“Fifty-Seven”
by Rachel Kushner
from the November 30, 2015 issue of The New Yorker

November 30, 2015Rachel Kushner first came to my attention when she was a finalist for the National Book Award for her 2008 debut novel Telex from Cuba. In 2013, her second novel was also a finalist for the National Book Award and went on to the Folio Prize’s shortlist. This past year, one of my favorite publishers, New Directions, published The Strange Case of Rachel K., a collection of three of Kushner’s early stories. So, really, from the first days of this blog until now, Kushner’s name has been on my radar, but shamefully I have still not read a word of her work. I have no good excuses, and even less now that she has her first New Yorker story.

From the interview with Deborah Treisman I’ve learned this story is about a man released from prison. It emerged from Kushner’s own interest in the workings (or failings) of the California prison system.

Here’s how it begins:

They dropped him from I.R.C. so early the sky was black. He walked until he found himself stranded on the median of a freeway entrance, cars streaming toward him with their blinding lights, like a video game where the enemies come right at you, motherfuckers just keep coming straight at you one after the other, bam bam bam.

He faced the traffic, the cars racing by, machines with people in them who were not him. He was the one not in a machine, the one dumped before dawn from the county jail, and where were all these people going so early? No one stopped for him. Not a single car.

I look forward to your thoughts!

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By |2018-02-05T12:47:42+00:00November 23rd, 2015|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Rachel Kushner|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Emilis November 25, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    Whoa, haven’t been emotionally affected by a New Yorker story in a long while. A lot of the stuff in it seemed like social commentary about the American prison system/ institutions dealing with the disenfranchised in general; how they function like parallel societies with a different set of rules from those that most people consider making up the ‘real world.’ The main character is a man who has simply adapted to these alternative rules. Even the people working in the prison seem to be supporters/ an integral part of how this brutish world operates. This can probably be tied to Zizek’s ideas on the subconscious of institutions, how people who should ostensibly be following the formal, written ‘rules,’ obey the unwritten rules that demand violence and cruelty, because those are the actual real rules, how the system truly functions.
    Overall, to me this seemed like a very realistic story, naturalistic even. Maybe even too realistic and grim, but when writing about such a topic it’s probably inevitable. Some good imagery too, I liked how she compares stabbing a guy to running through mud in a dream. Brutal and beautiful.

  2. Archer November 27, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    I thought this was a remarkable story, a powerful piece of social realism. It surprised me, since I wasn’t a huge fan of The Flamethrowers. Kushner’s interview is extremely illuminating too. I was impressed by her level of engagement with this world. She’s visited maximum security prisons and has personal relationships with people serving life sentences. It lends the piece a strong sense of authenticity, remarkable considering it’s written in a voice that couldn’t be further from her own.

    She also mentions writers like Dostoevsky, Genet and Norman Mailer as points of reference, and I think the story captures the same spirit as those great works of penal literature, such as The House of the Dead or The Executioner’s Song. She writes with cool-eyed objectivity about the horrible acts committed by the central character, but manages to convey a steady sense of compassion for him as well. A tough, despairing read, but quite beautifully done.

    I have Telex from Cuba somewhere on my shelf. I’m interested to pick it up now.

  3. Roger November 27, 2015 at 8:56 pm

    The story didn’t affect me much emotionally: it’s nothing but a sensational, hyper-violent genre piece that belongs in a gore magazine, if anywhere. I admit to being annoyed (maybe that counts as an emotion?) by the writer’s less-than-brilliant, tendentious, pseudo-intellectual interview statements. I felt zero compassion for the serial murderer character. Not even for his “marginalization” or “disenfranchisement.” Good grief.

  4. johnnyhenry November 27, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    I had a reaction similar to what Roger described. Granted maybe the prison system is an ugly violent non rehabilitating monster, but I was hoping for something more original to come to light in this story. The scenes, like the stabbing description in particular are jarring and visceral but so what. So what because like Roger I absolutely hated this main character. There was no exposure of character or story that made me feel even the slightest bit of compassion. I guess you could feel sorry for the guy with the 57 IQ who was in a foster home (I think), but that part sounded a bit cliche to me. Maybe I’ll listen to the interview as apparently she was influenced by Dostoevsky and The House of the Dead, but from what I know of Dostoevsky this doesn’t even compare.

  5. Joe November 30, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    I’m so glad that bad short stories exist. If they didn’t, I’d have to suffer bad novels — a much more significant expenditure of time. This was only ten minutes that I was sure I’d wasted after finishing. I so firmly believe that if we read these stories blind, with no byline, that many of them, this one in stark particular, would be moved into the “No” pile very quickly.

