Book Review: Rachel Kushner, 'The Strange Case Of Rachel K'

Apr 17, 2015
Originally published on May 3, 2015 8:41 pm
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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Rachel Kushner's novel, "The Flamethrowers" was one of the best and most widely praised books of 2013. Now she has three works of short fiction collected and published under the title of "The Strange Case Of Rachel K." Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Good news for those who already know Kushner's work. Good news for anyone looking to read powerful new prose. Though these three pieces turn out to be mostly atmospherics and character studies, Kushner writes so brilliantly that anyone who cares for contemporary fiction will want to read them. Atmospherics, but when you read a few lines from the opening piece, you just dig in and give in. Listen to what she writes in "The Great Exception" about the period of early oceangoing exploration in the West. That's when, Kushner says, (reading) seafarers, with no reliable guide by which to brave the open ocean, paddled and were wind-scooted along in landlocked, salted waters. For navigation, they dead reckoned and used wind roses, radiating lines of 16 focal points, ornate foliations that indicated air currents but varied according to the size and dimensions of the map.

In "Debouchment," the second piece, Kushner portrays, in just a few strokes, the decadence of colonials in Latin America who drink to destruction and roast live parrots for their delectation until all the birds die out.

The title piece, "The Strange Case Of Rachel K.," comes from Kushner's knowledge of a film about a German-Jewish-Havana club dancer known as Rachel K. Rachel K.'s mother supposedly abandoned her to life as a nightclub courtesan, and her strange case, as Kushner calls it, unfolds as the attractive consort cavorts with various Havana characters, such as a French Nazi, a Cuban president about to be overthrown by Batista and then Batista himself. It's a bitter and perfumed prose study in sensuality and brutal compromise with life's harsh demands - a portrait of a dancing woman in extremis. Like the first two pieces in this short volume, it overflows in atmosphere as it shows off the burgeoning talent of one of our best writers.

SIEGEL: The writer is Rachel Kushner, and her new book is "The Strange Case Of Rachel K." Alan Cheuse had our review. His latest book is "Prayers For The Living." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.