It’s complicated, being “the one who lived to tell,” not just a survivor but a memorialist tasked with cataloging the unlucky glamorous dead. To Kushner, it means that the narrative we are reading is to some extent “a conversion narrative,” that “the person who writes about her experience is not the same person who had the experience,” but I’m not so sure. I would say that a writer is someone who is always half-participant, half-observer, that even as you’re piling dead drunk into a stranger’s car, one cold eye is also noting that his tattoo is misspelled. In this “hard crowd,” Kushner writes, she was the “soft one,” but you might equally say the one dispassionate enough to watch — and to get out... Kushner is unusual in combining her taste for “the old, weird America” of desert highways, vintage cars, autodidact loners, with a grounding in 20th-century European thought, an interest in the ways in which working-class struggle on the Continent was filtered into industrial action, armed revolt or documentary art. These competing aesthetic/moral strands are what form the double whammy in Kushner’s prose: a narrative voice that’s hip, raspy, rich in caustic or deadpan one-liners, and an ethic of almost wide-eyed “permeability,” of feeling painfully responsible for history’s wrongs.
Reader engagement with some of the cultural commentary essays, which range from obscure Italian cinema, to the writing and life of Marguerite Duras, to the artwork of Jeff Koons, will depend on the level of interest in these particular topics. It is clear that Kushner is a sharp cultural commentator, offering original insights on her subjects, often making cross-cultural comparisons that show the breadth of her knowledge.
And the prose is always engaging: Denis Johnson’s “passion for wrecked people certainly spawned a kind of cult status”, but his novels are not just “for hipsters and crackheads who read”.
Though Kushner is a decidedly erudite writer, the essays in the collection vary in quality, and some of the less successful works feel too meandering. “The Sinking of the HMS Bounty”, for example (the title references the destruction of a replica 18th-century square rigger during Hurricane Sandy), has moments of interest in an otherwise too-loosely structured piece that ranges from the art of Thomas Demand, to bars and an anecdote about German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger. But where that essay’s bagginess may have failed, the title work has an ease that comes from Kushner’s feverish telling of stories from her early life in San Francisco, recounting her experimentation with drugs, her work as a waitress and bartender, and encounters with an array of friends and strangers. Towards the end she marvels: “Sometimes I am boggled by the gallery of souls I’ve known.”
“I was the soft one,” she says, but that’s just circumstantial. Hardness is not the most valued attribute right now. Writing, especially first-person writing, has become increasingly prized for its porosity, its capacity to enact and relay vulnerability. That New Journalism style, live hard and keep your eyes open, has long since given way to the millennial cult of the personal essay, with its performance of pain, its earnest display of wounds received and lessons learned. But Kushner brings it all flooding back. Even if I’m sceptical of its dazzle, I’m glad to taste something this sharp, this smart.