Telex from Cuba

A Novel

LIST PRICE $11.99

About The Book

Finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction

The debut novel by New York Times bestselling author Rachel Kushner, called “shimmering” (The New Yorker), “multilayered and absorbing” (The New York Times Book Review), and “gorgeously written” (Kirkus Reviews).

Young Everly Lederer and K.C. Stites come of age in Oriente Province, where the Americans tend their own fiefdom—three hundred thousand acres of United Fruit Company sugarcane that surround their gated enclave. If the rural tropics are a child's dreamworld, Everly and K.C. nevertheless have keen eyes for the indulgences and betrayals of the grown-ups around them—the mordant drinking and illicit loves, the race hierarchies and violence.

In Havana, a thousand kilometers and a world away from the American colony, a cabaret dancer meets a French agitator named Christian de La Mazière, whose seductive demeanor can't mask his shameful past. Together they become enmeshed in the brewing political underground. When Fidel and Raúl Castro lead a revolt from the mountains above the cane plantation, torching the sugar and kidnapping a boat full of "yanqui" revelers, K.C. and Everly begin to discover the brutality that keeps the colony humming. Though their parents remain blissfully untouched by the forces of history, the children hear the whispers of what is to come.

Kushner's first novel is a tour de force, haunting and compelling, with the urgency of a telex from a forgotten time and place.

Reading Group Guide

Cuba has long fascinated and compelled writers -- from Ernest Hemingway and Graham Green to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Russell Banks. Most writers and readers know about the glamorous, renegade, romantic, often corrupt communities of expats and iconic locals in Havana. But there's another piece of the American experience. For half a century, the United States controlled the sugar and nickel operations in Cuba -- the country's two main exports -- centered in the lavish, expatriate "sister" enclaves of Preston and Nicaro, 600 miles east of Havana, but intimately connected.
The United Fruit Company owned 300,000 acres in northeast Oriente Province, an area long considered the cradle of Cuban revolutions. In the midst of UF Co's vast cane plantation were 100 acres the company did not own. Those 100 acres belonged to Fidel and Raul Castro's father. The sons, who grew up excluded from a privileged American world, started the revolution there. Telex from Cuba is the story of that world, told from the point of view of three narrators: a boy whose father runs United Fruit's sugar operation, a girl whose father runs the nickel operation, and a French agitator who helps train the rebels.
Like every great novel told through the eyes of a child, from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, Telex from Cuba seduces the reader into the drama of a family encountering unexpected conflict and the story of the gradual awakening of adolescents to issues of class, race, and social injustice. KC Stites and Everly Lederer are extraordinarily compelling narrators, and their parents and their parents' friends are portrayed with a combination of scrutiny and forgiveness that beguiles the reader. The book's multiple perspectives -- including that of the more jaded La Mazière -- round Telex into not just a coming-of-age tale but a story of political change. The revolution does come. The families are evacuated. The company town is expropriated. And it is all told in a novel that will put Rachel Kushner on the map of contemporary American literature.
Group Discussion Questions:

