Partway through Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner’s debut novel, I was reminded of John Lennon. I had been reading into the background of the Beatles’ famous avant-garde experiment, “Revolution No. 9,” and had rediscovered some of Lennon’s astute political observations. Amid the chaos of the 1960s, when many youth and liberals and liberal youth spoke openly and with applause for revolution, Lennon—the prophet of counterculture, the epitome of the 1960s—railed against it. “As far as overthrowing something in the name of Marxism or Christianity,” Lennon said, “I want to know what you’re going to do after you’ve knocked it down. I mean, can’t we use some of it? What’s the point of bombing Wall Street? If you want to change the system, change the system. It’s no good shooting people.”
The funny Beatle had good reason to be soberly skeptical: revolutions hardly ever work out as they are intended, and those left governing—whether they be the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the assembly in Libya—often find the governing even more difficult than the overthrow. Telex From Cuba is filled with the anxiety Lennon expressed, evident in tumult and turmoil from the island nation.
The novel mostly covers the wealthy Americans living in Cuba in the 1950s, all or nearly all working for United Fruit. Opening with burning sugarcane fields on the plantation of K.C. Stites, Telex From Cuba shifts in perspective and time, sometimes more effectively than others. Sections, like the prologue and long opening, are masterful, while others—such as the naive affair of one of the United Fruit wives—falter. But if half of the battle in writing a good novel comes from passion for the subject and a right (read: unique) attitude, Kushner has nearly won the war. The narrative eventually accelerates with the mysterious La Maziére, who assists the rebels and, at one rather bizarre—but somehow effective—portion of the novel, is date-raped by Fidel Castro. (Neither appear to be portayed as gay—La Maziére far from it—for Castro, it’s obviously a power thing and an ironic twist, as Raul is often gossiped about as a maricon.)
Fidel Castro, besides being enamored with power, grasps the importance of revolution—that it is not about the practicalities, but the fervor:
True revolution was attitude and passion, not ideas and ideology, something Castro seemed to understand well. It was an epic of methods, not aims. Aims would come later, but what form they’d take was anyone’s guess.
The same could perhaps be said for Kushner’s debut. The story needed further work, and a good build up—such as the complicated relationship between La Maziére and a high-rent prostitute—fizzles into predictability. The Stites’ family drama, set aflame when their eldest son joins the rebels, also similar seems misappropriated by other, meanadering subplots. Many flashbacks are well-drawn, but unavailing. Where all this attitude and passion ultimately takes the reader—where we are after Kushner evokes such a distinct place and distinct milieu—seems to be far from the mark.
What saves much of Telex From Cuba, however, is Kushner’s obvious talent and some whipsmart observations; it may fail as a story, but it succeeds in painting a dynamic portrait of Cuba. If nothing else, when the novel finally reaches the events of New Year’s Day, 1959, Kushner is on the same, practical—and intelligent—page as Lennon: “The rebels were the state,” she writes, “and overnight. A transition that was not unlike a man waking up to discover he’d somehow married his mistress.”