    Sorry, but I’m becoming really jaded. This story had zero compassion, zero real exposition, zero interesting sentences, zero intensity — this was just a story told about a dead-in-the-mind person by a writer with some aesthetic belief that the narrative must also be dead-boring. Boring, lazy and utterly forgetful writing.

    I’m going to lose my mind reading the stuff that the glossies pass off as quality fiction these days. If anyone out there is a current teacher of creative fiction, do me this favor and report back to us — take this story, anonymize it and give it to your students to critique with no hint as to the author’s identity or gender or anything regarding the provenance of it actually having been published. Tel them, it might have been or might not have been published, but I am asking you to read and critique this story honestly. If I were still teaching, I think I’d have now found a new spin on my creative writing syllabus and this would be it.

  6. johnnyhenry December 5, 2015 at 3:56 am

    Joe, love the idea. I’d pay at least a buck or three to see the results. I’m joking with the dollar amount, but I’m seriously sincere. In fact it would be interesting to take any number of fiction pieces from the “hallowed” pages of The New Yorker, and submit them to this kind of anonymous critique. I understand there have been some gems published in TNY over the years, but I think they are few and far between.
    I am sincerely baffled as to what passes for elite quality short fiction in the magazine these days, which considering its famous pedigree that must be the expectation of most readers for a story TNY accepts. I wonder if “in the old days” the bar was set higher. Or were the stories just better? Or…more likely perhaps, I am merely unqualified to judge, i.e. I suppose I don’t know a quality piece of short fiction when I see….I mean read…one. Surely I am far less qualified than the gatekeepers at TNY. Then again aren’t we all endowed with an imagination and a subjective (or is it objective?) opinion as to what tingles our spine in regards to fictional narrative?
    I’ve been reading some Richard Yates short stories lately. Stuff kicks some ass (I think), and “was compared favorably to James Joyce’s Dubliners” (quote is from Wikipedia). Apparently not mostly good enough for TNY though as only one of his short stories was ever accepted and that after repeated rejections.
    Even so I’d still bet at least a buck or three that all the stories in The Collected Stories of Richard Yates are superior works of craftsmanship and much more fun to read than more than a few of the stories published in TNY in the past couple of years.
    If Chekhov were around today he’d probably be rejected by TNY.

  7. Joe December 5, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    JohnnyHenry – I also love Mr. Yates – and maybe this next year I’ll actually figure out a way to test this little idea of mine – I have taught before and if I had captive students now, I would most certainly create a course in the creative writing program that focused on this anonymous critique…let me know if you have any other ideas on it…

  8. Sean H December 6, 2015 at 4:51 am

    Interesting array of reactions. This is quite the well-written and immersive story. I have no idea why certain people need likeable characters. It’s quite difficult to write intelligently in a close third-person about someone with an IQ of 57 and I do agree with the first poster that the story is very much a modern inflection on Naturalism. There’s no way in hell a creative writing student could have come up with this. The research she’s done is worn incredibly lightly and her ability to write across gender and incarnate this character’s tragic, violent, monstrous life is the work of an accomplished writer with a well-trained ear. Fascinating descriptions throughout. Momentum is built almost entirely through action. Pace is deftly handled and maintained and the POV doesn’t waver. The word choice is extremely precise and controlled and to write straight prose as she does with such minimal dialogue and an accumulation of vivid and effective imagery in paragraph after paragraph is quite an achievement. It’s not Dostoevsky or Mailer but if that’s the standard for every New Yorker short story than 99% of them fall short. This is a memorable and well-constructed piece and the New Yorker gets points for publishing something edgy and outside of their usual purview.

    As a sidenote, Kushner’s interview is laughable. She’s pious, self-righteous and mostly just dead wrong about the world, a callow extreme leftist who thinks (largely imaginary) systemic forces mitigate personal responsibility. She is one of the many morons who boycotted PEN awarding the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre with the Freedom of Expression award because to her their magazine wasn’t expressing free speech but “marginalizing minorities” or some other protracted rationalization that none of them (Joyce Carol Oates, Teju Cole, Francine Prose, Peter Carey, Deborah Eisenberg, etc.) had the courage to spout after the recent Paris attacks. So is Kushner a political simp? Seemingly. White-guilt riddled product of self-loathing and third rate watered down Marxism? Certainly. Bad fiction writer? Certainly not.