1. KC Stites tells his story as an adult. Why do you think Rachel Kushner chose to write his story in first person (as opposed to the others told in third person) based on a grown man's memories? How might the story be different if a young KC was telling it?
2. Everly notes that "If her parents ever did get rich, their old selves would hate their new selves" (p. 42). Discuss the importance of social class in 1950s Cuba, both amongst the expatriates (the Stites, Lederers, Allains, etc.), their servants (Annie, Willy, etc.), and the locals, such as Mr. Gonzalez. Are there rigid laws, or can people maneuver between classes? Why are issues straightened out native to native (pg. 187)?
3. La Mazière believed Rachel K "gauzed her person in persona, but sensed the person slipping through, person and persona in an elaborate tangle" (pg. 55). Discuss the significance of identity in Telex from Cuba. Who is not what they seem? The Lederer daughters have a doll, Scribbles, whose face they can erase and then re-draw. Are other people capable of reinventing themselves?
4. Why do these families move to Cuba? Do they arrive seeking to escape their pasts, hoping for new business opportunities, or looking forward to a new adventure? When they leave, have they accomplished their goals? What do they take away?
5. Throughout the novel, many characters note the red haze of nickel oxide that floats from the company's mines and covers the whole area. What, if anything, does this red dust symbolize?
6. "A human trapped inside a monkey trapped inside a cage. But when she tried to put him down, he screeched like a vicious animal" (pg. 97). What role do animals play in this novel? Consider the shark Del insists on killing, Mrs. LaDue's caged monkey Poncho, and the pig Mr. Stites beats to death to teach KC a lesson.
7. In this novel, what is the significance of one's nationality? Rachel K claims to be French, people believe La Mazière is German, Mr. Carrington is actually Cuban, and Deke Havelin renounces his American citizenship to become Cuban. Is a person's nationality a matter of choice, where they're born, the family they're born into, or how they appear to others?
8. What drives La Mazière? Why is he in Cuba, and why does a Frenchman join an army of Cuban rebels? Does he have true political motivations, or is he simply an instigator? And will he always yearn for a "luminous bubble, for an impossible time of privilege and turmoil" (pg. 200)?
9. Do you believe the story Rachel K tells La Mazière about her past, or does she merely like to play games? Does she have true feelings for him? What is the significance of her painted on fishnets?
10. When Mr. Carrington returns home from being kidnapped, his wife never sees him on the lawn because the indoor lights are on: "she'd have to put herself in darkness in order to see" (pg. 253). When thinking about Rachel K preferring to sleep without blankets so she can freeze and then make herself warm, La Mazière ponders what the director said about Woodsie, that she "gives radiant joy, but then she takes it away" (pg. 229). What do these observations imply about the women? Can you think of other examples of dichotomy?
11. Why does KC give Everly the Pullman car's door handle? What does it represent to each of them? Does KC truly have feelings for her, or does he want to please his mother?
12. KC thinks Everly has a funny look, but "maybe everyone has that look, but they know to cover it" (pg. 267). Which characters are best at wearing masks?
13. As they're being evacuated, Everly looks over the island from the boat and realizes "It's so niceÉwithout us" (pg. 277). How did the families of the United Fruit Company impact Cuba, for both the good and bad? Will anyone be sad to see them leave?
14. In the closing words of Telex from Cuba, KC states "You don't call the dead. The dead call you" (pg. 317). What does he mean by this? Who is calling KC and the other families who once lived in Cuba?

About The Author

Photo credit Lucy Raven 2012

Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Ten Book of 2013; Telex from Cuba, a finalist for the National Book Award; and The Mars Room. She lives in Los Angeles.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (July 2008)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416561149

Raves and Reviews

"Multilayered and absorbing... Studded with illuminating images....Kushner has fashioned a story that will linger like a whiff of decadent Colony perfume." — Susann Cokal, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

"With its sharp detail and precisely drawn characters, Telex from Cuba offers a compelling look at a paradise corrupted." People 

"Imagination and intelligence luxuriate in Rachel Kushner's fascinating first novel. I marvel at how Kushner blends psychological and political realities, corporate America and insurgent Cuba, into a vivid diptych of the days before Castro's revolution. Rich in compelling characters and historical events, Telex From Cuba is a revelatory, tenderhearted, and powerful work." —Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius, A Comedy

"A riveting drama. Given the recent Cuba headlines, Kushner's tale, passionately told and intensively researched, couldn't have come at a more opportune time." Publishers Weekly

"Castro's coup serves as a riveting backdrop...gorgeously written." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Kushner has written a gripping tale of what it was like to live through a momentous time. It is a powerful, haunting look at the human side of revolution." Booklist

“A pure treat from the cover to the very last page. It's the kind of thing you should stock up on to give sick friends as presents; they'll forget their arthritis and pneumonia, I promise, once they walk into a land that's gone now, but not yet quite forgotten: Cuba in the last few years before Fidel Castro took over…. ‘Lost’ and ‘Gone,’ as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the early pages of "The Last Tycoon," lost and gone. A world we'll never see again, any part of it. Rachel Kushner uses her considerable powers to bring it back for us, one last time.”—Carolyn See, Washington Post Book World

