Remembering Rachel: Joyous, Pulsing

Author Rachel Kranz


Tomorrow my son Darien and I will drive up to New York to attend the memorial service of my dear friend Rachel Kranz, whom Darien grew up thinking of as an aunt. I have been asked to deliver remarks at the occasion and decided to talk about Rachel’s two novels, one published and one unfinished. Here is what I plan to say.

While I have many, many memories of Rachel, going all the way back to when she walked into the Carleton College newspaper office in September, 1971, I will use my time to honor her the way that I honor the writers I teach in my literature classes—which is to say, using their works as windows into the soul.

Of all the identities that Rachel claimed for herself, first and foremost she thought of herself as a novelist. This may seem strange to outsiders since, of the scores of books that have her name attached to them, only three were novels. One went unpublished, one was Leaps of Faith, and one was the unfinished Mastery. Some of us who were reading early versions of Mastery thought it would be a masterpiece.

I first look back at Leaps of Faith, published by Farrar Straus in 2000. If every character in a novel represents some dimension of the author, then Rachel is the psychic reader Warren, the actor Flip, the experimental theater director Ellen, and the union organizer Rosie. Flip and Warren are trying to make a relationship work at the same time that Flip is pursuing an acting career and Warren is fathering a biracial niece that his mentally unstable sister has dumped on him. Ellen, meanwhile, fights insecurities as she deals with temperamental actors, and Rosie strives to do the impossible, which is unionize workers at a Manhattan university—which we know, from Rachel’s own unionizing work, to be Columbia. In other words, they are juggling multiple balls and trying to do so with integrity, even as the world confronts them with work demands, social, racial, and economic inequities, and relationship challenges.

The novel is alternately brilliant and rambling as Rachel strives to do justice to life’s complications, including her own complicated balancing act of writing, ghostwriting, activism, theater, poker playing, health maintenance, and family and friends. Of all literary genres, the novel is best suited for such variety. In Leaps of Faith, no character receives anything less than her full attention, her full intelligence, and her full honesty, which is how she always was with those gathered here. The “leaps of faith” in the title reflect her abiding belief that, even when all the odds seem stacked against you, we must keep fighting because the unexpected can happen. Flip finds acting jobs, Flip and Warren get married, Warren bonds with his niece, Ellen pulls off her play, and Rosie, like the Columbia unionizers, improbably succeeds.

I find Mastery to be an even more personal work, partly because Rachel wrestles so earnestly with what it means to care deeply for a world that perpetuates oppression and cruelty. At one point Rachel realized she was following Hamlet’s plot and his lament, “The time is out of joint. Oh cursèd spite/That ever I was born to set it right.” Both Hamlet and Warren are guided by ghosts.

Although Mastery would probably have been as lengthy as Leaps of Faith, if not longer, it has a tighter structure. Warren, the character with whom Rachel most identifies, finds himself visited by figures from America’s slave past. He figures out that the visitations are somehow connected with his family’s wealth, and the novel becomes a mystery, with Warren embarking on a journey to discover the source of the inheritance.

The mystery structure allows Rachel to explore the legacy of slavery and the way that we continue to be impacted by it, whether as black victims or white beneficiaries. In certain respects, the novel resembles Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which Rachel considered one of America’s greatest novels.

Warren’s research takes him back to a particularly dark time, the year 1859, when anti-slavery efforts were splintering and it appeared that human bondage would never end. In other words, it was a year when Rachel’s faith in social activism would have been tested to the max. We meet a wide variety of characters, including a northern abolitionist who goes south to investigate slavery; two homosexual slave traders; an Irish clerk who has a feel for money; a black slave owner and his mulatto slave; and others. Some of these figures reach through time to speak to Warren.

Rachel had almost completed the first three parts of her novel, which conclude with Warren figuring out the crime that has led to the visitations. Or perhaps he hasn’t, Warren doesn’t know for sure. He does, however, have a much better understanding of how slavery operated and how this history continues to impact us.

If Mastery were only a mystery, then it could end there. But Rachel insisted that it have a fourth part, in which Warren explores what to do with all the knowledge he has gathered. Historical mysteries involve people observing the past, and Rachel was not content to observe. She wanted to know how we can enter history.

Part IV, which runs to 46 singled-spaced type pages, doesn’t yield ready answers, which frustrated Rachel no end. By tracing the slave trade backward—from New Orleans to Jamaica to Senegal—Warren wants to learn how people resisted. Perhaps they can tell him what he himself should do. Unfortunately, the answers are indefinite.

Through it all, Warren feels the pain of the past. Or at least he does so until he decides to wash his hands of history. This is where I feel most in touch with the essential Rachel. Warren’s pain was Rachel’s pain. She was so distressed by injustice, felt it so deep in her bones, that it weighed her down. When Warren fantasizes about being free of these responsibilities, even if it means giving up his psychic powers, I imagine Rachel thinking the same. Indeed, we viscerally experience Warren’s relief when he loses his power and is freed from the painful visitations. As he sees it, he has gained mastery over his emotions.

But that freedom and that mastery represent an existential death. If Warren were to cut himself off from history, he would betray his best self. Therefore, in the concluding paragraphs, he acknowledges his link to history. Once he does so, the psychic connection comes back, as does all of humanity’s suffering. For Rachel, there was no other choice.

The novel’s ending dazzles me the way that The Great Gatsby’s ending dazzles me. When Warren is invited to give up his name in these final lines, he is being asked to deny history and his connection to it. This he cannot do any more that Rachel could do it:

The rotting bodies, the swamp, the stench.  The surging voices, the broken lives.  And knowing that I’m part of it.  No matter what I do, no matter what I ever do, the best and the worst of me have come from here. 

It’s not your fault, I can hear him say. And it isn’t. But it is.  

Just give me your name. Will you give me your name?  

The drumming is louder, the dancers wilder. What can that body do?

It’s not your fault, he says again, and it isn’t.  But it is. How did Jimmy put it? One big body all flowin with money. No matter what I do, I keep it going. The only choice is whether I’ll also help it stop.  

I look at the dancers, white shadows in the darkness. And I know, watching them, that I’ll never know what they know. I’ll never have their memories, their meaning, their pain. Not unless they tell me.  

No, I say, feeling the stench, the weight. Not my name, no. You can’t have that. And it comes so suddenly, it’s like the crack of a whip, that surge of energy that almost knocks me down. The machines that made their dresses, and the men who made the machines. The trees cut down to make the drums, and the axe that swung against each tree. The blood that flows like money, the money that dazzles like light. You’ll never be free of it, he says, and I say, I know. And piece by piece the world comes to life around me—It burns, it burns, this living world—useless, amputated, angry, bereft, joyous, pulsing, here—

Rachel insisted on experiencing that living world in all its many guises. However hot it burned, she needed to be in the flames. We loved her for her passionate engagement and find that, with her gone, the fire burns less bright.

We owe it to her to keep the fire going.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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