Her Taste For Speed: Rachel Kushner’s “The Hard Crowd”
I have been a dyke on a bike.
When I began dating the person who’d become my ex-wife, we traveled everywhere by motorcycle. We rumbled through the San Francisco Pride Parade. We zigzagged around the Berkeley Hills, hoping to glimpse Alice Walker and Tracy Chapman blowing on hot tea in the writer’s Japanese garden. We flew across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, to gay and lesbian bars flanking the deep.
Sailing over the bay’s choppy waters on a weeknight felt as exhilarating as it did terrifying.
Winds seemed eager to snatch and fling us into the depths below, maybe the gusts wanted to punish us for having homosexual fun, and I recall riding across the suspension bridge on one very chilly evening. I wore a black leather motorcycle jacket over a black cotton dress that I tucked diaper-style into my crotch. Black thigh-high stockings clipped to a garter belt provided the only barrier between my knees and the world. My legs gripped the motorcycle, forming a flesh and bone vise that I prayed would keep me anchored to the shiny machine that ferried a gem: my twenty-one-year-old pussy. As I clung to my girlfriend’s waist, I wondered what it would feel like to liberate my small feet from the bike’s pegs, lower my shoes to the road, and let the asphalt grind my high heels into flats, turn them into a pair of violently cobbled ballet slippers.
Some girls are blessed with daredevil streaks.
We have a taste for speed and adrenaline that doesn’t necessarily make us macho.
Rachel Kushner, author of THE HARD CROWD: ESSAYS 2000-2020 (Scribner 2021), opens her collection with “Girl on a Motorcycle,” a piece she narrates in macha style. Some readers will likely confuse Kushner’s swagger, and bravado, with arrogance. God bless those poor, pathetic fuckers. Terse sentences that cut to the bone of the matter are a specialty of hers, and her economy of language makes “Girl on a Motorcycle” a gritty pleasure.
“What was I?” Kushner asks after detailing her tween obsession with a 1955 Vincent Black Shadow. Her answer? Brazenly simple: “A child who coveted my father’s motorcycle.”
The adult things that we covet shape the adults we become. I coveted my mother’s heels and my father’s toolbox. Today, dangerously high heels and even longer tools stuff my closet.
Tying bikes to fucking and hetero-romantic bullshit, Kushner introduces the 1968 Anglo-French film Girl on a Motorcycle. A Harley Davidson given to a mistress, Marianne Faithfull, by her lover, Alain Delon, propels the movie’s plot (but not Kushner’s). Faithfull’s controlling lover intends for the gift to be used as a tool of infidelity, one which he slid between her legs, and she does ride it to attend international dick appointments, rendezvousing with Delon in Heidelberg where, on one occasion, the handsome man “spanks her with a bouquet of roses.”
Kushner de-triangulates her relationship to bikes, differentiating herself from Faithfull. She asserts that motorcycles didn’t come into her life as gifts from men or ways to travel to them. Instead, they entered as “machines to be ridden.” Still, Kushner does contend with her own Delon, an older Moto Guzzi mechanic. He becomes a “domineering and manipulative” boyfriend whose approval Kushner craves and her rendering of the mechanic flooded me with familiarity. I know this type of asshole well and have learned the hard way to avoid their kind. This type of dick dispels the myth that controlling misogynists seek “weak” or “vulnerable” women to harm. That myth hides and protects the many shitheads who intentionally seek victims who appear bold and aggressive, non-men who enjoy being “kinetic and unfettered and alone.” Patriarchs with this modus operandi have admitted to me, in private, that it delights them to “break” strong women.
As long as she’s ferrying her pussy to it, patriarchy doesn’t mind a girl on a motorcycle. When the motorcycle takes her away, and brings her closer to herself, she, and her machine, become a problem.
Have you ever had a patriarch steal your keys and hide them? I have.
“Girl On a Motorcycle” is a road story of the outlaw-rebel variety that inverts elements characteristic of the genre. Not only does it have a female narrator, but the bitch gets to live! And nobody rapes or murders her! She is, however, terrorized. During an epic road race through Baja California, the Cabo 1000, Kushner swerves to avoid hitting another contestant who’s moving at a slow speed. Traveling at 130 mph, she vaults into the air, momentum separating her from her bike, and her body crashes to the Mexican earth, where she succumbs to “vivid, terrible pain.”
Enduring this trauma prepares Kushner to dump the Moto Guzzi mechanic but dicks like him believe that once they’ve fucked you, they carry the deed to your cunt. He stalks her, as if he’s repo-ing a fugitive machine, and Kushner’s offers one of the best descriptions I’ve read about the sense of doom that romantic stalking provokes: “The old boyfriend began to appear everywhere I went…This culminated in him climbing through my apartment window one morning. Luckily, my roommate came home and scared him off. I never saw him again, but for a decade I felt hunted.”
