by Rachel Kushner
from the February 12 & 19, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Rachel Kushner’s first story in The New Yorker was “Fifty-Seven,” published back in November 2015 (see the post here). Though her work keeps coming across my virtual desk (her debut novel was a National Book Award finalist in 2008, a year I tried to cover almost all of the finalists but still ended up missing hers), I’ve still not read any of her it. Not even “Fifty-Seven,” though I should have. It inspired some divisive commentary on this site, with some folks loving it and others hating it, and with some particularly nice explanations.

I haven’t read all of “Stanville” yet, but I have started it and was quite drawn in by the first bit:

If his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged. That was what Gordon Hauser told himself, and what he told them, too. But there were days, like when a woman walked into the prison classroom and flung boiling sugar water into the face of another woman, when he did not believe it. There were days when it seemed as though the real purpose of the work he was doing was to destroy his own life by trying to teach people who wanted to burn each other’s faces off.

I’m curious where it will go and what we’ll all take away from it in the end. Please feel free to comment below!

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By |2018-02-05T12:59:43-04:00February 5th, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Rachel Kushner|Tags: |19 Comments


  1. David February 5, 2018 at 6:04 pm

    Reader warning: “Stanville” is an excerpt from her upcoming novel. I’m going to pass on reading it unless comments here convince me it works as a stand-alone story and is good enough to check out. I haven’t read “Fifty-Seven.” Maybe I’ll take a look at it instead.

  2. Alex Strout February 9, 2018 at 10:31 pm

    I love Kushner, but I dislike stories in the magazine that are basically adverts for upcoming books. It definitely doesn’t work as a single story, but I’m beyond excited to read The Mars Room. “Fifty-Seven” however, is brilliant. I’ve read it several times since it was in the magazine. Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers are great books too.

  3. Ken February 11, 2018 at 4:16 pm

    I enjoyed this but I don’t think it works as a stand-alone and I didn’t think last week’s piece by Eugenides did either. They lack the completeness and the necessary depth to stand on their own as short fiction. I may have complained about the piece by Zadie Smith, but at least it is a short fiction.

  4. Ken February 11, 2018 at 4:18 pm

    I liked this well enough as what it is–part of a novel that would probably fill out and develop what seems too thin, incomplete to work as a short story. The New Yorker had been on a pretty good streak with pieces like Wideman’s and Barrett’s that are fully realized short stories, they really should be more strict about what they accept.

  5. Ken February 11, 2018 at 4:19 pm

    The comments section is a bit wonky and I wasn’t sure it was taking my last comment so, instead, I re-wrote it and now it’s up twice but is basically the same idea.

  6. Dennis Lang February 14, 2018 at 5:45 pm

    As usual, what other readers consider “completion” in a short story is a concept that often eludes me. Taken on its own merits the author drops us into this disturbing world from the perspective of those who have committed harrowing crimes and the price they now pay. She peels away the surface of characters known only by their violent acts and are treated accordingly in this institution, to reveal real people with real lives beneath that surface. That Romy L Hall, her past life left a total mystery, in my mind is the perfect conclusion.
    As an aside, I think the same author contributed another “New Yorker” piece from the viewpoint of a man just released from prison who unwittingly committed a murder. Her compassion for these lives on the margin puts flesh on what other wise is a bony abstraction.

  7. Eric February 15, 2018 at 3:06 am

    Interesting, underexplored premise, well-realized characters, and a sharp, penetrating prose style–like Trevor, I found the opening paragraphs quite promising. But the ending was kind of a dull thud, as is so often the case with novel excerpts. Probably it works better in the more layered context of the novel. Maybe I’m being superficial or something, but having the story just stop without knowing anything about what Romy did to wind up in prison left me feeling kind of cheated.

  8. William February 18, 2018 at 11:42 pm

    I’m with Dennis on this piece:

    “As usual, what other readers consider “completion” in a short story is a concept that often eludes me.”

    I’m usually sensitive to an excerpt. But until I read David’s alert I wasn’t aware that this was part of a book. It seemed complete. To me it felt much like “Whoever’s There, Come on Through” – a depiction of a unique closed society. In this case, truly closed.

