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The embers of love and revolt.

August 21, 2013

The US cover of Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, shows a young woman with her mouth taped shut. It’s a striking image, perhaps indicative of the revolutionary politics the book’s rather passive protagonist finds herself caught up in. But while the woman on the cover might be silenced, the literary world hasn’t stopped gushing about Kushner’s book since its release earlier this year, from revered critic James Woods to novelist Jonathan Franzen, who provided an appropriately enthusiastic cover quotation for the Australian edition of the novel.

The Flamethrowers is a visceral journey through 1970s New York and Italy, a tale of art, revolutionary politics, and high-speed motorcycle racing; it’s also a panoramic snapshot of America at a particular time and a kind of coming-of-age story. But despite its brilliantly evoked settings and timeless themes—and Kushner’s obvious writing talent—the overall effect is curiously flat.

At the novel’s centre is 23-year-old Reno (a nickname that refers to where she’s from, in ‘the real West’, a place of ‘ranchers. Drifters. Divorcées.’) a 23-year-old aspiring artist and motorcycle enthusiast, who moves to New York from Nevada with little more than her camera and a sense of possibility. New York is alive with avant-garde artists and anarchist groups; Reno soon begins a relationship with Sandro Valera, an artist 14 years her senior and a semi-estranged member of the wealthy Valera family, who own a tire and motorcycle empire back in Sandro’s home country of Italy. Sandro is openly disparaging of his family’s enterprise and what it represents: ‘My father and his cronies conspired to change the face of Italy’, he declares ‘They wrecked the place and made piles of money’. In a fitting rejection of his heritage, Sandro has made a name for himself crafting minimalist steel cubes and displaying them in empty rooms.

As Sandro’s other half, Reno finds herself socialising with New York’s artistic elite, who seem bowed beneath the combined weight of their own pretension and narcissism. Kushner astutely captures the art crowd, and, despite the faint undercurrent of satire, she never breaches the border between sharp observation and mockery. There’s a clever, but overly long, scene at a loft dinner party where semi-industrial objects such as old lightbulbs and telephones are displayed on long tables, Reno learns about an anarchist group called the Motherfuckers and guests endure a lengthy taped monologue by the host about the context of nudity and the semantics of homebuying.

But as Reno’s time in New York stretches ever onwards, there’s an increasing lethargy cloaking the story, and it’s only exacerbated by Reno’s passivity: things happen to her and rarely seem to have much effect. I think this is deliberate, and part of Kushner’s intent to capture the political, historical, and cultural zeitgeist of 1970s New York. The Flamethrowers is more a novel of time and place than a character study, and Kushner’s detailed set-pieces—from Reno’s blazing dash across the Bonneville Salt Flats in a land-speed trial to her time in a squat in Rome with a group of revolutionaries she barely knows—are richly evoked.

But while The Flamethrowers is artfully composed and captures a fascinating period of recent history, it’s just not as compelling as it should be; there’s an element of self-consciousness at play here that interferes with the reader’s ability to really engage with the narrative. The novel seems preoccupied with the concept of reality versus artifice (Reno poignantly notes that ‘certain acts, even as they are real, are also merely gestures’); everyone in the novel is performing a part, to a degree, and while this is certainly effective, it soon becomes deadening and tiresome—there’s a sense that all of this meandering between bars and parties and galleries isn’t actually going anywhere.

This isn’t helped by occasional chapters that take us out of Reno’s world to tell us the story of Sandro’s father and his journey from lustful schoolboy to motorcycle mogul, or to briefly describe a series of actions undertaken by the Motherfuckers in their heydey, which include bank robbing, Cadillac smashing, and murder. These digressions from the main narrative might augment the historical and ideological context of Kushner’s tale, but they also feel too displaced and fragmented; they read more as interruptions than anything else.

Thankfully, there’s a change of pace about two-thirds in. Reno wants to combine her love of art and motorcycle riding, since ‘the two things I loved were drawing and speed’. When she breaks the female land-speed record, she’s given an opportunity to visit Italy and do a photoshoot and publicity tour with the Valera racing team, a trip that Sandro consider a ‘ridiculous prospect’. Nonetheless, he eventually capitulates and the action shifts across the Atlantic. Reno endures 10 days at the Valera family’s picture-perfect Lake Como home with Sandro’s openly hostile mother, and, eventually, his self-assured cousin, Talia. It’s here that Kushner’s tale finally becomes more alive, both in her excruciating depiction of Reno’s immediate sense that she doesn’t belong and her subsequent involvement in a violent political demonstration in Rome.

The Flamethrowers might not scale the full heights of its ambitions, but there’s still plenty to admire here; Kushner is a skilled writer and intelligent observer. Reno’s passivity, frustrating though it is, also offers a thoughtful perspective on the blurred lines between life and art. ‘There was a performance in riding the Moto Valera through the streets of New York that felt pure’, Reno says. ‘Ronnie said that certain women were best viewed from the window of a speeding car, the exaggeration of their makeup and their tight clothes. But maybe women were meant to speed past, just a blur. Flash, and then gone. It was only a motorcycle but it felt like a mode of being.’

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 28, 2014 11:32 am

    Excellent article. I absolutely appreciate this website.
    Continue the good work!

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