As if Kushner is doing intellectual donuts, the aforementioned 1968 Anglo-French film, and its motifs, reappear about halfway through the collection: “I didn’t have an image of a girl on a motorcycle, although [my novel, The Flamethrowers], opens with the narrator riding one in the Bonneville land speed trials. Girl On a Motorcycle, released in Italy as Naked under Leather, starred Marianna Faithfull and Alain Delon.” I appreciate literary repetitions of this variety. They bring chorus to a narrative, reminding us of why and whom we’re reading. The essay with the chorus, “Made to Burn,” is prose about one’s own prose, a genre I adore. It’s also the only essay in the book accompanied by photographs, which Kushner also writes about. The caption beneath the photo of Jack Goldstein’s 1977 twelve-minute record titled “The Murder” expresses the hard and soft duality present in most of Kushner’s meditations: “Jack Goldstein had all the right ingredients for myth: brilliant, cool, mysterious. He was hugely influential but ended up living in a trailer in East LA, selling ice cream from a truck. The ice cream melted completely when he had to wait in line for methadone, but he refroze it and sold it anyways.”
Do you see, or rather, feel, the hard and soft?
Many of the collection’s essays center men, white men in particular. There are meditations on Jeff Koons and Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy and Bill Graham and Alex Brown and Nanni Balestrini. Kushner brings her hard and soft lenses to these masculine subjects. She brings those lenses and then some to her female subjects. In “Is Prison Necessary?” Kushner profiles abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the scholar who originated and developed carceral geography as an academic discipline. In addition to painting a picture of Gilmore, the essay also re-evaluates the relationship between forgiveness and forgetting, implying that repair, restoration, and generativity hinge on active remembrance. Forgiveness might, in fact, be antithetical to amnesia: “…the conditions under which [an] atrocity occurred must change, so that they can’t occur again.” Cultural memory captures those conditions, enabling us to assess and evaluate them from a safer time and place: the future.
TBH, I’m most intellectually turned on by Kushner’s work when she’s writing about female writers, artists and revolutionaries. She works this magic with Gilmore as well as in essays on Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector and 1970’s era imagery picturing women, like Hannah Wilke, wielding firearms. About Duras’s prose, Kushner quips, “Much of her publishing career was an encounter with misogyny in the 1950s, male critics called her talent ‘masculine,’ ‘hardball,’ and ‘virile,’ —and they meant these descriptions as insults!” Identical lines could not be written about Kushner. But similar ones could. About Duras’s classic novel The Lover, the story of a “white ‘child prostitute’” and a “handsome Chinese landowner,” Kushner explains, “Duras said the depiction in The Lover was her actual childhood but those who knew her best suggest she had begun to confuse her fiction with reality.” I have yet to reach the age when my grandmothers began to confuse fiction with reality and I recall, quite clearly, how I came to learn about The Lover. My high school English teacher invited several female students to her home for a slumber party. I was one of them She showed us the 1992 film adaptation starring Jane March and Tony Leung. I felt very uncomfortable during the sex scenes.
In “Lipstick Traces,” Kushner examines the life, work, and friendships of Clarice Lispector. She characterizes the writer as having had a “diamond-hard intelligence, a visionary instinct, and a sense of humor that veered from naïf wonder to wicked comedy.” She spends much of the essay expounding on Lispector as a philosopher and intellectual although some assholes resist regarding her as such. A sad number of people are too bitter to elevate intellectuals who happen to look like movie stars. They think that her sculpted cheekbones discount her intellectual and artistic achievements. My mother was a chemist as beautiful as Lispector and I grew up watching people of many races and genders my mom for daring to be a good-looking scientist and it delights me that Kushner is able to hold and make room for all of Lispector’s gifts: “She was indeed beautiful for most of her life, with a face whose astral luminosity reminds me of Topaz…”
The Hard Crowd offers us a portrait of Kushner through her preoccupations, obsessions, concerns, affinities, and distastes. Her writing on others is always writing about the self and in this sense, she is always doing donuts, flashing the lens externally so as to make an entire revolution, pointing the eye inward once again. Kushner seems aware of this trick. She understands that all writing is a sleight of hand regardless of the machine we’re using to do it, pen, pencil, keyboard, motorcycle, tattoo gun. In her closing essay, from which the collection derives its title, she describes a girl’s thigh tattoo, “a cherry on a stem and in script the words ‘Not no more.’” Such are Kushner’s litanies, written with hard and soft precision, into dirt and skin.