Written for The New York Times
By: Bisola Oni
Rachel Kushner’s second novel The Flamethrowers throws us into 1970s New York City. The language and tone makes the novel very intriguing. It is full of multiple stories and references to historically relevant people and events. Kushner manages to make a statement about the state of the world, women’s rights and many more issue of the past and today in the novel. She gives us her insight into the world of art and a woman’s place through her characters. Not only does Kushner serve as a novelist she is also an historian. We see Nina Simone, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers and many more historically accurate things intertwined with the plot.
The characters in “The Flamethrowers” have a surface level complexity. There really isn’t much we learn from them, they serve as the catalyst for the art. Whether Kushner meant the artist framework of the novel to be physical or exist in a spiritual/metaphoric realm is open to interpretation. All of these things are brought together in the minimalistic novel. Nothing is over dramatized, which in a way added more questions that answers for me. “The Flamethrowers” includes fast cars and motorcycles yet the plot line moves at a slow and steady pace. The constant mention of speed from the beginning of the novel to the end juxtaposed the pace of the novel.
The focus of “The Flamethrowers” is Reno, at the beginning we aren’t introduced to her right away. Although the narrator is female “The Flamethrowers” is very masculine in tone. The first chapter is about Valera and Copertini, it’s an odd way to start of the book. It made it seem as though it was two separate novels from the very beginning. Kushner starts with speed and violence in the first two pages. The Valera chapters read very differently that the other chapters. They are filled with action and description and vivid imagery. Noticeably as other chapters and characters are read the pace slows down. Kushner was likely making it a point to start “The Flamethrowers” that way.
Reno is traveling to New York City to make it as an artist. Her story of survival and a new beginning is both bolstered and overshadowed by other characters, specifically male characters. The young naïve girl then meets Sandro Valera an older Italian artist. Sandro is meant to be bring complexity to Reno’s life. He is meant to add something, in a way being what he is, a supporting character. As I was reading I struggled to understand his character and what he was meant to represent. Eventually I came to the conclusion that Kushner was critiquing the masculinity of the world by having these two together. Reno is a passive young girl being manipulated by an older domineering man. If you were just reading the novel and not looking to take anything away, it would seem as though it is about two lovers. Romance isn’t bad in its self, it just didn’t make much sense in connection to the overall plot. There was no real reason they were together.
Reno is a complex character with an intriguing juxtaposition. As a character she is passive and silent but as a narrator she is smart and passionate. Reno says she would rather sit and watch than be part of the conversation. She is puzzling passive. She is in a way an observer. Kushner might have been using her to tell a different story. Reno is perhaps a catalyst for an observation of the climate of New York and Italy of the 70s both socially and politically. We are given insights into her thoughts with long descriptive explanation of things:
“I styled my hair in a bouffant, like the white women in the south who responded to civil rights by teasing their hair higher and higher and lacquering it into place. I wore a uniform, not actually required. The other ladies just wore black pants and an apron, but I purchased a pink uniform with a white Peter pan collar. I thought I was very camp and ironic…. She didn’t want to talk to me because I was a downtown hipster and I might screw up her data. She pretended I was invisible since I wasn’t authentic.”
Kushner is making the statement that Reno is silenced and placed in a box by the masculinity in the world. Other voices are overshadowing her. It’s interesting that this is a novel about artificiality and we have a character presenting an artificial identity to her world. Reno is on an epic adventure and in this she is searching for herself. The film Naked Under Leather is about a woman who escapes her suffocating life with her husband and rides a motorcycle across country being sexually free. While Reno isn’t having escapades with random men she is on a spiritual journey of her own. Trying to discover who she is as a woman and artist. It is the traditional coming of age story of a young woman.
While I see the brilliance of “The Flamethrowers” I also see the flaws in it. In an attempt to make a major statement about the political and social climate of the world, Kushner the plot slip. The chapters are not plot driven instead they feel experimental. Almost as though Kushner is pushing to create a something new, and be different. While the form of “The Flamethrowers” is new the chapters are very traditional and don’t feel fresh.
The chapters have an imagistic aspect to them. The images are used to bring in aspects of feminism, misogyny and the political climate of the time. Kushner has “random” pictures tucked between chapters of the book. While the pictures don’t send a particular message they are used to convey the climate of the time, particularly women’s rights and place in society. We see women being discussed as sexual objects but also women taking charge of their sexuality. While the traditional plot lines novels have are adverted Kushner manages to write a socially conscious novel. She doesn’t praise the upper class; no one is spared in her writing. She is telling a story as it was or as it would be with no added fluff.
While speed is seen throughout the novel, the pace seems slow as you read. The chapters seemed to blend into one. Kushner’s minimalism played a huge part in this. “The Flamethrowers” is about many things but it manages to still be about nothing. The scenery and chaos are disrupted by a lack of a clear concise plot. Each moment of the novel is differently contextualized. Kushner managed to put two books into one. In New York the character are filled with hope and dreams. It’s about art and the freedom to explore. In Italy everything changes and we see chaos and radicalism. The novel manages to culturally shock its self and readers. If it is meant to be artificial and minimal, why change locations? Why have Reno as the main character? Any questions about plot are not answered directly. Instead we are left to form our own ideas about things. While the novel is worthy of all the praise it has received I cannot ignore the elements of it that are simply confusing. Maybe that was the point of it all, to play with images and artificiality and create a complete story about the nothingness of life. The additions of the historical facts and events also tempered the novel down. The excitement when reading a piece of fiction an nonfiction are very different. Kushner manages to blend the two. Giving us both a novel of fiction and of reality. If that was the idea, then Kushner managed to create a great piece of minimalistic fiction that isn’t stuck in a box.