To be published in Salon in late July, 2013

By: Richard Hankins

Who would think that such a seemingly innocent, award-winning book would find itself in the midst of so much controversy?  Rachel Kushner has a lot to be proud about with her second novel, The Flamethrowers, following a woman motorcyclist nicknamed Reno as she gets swept up into the art world because of, or despite, her affairs with two different artists.  She finds herself, as every Great American Novel seems to find itself (not that this is one of those, of course), sucked into the concrete jungle of New York City in its time of radical anarchist gangs and blackout-fueled lootings of the 1970s.  Reno finds herself dealing with themes of misogyny, identity, class, and political strife, not only in New York, but in Italy as well, as she finds herself more well-traveled than most artists could ever dream to afford.  The Flamethrowers is a classic if unassuming example of a Bildungsroman – the journey of someone getting sucked up into the real world through their failures and missteps.

So why all this controversy?  We find ourselves with two fabulous contenders in the arena: the famous poet Frederick Seidel writing a review for The New York Review of Books, and Nicholas Miriello, writing a counter-review of NYRB for the Los Angeles Review of Books. How amusing it is to find the two great American cities feuding over a book set in New York when both writers actually live in New York.  Ah well.  Marc Tracy, an award-winning blogger, served as a mediator, or referee of sorts, on a counter-counter review on behalf of The New Republic. Marc gave up reading the novel a third of the way through.

One can only snicker at the prime-time fight we have going on here and its cast of characters, primed and ready for reality TV.  The Flamethrowers early on seems to have everything going for it: positive reviews left and right.  Then someone publishes a snarky, even condescending review on their high horse from New York, so LARB comes in to save the day and knock the Yankee down a peg or two.  But to continue this cage-match metaphor, to call this a fight would only be justified in saying that it resembles a catfight.  Meanwhile, the referee Tracy is woefully underprepared, rambling about Los Angeles in his counter-counter review while the catfight occurs both about and within New York.

The characters aside from Reno range from tepid to hilarity in their superficiality; for example,  the artist Ronnie’s cliché and patronizing exchange with Reno. ‘“Stop it,” I said, tears rolling down my [Reno’s] face.  “Stop.  Why are you doing this?” / “To show you the uselessness of the truth,” he [Ronnie] said’, falls somewhere between a soap opera four seasons beyond its expiration date and a poorly written Japanese Anime.   But we are taken on a journey thanks to Reno’s capability on a motorcycle, even though the most unexpected part of the novel happens when she travels by car to Rome.  Reno is just trying to make a name for herself in any way possible, lost in a world of misogyny and inflated egos.

Yes, the book is too long.  Yes, the prose is artificial and overly embellishing.  Yes, the characters, right down to their names (Reno, Giddle, Talia Shrapnel, Sandro & Roberto Valera) are bombastic caricatures of the roles they represent: as out of touch with reality as they are with themselves.  In the case of Reno, this doesn’t have to be taken negatively.  Reno says to Ronnie in classic one-liner fashion soon after, ‘“I never understood you”’, though throughout the novel, Reno, at least at first, seems to understand nothing; not her voice, not her role, not her place.  But that’s okay, Reno takes the situation at hand and makes the best decision she can at the margin, ready, if unprepared, to handle the consequences.

The end of the novel even ends up with the poor girl getting abandoned yet again, and at this point she is impressively unphased that she has to “leave, with no answer.  Move on to the next question”.  That brings us back to Siedel’s repeated question, “What is this novel interested in?”.  The answer is simple.  The book is interested in Reno.  Reno repeatedly fails, misreads situations, and surrounds herself with people and lovers who are completely apathetic to her goals, dreams, and even humanity. But continually she takes it in stride, never stalling out, always moving on to the next question, the next obstacle that she can and will overcome.  She owns the human condition, and is always not only making mistakes, but learning from them, taking advantage of them.  So Siedel was almost correct – except that all the characters are so flat, with the exception of Reno as the narrator (Reno externally appears quite bland).  Miriello never gets beyond blasting Siedel without ever mustering the courage to form an opinion himself.

Miriello continues his blast on Siedel’s comment “But it’s only a novel”, making the too-obvious counter that “it’s worth asking: What else could it be?”.  Of course it’s only a novel.  Kushner never tried to make it anything else.  She certainly tried, well enough to find critical acclaim, to make a mark on the literary world, but at no point does the book somehow magically transcend the novel format.  And here Tracy finally makes a relevant, if obvious point: “Miriello’s response unmistakably had an air of protesting too much”.  Miriello takes the bait, overextending his argument without valid claims of his own.

Siedel’s review was playful, childlike without immaturity, poking fun at all The Flamethrowers’ flaws without ever expressly damning the book.   He holds a heavily restrained yet genuine admiration for Kushner’s attempt at writing a movie script in novel form, that Miriello brazenly overlooked.  Where Miriello got the idea that somehow Siedel turned the whole review onto himself I don’t know, but it goes to show how unique and impactful Siedel’s voice is when writing yet another book review on a popular award-winner.  The content is just as important as who delivered it, but pointing out when somebody chooses to use incomplete sentences to make a point does not magically make the author larger than the piece he is working on.  So Moriello’s grand quip of Siedel’s review actually centering around himself is no more, and just as true as Miriello’s review also being about Miriello, which is to question how much of the reviews are about the book as about the grand pompousness of the world of book reviews.

Strangely enough, I do find myself siding with Tracy’s opinion of Siedel’s review, resembling a brilliant dissection of Kushner’s novel, though I actually wanted to continue reading, unlike Tracy.  He also correctly points out the influence of New York on the literary scene, but fails to point out the fact that both reviews were written in New York, while then noting the rejection of a New York influence on LARB. He also claims that Miriello’s response was not the equivalent of a hip-hop dis track, which borders on the Politi-fact rating “Pants on Fire”, on a scale of true to false. Tracy can read the situation at hand just about as well as Reno, right down to the same endearing charm underneath.

Finally, all this counter-review nonsense ultimately bolsters Kushner’s point: the blatant misogyny woman have to face trying to make a name for themselves.  Did you notice that all four of these reviews were written by men?  Why are men once again deciding on the artistic worth of a woman’s work?  It seems that the problems of Reno in the 1970s reflect the problems of Kushner in 2013.  How on earth could she possibly have predicted that?  She only has one choice: leave, with no answer.  Move on to the next novel.