Article by keaton

A semi-regular column about overlooked new releases and obscure backlist classics that deserve your reconsideration.

I was ecstatic when I heard our friends at New Directions were releasing Rachel Kushner’s long out-of-print collection of stories, THE STRANGE CASE OF RACHEL K, originally published before her more famous works. However, perhaps due to its small-sized format and the odd title that makes it seem like some kind of memoir, it has slipped by many of our fiction customers’ radars over the past two months.

A shame, because Kushner’s name is synonymous with American literary excellence. Her two novels, TELEX FROM CUBA and THE FLAMETHROWERS, were both finalists for the National Book Award—the only time an author has ever accomplished that feat. She’s a Guggenheim fellow, and she rides fricking motorcycles. Okay, okay, maybe her penchant for badass biking has nothing to do with her prowess in crafting stellar narratives, but it’s undeniably cool.

When I think about it, that’s the exact word I’d choose to sum up Kushner’s fiction—“cool.” Her work is literary, of course, sure. Her prose is incredibly smart and subtle at times, and then larger than life when need be. She expertly entwines the inner lives of her characters with the atmosphere and history of the world they inhabit. Yet, when it comes down to it, Kushner’s writing is just Steve McQueen cool. Take THE FLAMETHROWERS, in which she gives us the 1970s New York art scene, motorcycles (again), and leftist insurrection in Rome—all in one book. See what I mean? Cool.

THE STRANGE CASE OF RACHEL K fits that bill completely. There’s cannibalism, sex, a peek into early cinematic special effects, a bombing, Nazis on the lam, not to mention the ethereal and haunting beauty of the titular character and pre-Castro Havana. Consisting of three connected and otherworldly stories, THE STRANGE CASE OF RACHEL K traces the arc of Cuban history from first Spanish contact to just before the Revolution. Throughout, Kushner writes with the wild abandon of a young author in the process of forging her own unique voice.

This is most definitely an early work, yet there’s something exhilarating in the chances Kushner takes here. These stories are far more experimental than her recent fiction. She playfully manipulates chronology and perspective, even dabbling in magical realism to an extent. There’s also the nascent formation of certain themes that would go on to preoccupy Kushner’s novels—Cuba, political revolution, filmmaking, the objectification of women, as well as the inability to truly know anyone and the existential peril inherent in self-discovery. In fact, the title story is a defacto prequel to Kushner’s acclaimed debut, TELEX FROM CUBA. Here on paper is the beginning of one of contemporary literature’s most promising voices.

You don’t have to give THE STRANGE CASE OF RACHEL K a shot, but it’d be a lot cooler if you did.

The Strange Case of Rachel K Cover Image
ISBN: 9780811224215
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: New Directions - March 24th, 2015

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