    I felt that it was well written. Good prose. And good metaphors that stood for the important elements in the story. Like the paper wasp’s nest that Gordon found:

    “Gordon carried it inside and placed it on his table, this grand and mysterious, half-deflated torn-open thing.”

    And the last line:

    “An excavating 3 A.M. bark, digging and digging at nothing.”


    That’s a good ending from Gordon’s point of view. Dennis identified the adequacy of the ending from the woman’s point of view:

    “That Romy L Hall, her past life left a total mystery, in my mind is the perfect conclusion.”

    It’s a closed world – Gordon works in the prison for a while, he makes some connection. He moves on, but the women stay there.

    Another good point of the writer’s skill – carrying through a two-pov narrative that’s simple and easily understood. Nothing fancy, but lending the story depth and counterpoint.

    This story also shared a feature with the Lahiri piece – a world observed from two vastly different perspectives dictated by the characters’ life circumstance.

    I would make one edit – taking out from “Those were the worst nights.” To the beginning of the next section – “He kept looking”. Those sentences lessen the tension. Too abstract.

    Otherwise, very satisfying.

  9. Dennis Lang February 19, 2018 at 1:19 pm

    Yes, Kushner’s take on these violent lives can be deeply moving. What’s behind these inhuman acts? How inhuman is their treatment in incarceration? Not long ago on the occasion of Charles Manson’s death more than one article discussed his harrowing young life. If you didn’t know the arc of his brutal acts to follow it’s hard not to feel great sympathy.
    In the same “New Yorker” issue, “Frankenstein at Two Hundred”, Mary Wollstonecroft is quoted. I thought it appropriate to the Kushner story: “People are made ferocious by misery, and misanthropy is ever the offspring of discontent.”

  10. William February 19, 2018 at 2:12 pm

    Dennis —

    Nice pickup on the Mary Shelley quote.

  11. Greg February 25, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    Dennis and William – Thank you for your observations on this story. You made Rachel’s points come to life for me, and thereby increased my takeaways from this excerpt!

    Also, I loved these following passages:

    “”Don’t correct, because you never know. Their wrong might be your right.””

    “”It’s okay to make a promise,” London said to Gordon, as if summarizing for the teacher how life actually worked, “but it’s not always a good idea to keep one.””

    “I saw the shining lid of the ocean from Irving Street, the way it rose, on a clear day, like something that breathed, that was alive, down at the end of the avenues.”

    “She should have known you don’t brag about something like that. You keep it to yourself and you cultivate it.”

    “Looking at someone who is looking at you is a drug as strong as any other.”

  12. William February 25, 2018 at 5:16 pm

    Greg —

    Nice choice of quotes from the story.

  13. Greg February 27, 2018 at 10:27 pm

    And William, I loved your two quotes:

    “Gordon carried it inside and placed it on his table, this grand and mysterious, half-deflated torn-open thing.”


    “An excavating 3 A.M. bark, digging and digging at nothing.”

  14. William February 28, 2018 at 9:47 am

    Thanks. Gates writes good.

  15. Roger May 9, 2018 at 7:20 pm

    Hmm, just left a post that didn’t appear. A shorter version: Those interested in or disappointed by this story or by Kushner’s atrocious “Fifty-Seven” should check out Ron Charles’s review of her just-published prison novel in today’s Washington Post. I’d provide the URL to the review but fear that may cause this post to disappear into the ether like my last one….

  16. Greg May 12, 2018 at 4:21 pm

    Thanks Roger for your tip to go check out the interview in the Post!…I know that Rachel wants her new book to be considered simply as a novel, and not designated as a “Prison Novel”….but it seems like that will be a challenge.

  17. Roger May 12, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    Greg, you’re welcome. Ron Charles did not interview Ms. Kushner but he did review her book. Based on what’s in the review, I think the prison-novel label will be the least of the author’s worries….

  18. Greg May 12, 2018 at 4:50 pm

    What a real shame then Roger – Rachel was on a trajectory to become the next great ‘American Novelist’.

  19. Roger May 13, 2018 at 3:15 am

    Greg, I think you’re messing with me! I’m not sure if she was on that trajectory but if she was, a bad review from Charles alone probably isn’t enough to stop her. His review stated that two of her previous books were nominated for the National Book Award and I think she’s pretty young, so who knows what her future holds.

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