“[A] lush, meticulous, cinematic debut novel…. Kushner’s vivid renderings of country clubs and cane shacks are due in no small part to her access to primary sources.”—Megan Deem, Elle

“Kushner brings both a reporter's meticulous research and a novelist's flair for the fantastical to her examination of Cuba before the revolution….she illuminates both the natural beauty and savage inequities of an island constantly on the cusp of lawlessness….a snapshot from a long-gone era.”Entertainment Weekly

“Kushner fills the novel with enough vivid details to make readers feel as if they are on the island at the zenith of American prosperity…. Kushner’s evocation of the Americans’ decline is fresh and compelling. She takes us to a place and time we’ve seldom visited before.”—David Abrams, San Francisco Chronicle

“The bygone American world in 1950s Cuba is brought vibrantly alive … ambitious…. Kushner is an evocative writer with a cinematic eye for telling detail.”—John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“For all its political currents, Telex never reads like a lesson. This is largely because the novel’s ideas are expertly blended into its story line, which gains momentum with thrillerlike passages, stunning descriptions and a compelling cast….[Telex from Cuba] elegantly weaves together a gripping story of individual and their lives leading up to one of the most notorious revolutions of the twentieth century.”—Jamie L. Parra, Time Out New York

“In the passages set among the American expatriates, Kushner displays a keen sense of the detail that reveals human nature. With its depictions of colonial privilege, excess and hubris, Telex from Cuba seems in the tradition of colonial novelists that includes Graham Greene, W. Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and William Boyd.”—Chauncey Mabe, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

“[A] stunner of a novel…. A fluid, eye-opening symphony of a book….Kushner's period detail is terrific, and her characters — stiff-necked American bosses; their more sympathetic, acerbic or fluttery wives; their wide-eyed offspring for whom Cuba, in some cases, is the only home they've known — are finely drawn….. A last master stroke is the inclusion in the cast of a Havana exotic dancer, Rachel K, who has clandestine connections with every power player in the book. It's a bold piece of artifice that works: a trickster surrogate who lets author Kushner vicariously savor the excess and glamour of the era she depicts, while also indicting it.”—Michael Upchuch, Seattle Times

“Kushner has an eye for detail and writes so engagingly readers may not even realize they're getting a history lesson.”Christian Science Monitor

“Rachel Kushner's debut novel richly portrays the life of corporate Americans who lived high and mighty in Cuba just before the crush of Castro's revolution….written with much skill, beauty and wisdom.”—David Loftus, The Oregonian

“Rachel Kushner intricately and intelligently weaves a multilayered quilt of nationalities and social classes, adolescence and adulthood, even good and evil… Ms. Kushner's richly detailed tome filled my mind with clearer pictures of my motherland.”—Mario Tarradell, Dallas Morning News

“A lush novel set in 1950s Cuba when American families who ran sugar and nickel operations were caught up in Fidel Castro's revolution.”Chicago Tribune

“A terrific novel … memorable … the kind of book that will make Castro glad he retired so he can have time to read books like this.”—Michael Ventre, MSNBC.com

“This is an astonishingly wise, ambitious and riveting novel set in the American community in Cuba during the years leading up to Castro's revolution—a place that was paradise for a time and for a few. The first novel to tell the story of the Americans who were driven out in 1958, this is a masterful debut… Kushner's novel is a tour de force, haunting and compelling with the urgency of a telex from a forgotten time and place.”—Ellen Shapiro, Times Union (Albany, NY) 

“Rachel Kushner’s first novel is a work of great care and research, directed at recreating a place that history has erased from the map…. With impressive fluency, Kushner speaks in the voices of a series of latter-day colonialists…. Kushner is adept at profound description and real suspense.”—Carla Blumenkranz, Bookforum

Resources and Downloads

Freshman Reading:

Kalamazoo College (2009/2010)

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Rachel Kushner