, highly focused and acid-etched explorations of what it is to be a person who is a worker and what it is to be a person who is a woman: two “Classes” eclipsed by their labor in the service and the machines which sometimes mutilate them.
Through these essays, Kushner gives us indestructible characters – people who are just themselves – while prompting readers to think about “what the life of a person like them was like.” Kushner herself asks and answers the same question. How do people react to their environment? We are not in the world of museum glass vases here, but in clubs, squares and streets, where people are framed amid concrete or furniture covered in the fine grime of constant use.
Kushner’s outlook is reminiscent of Wanda Coleman, the Los Angeles-based writer whose territory borders on Kushner’s. As in The crowd lasts, people inaugurated under one roof Native in a strange land understand, writes Coleman, that “[t]the past was a rumor, the present a lawsuit, and the future an improbability. Everything was fleeting, from the minute.
There is the same sense of rapids and dead in Kushner. As she thinks, her prose is nimble. She makes a quick turn. Anna is “less guinea pig than ghost” and worthy, paradoxically, by the intransigence that she summons and which makes her prominent as “weather vane: a dark and anticipatory figure of the movement about to culminate”. Pumpkin, a character in the 1974 HB Halicki film I’m going in 60 seconds, eventually becomes a real estate agent in Rancho Palos Verdes, Kushner tells us, but not before locating this character behind the desk of a Cadillac dealership. With her “amazing big hair” and “long nails”, she is as shiny and encrypted as Daisy Buchanan: “The studs on the collar of her denim shirt wink at the camera, her Malibu-tanned hands tempted by rumination, even though she may be thinking only of money, or nothing at all. “
In a few essays, Kushner classifies the edge of his voice. She exchanges her clarity in “Is Prison Necessary?” for a more direct explanation and argument. And she rubs some of her momentum into the closing essay which, by bringing ghosts from the past together in one place, doesn’t sparkle with the same energy as the volume as a whole. Yet in a collection of essays by another writer, these pieces would stand out. Here are exceptions that prove the rule, which is that no matter what the author’s eye rests on or where she turns her ear – her laser-like intelligence makes objects as distinct as Jeff Koons’ sculptures. and Debbie Harry’s face. on the cover of a Blondie catch and burn record with the swoosh of a flare.
Few writers, after all, can offer us such a complicated perspective on the “feminine agency” that comes out of the tongue (seriously for some and carelessly for others) in the figures of Anna and Clarice Lispector delivered in consecutive tests which provide us with two views – convex mirrors on the succession of angles that are our routes. “Woman in Revolt” and “Lipstick Traces” aren’t as far apart as you might think. In everyone, gender is a yoke that must be slipped. Anna, a rebellious teenager, is a meaningful and deep presence, baring her teeth, yet smiling, in the face of the film voyeurism that makes the woman a soft and crushable object. Lispector produces a work that faces the void with a clarity that does not limit existence but positions it as a “numinous” thing. “Lipstick Traces” closes the book on Lispector with a hymn that does not separate the intellect from the feelings that unite. Each of these women, in Kushner’s hands, dispenses with conventional narratives with the same ease as they might take to cut their fingernails.
Kushner is often compared to Joan Didion, perhaps because both of them see beyond the veils that people mess around with. Didion is a literary coroner whose scalpel-shaped sentences peel the scent and organs of desire to locate the hard structures below. If she wrote an essay on motorcycle racing, she could occupy the perspective of the drone hovering over a freeway, where the motorcyclist sandwiched between the shells of cars and trucks appears an unarmoured ant. Kushner brings us closer to the ground. In his work, desire is not so much something to cauterize as it is to explore. His essays analyze this condition in two ways: as desire and as deprivation.
The young man in the title essay jostling in San Francisco is also a sign of the times. Its whiteness is not a mask. It is a hijacking of the masks because he is “obviously so injured that he had to empty himself by all the means he could”. The phrase spills over the reader like cold water. But it is elegy rather than an autopsy. Here as elsewhere in this collection, the end of things is not a marble monument but a chariot rushing nearby.
Anne Goldman is Professor of Creative Writing at Sonoma State University and author of Stargazing in the Atomic Age (2021).