  9. Joe December 6, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    Sean H, while I disagree 180 with your assessment of the story, I agree wholeheartedly with your take on her Hebdo camp. One of my favorite writers, Russell Banks, also joined in on that side and firmly, finally, made me see that the work and the artist (writer, painter, musician, any artist) must be assessed separately. I’ve retained too long the childlike (childish, perhaps) thought that I might like to spend an afternoon with X or Y. Maybe this also stems from a few recent fan emails I sent to writers whose stories I’ve been knocked over by — a majority of the responses, when I even received one, seem written by a surprisingly (for a person practicing the art of sketching out the truth of people and personalities) misanthropic author. Anyhow, you’ll continue reading Kushner, but I’ll forever note her presence in my eye-space as a warning flare and steer quickly away from her stories.

  10. Roger December 6, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    Joe’s comment appeared just as I was about to compose my own somewhat similar one: Sean H, although I don’t share your enthusiasm for the story, your assessment of the interview and the author just nail it. The additional background about Kushner’s stance on the Charlie Hebdo/PEN matter is interesting, albeit not surprising. I also agree (with both Joe and Sean H) about the separation between the work and the writer, with one big exception in this story that I’ll talk about below.

    My own criticism of the story isn’t based on a desire for likeable characters. Richard III wasn’t likeable, but he was interesting. By contrast, this story’s protagonist is a bore, and I don’t find his low IQ to be an excuse for how boring he is, any more than it excuses anything else about him. I don’t doubt the difficulty of writing intelligently about a character with an IQ of 57 – and Kushner has not risen to the challenge. As an aside, I work for a federal agency that staffs much of its mail room with intellectually disabled people (mentally retarded, for the politically incorrect). They all seem more interesting than this character, with a capacity for goodness, and maybe for moral flaws, that would make them more interesting than the shiv-wielding serial killer we’re treated to here. With this character, we are really not talking about Lennie from The Grapes of Wrath, who kills his female victim accidentally and without any malice. Lennie also has the poignancy of setting, circumstances, and other characters like George to reinforce his tragic context.

    Getting back to why I think Kushner failed to write intelligently here: I don’t know how California’s prison system works, but I do know that in the federal system, dangerous inmates are placed under close surveillance and some measure of due diligence would be undertaken before concluding that an inmate was ordering murders. If there were a typo in an inmate’s file indicating an IQ of 157 vice 57, the prison administrators would be much more likely to correct the error than to be suckered into believing it. With due deference to Kushner’s field research, I suspect she’s got a better handle on life among the cons than life among the guards and their bosses. California is a big sophisticated place and its prisons likely have a security ethos comparable to that of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

    But this is where Kushner’s social activist persona and her work on the page become tightly and unfortunately connected: Her point is not to get us interested in the serial killer protagonist, but rather the “system” that, she implies, is truly responsible for what he does. The watch commander et al. *have* to be bumblers who think the dimwitted killer is a genius shot-caller in order for the big event, the stabbing of the guard, to happen and to happen in a way that suggests the system is at fault. So unconvincing that I doubt it would work even on TV. But, who cares about plot logic when there is a point to be made? Really, this story just mechanically paints by numbers that represent a formula in which Kushner’s values are encoded.

    Yet, there are those lovely graphic depictions of stabbing ad nauseum, what with the yielding of the soft flesh on the guard’s neck etc. Sentences rendered so well on a technical level that a gore magazine is their natural home.

  11. Greg December 9, 2015 at 10:45 pm

    Thank you to everybody for this comprehensive review of the story. I learned so much from you.

    (The Johnny-Joe-Sean-Roger exchange was brilliant!)

  12. Ken December 26, 2015 at 4:52 am

    I liked this very much. I agree with Sean completely, especially about this being beyond the typical New Yorker story of which the previous issue’s Ann Beattie is a typical example–upper-class semi-misery with regional “charm.” I don’t think one needs to excuse such a character or think he should be freed or even “like” him to feel compassion. Would I want to spend time with this guy? No. But…within fiction I was moved. A few comments above strike me as rather moralizing about this character and judgmental in an almost law-and-order right wing way. By the way–What is a Gore magazine? If they publish stuff like this, as opposed to Ann Beattie or other New Yorker mediocrities, I might take out a subscription.

  13. Roger December 26, 2015 at 11:31 am

    Hi Ken. By “gore” magazine (lower case “g” – let’s leave Al and politics out of it), I’m referring to horror magazines focused on graphic depictions of violence. Googling the term will get you started on identifying potential subscriptions. Just don’t move on to snuff videos!

    I admit that if choices were limited to Ann Beattie and gore magazines, I’d be out of options. Happy holidays.

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