Rachel Kushner’s first novel, “Telex From Cuba,” a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008, is set on the island in the 1950s when expatriates and American companies/colonists built their own little exploitative worlds in a moist, hot environment ripe for revolution, sex, and violence. “Telex” has a sly humor and many of its characters appear in Kushner’s latest, “The Strange Case of Rachel K,” a collection of short stories written before “Telex” that reads like an exercise assigned to get to where we know Kushner ended up.
The preface in “The Strange Case Of Rachel K” describes how the experience of reading a huge history book on the “so-called civilization” 10 years ago motivated her to write her own “version of discovery and progress.” The first story in the book, ‘The Great Exception,’ tells the tale of a queen in love with an explorer who found the island of Cuba. The same queen brought syphilis to Europe, and a French traveler in Cuba died of it soon after impregnating the grandmother of Rachel K—who figures in the second short story which has the same name as the title (which is named for a Cuban film made in the 1970s).
Rachel K, a young exotic dancer whose relationships with Cuban presidents, the Castro brothers, and an ex-Nazi figure heavily in “Telex From Cuba,” is seen here in the third story ‘Debouchment,’ about American sugarcane fat cats and their Stepford wives yukking it up in colonized Cuba. Together, this story and “Telex” take a chunk of colorful, often-ugly history and stop it for just a moment so we can take a closer look.
It can be fun to read early works by an emerging author and, as is the case here, you can really see how a bit more time and experience helped hone her craft: The awesome power of imagination was already there, but Kushner needed to focus it, and by 2013’s “The Flamethrowers,” a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and our own top book of 2013, her descriptive passages roared off the page in sexy bursts of witty dialogue in dive bars and motorcycles racing across sand.