This book, beautifully written by Rachel Kushner, was a National Book Award fiction finalist, and also #3 on the Times Best of Books of 2013.
Ah, “beautifully written.” This phrase can encompass so much about writing. One could argue that Anne Rice’s vampire novels are beautifully written, with their attention to detail. One could also argue (and I do) that James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux novels are beautifully written, making you feel as if you are walking the streets of New Iberia, Louisiana. However, Burke and Rice have not been selected as finalist for the National Book Award – as their works are, sadly, viewed as genre fiction as opposed to literary fiction.
There is no doubt that Kushner’s book is in the latter category. It is not an easy read, it is not something you can race through, and makes you think once you finish the book. The book is essentially historical fiction, being set in the tumultuous times of the mid-1970’s in Italy, but also there are some flashback scenes to World War II. I generally do not like fiction set in the 1970’s, for various reasons, partially because I was born in 1970 and feel some odd ownership over the decade. Another reason I am not fond of this time period in fiction, is that generally you cannot go two sentences without someone popping LSD, singing the Stones or Pink Floyd, or shooting up. I am not so naive to realize these were prevalent behaviors during this decade, but not in my little narrow view of the world during that decade (no, that actually came in the 1980’s).
But back to THIS book. This book does not have a drug scene every other sentence, although it is rampant with very casual scenes of sex and light drug use. The book alternates between New York and Italy, with a few scenes in Nevada thrown in. The art world of New York and the world of privileged Italians literally clash in Kushner’s second work. Reno (not her real name), the female narrator, is an art school graduate who goes to New York, with no thoughts of falling in love, but ironically, with the thought of a boy from her art school whom she admired. She meets a waitress, Giddel, who becomes her first friend. The problem with Giddel is that she constantly reinvents herself, and Reno is never sure what is the truth and what is a fabrication. Giddel works as a waitress as a form of art. Reno next meets Nadine and Thurman, and an unnamed man, and spends an incredible night drinking and hearing fascinating stories from these three. Again, stories she is not sure are true or just some fiction the tellers repeat to make themselves seem larger than life. She gets a job, meets a man, races a bike, and continues listening to stories of people who are nominally famous in the New York art scene.
Reno is bold, moving to New York, not in search of a man, but still trying to find the art student she admired. Yet, she has a backwards view of men and women, and of sex. It was the 70’s, free love, people being bold and brave where men were concerned, not shy, not scared. Yet, Reno clings to men, forms attachments, first to the nameless man from her night with Thurman and Nadine, then with Sandro, a member of a monied Italian family. Reno is quite timid and shy with Sandro, taking his lead, not exerting herself, for fear of angering and subsequently, losing him. Reno is an anomaly in a sea of feminists who were coming of age in the mid 1970’s, and so stands out.
I read numerous reviews of this book (as I always do), and many said, “no plot,” “no discernible storyline,” and so on. That is really true. There’s not so much a storyline to follow in this book so much as an ocean of lies and entanglements. You, as the reader, get to ponder and reflect, as Reno does, what is the truth about the people she meets? Is there no one normal in the city? It’s an interesting reflection of the art world and how artists are constantly trying to create new forms of artwork to make a statement, which is met with skepticism by people from outside the artists’ community.
The book is a tale of jealousy and even greed in some instances. Other than the love Reno feels for so many people/men she encounters, love does not abound within these pages. In its place is sex, power, and political machinations, but not those of Vietnam or Nixon – none of the usual places where authors attempt to retell the history of the 1970’s; that is the most unique aspect of the story – the telling of Italian history during that decade.
Did I love this book? No, I did not love this book, and felt like I sometimes was adrift in all the beautifully written prose, struggling to see where the story was connected. However, once I finally finished, I do have to admit to a grudging like of the book, because it was so beautifully and uniquely written. Many authors are descriptive, and many books are lies. Yet, this author takes the lies of the characters and turns them into lush vignettes, leaving you wanting more.
I wondered halfway through, “how was this book a finalist in the National Book Awards, yet others were long listed?” Although not my favorite, I completely “get it” now. Kushner’s medium is words and her canvas a blank piece of paper. Through her beautiful writing, this book is as much a visual masterpiece as a lingual one.