for the London Review of Books.
by Samuel Bateman-Johnson,
26th April, 2017.
<figcaption class="wp-caption-text">Image by Ann Summa, The New York Times</figcaption></figure>
Rachel Kushner’s lengthy second novel The Flamethrowers: dazzles in its employment of language, creatively weaves together a vast array of politics and histories and after a strong beginning, fizzles out rather spectacularly.
It is easy to see why The Flamethrowers had garnered a great deal of critical acclaim on both sides of the pond, but I’m not convinced of its brilliance. Whilst it is worthy of a great deal of praise, I must concur with some remarks made by acclaimed poet Frederick Seidel although his review does undeservingly rip the work to shreds. There is too much talk and not enough convincing plot to accompany it. I think in this way it does remind me of a film noir as Seidel asserts, and this may be its major downfall as a work. It tries to over-intellectualize a plot that is very American, akin to noir and as such is weak to overthinking. Kushner does try hard, which in the classically meritocratic American way means it is deserving of some kind of award.
Reno is a young art-school graduate who has made the necessary move to New York from her hometown in the American West in search of a career in art. “It was an irony but a fact that had to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the west”. The 1970s setting of New York is encapsulated in incredible detail by Kushner as she endeavors to tell Reno’s story. The novel itself is narrated through the eyes of her female protagonist, and this is an interesting device that allows Kushner to explore misogyny in the patriarchal world of the novel. Reno is, at least to the reader, a strong, intelligent and downtrodden artist who struggles to carve out a space for herself in the artistic capital of America. Her story is narrated as a series of events and scenes that provide an opaque window through which we struggle to decipher the point of the novel. But this is the point, it is supposed to be indecipherable. There are no answers to our questions and that is what makes this novel interesting. Through Reno, Kushner can interrogate a predominantly masculine, patriarchal and misogynist culture and draw attention to their follies. The men in the novel serve as examples of idiocy. Kushner’s juxtaposition of Reno’s narration versus her actions in the novel perfectly highlight the struggles faced by women in this gritty era. Reno is overrun by the masculine world she inhabits and as such, is a likeable character.
The other side of this novel tells a historical story of the Valera’s: an upper-class Italian family who made a fortune off the backs of slaves in Peru. The book begins with a flashback to World War I with T. P. Valera whose son, Sandro, is an artist living in New York with Reno in the 1970s. Valera senior, before the war, was a young man who liked to hang out with his friends and make swathing conjectures about politics and art. Sandro, like many men of this era, is a misogynist who objectifies all that he lays his eyes upon. The political elements of the Italian scenes allow the novel to engage in a fiery discussion around political unrest and the Movement of 1977. Reno’s involvement in which, proves to be yet another example of her being driven by the males she consistently attaches herself to throughout the novel.
The characters in the novel make it worth reading. They are well thought through and often brilliant in their hyperbolic forms. Their unconvincing names, such as Didi Bombanato and Ronnie Fontaine, and their habit of twisting the truth and at times becoming fiction tellers in their own right, illustrate this novels concern with artifice. What is real? What is truth? None of this matters. This book’s focus on artifice makes it difficult to engage with as we are often left pondering the relevance of the truth and whether anything really matters. However, the artificial elements mean that the characters can be seen as parodies of themselves and this adds an almost comical element to this book that elevates its mood; which is at times quite dark as Kushner interacts with some very political questions. The artificial element of this work of fiction allows it to be a great piece of literature, but means that it can fall flat; it does this towards the last third of the book which is slow and tiresome. Sometimes less can be more but Kushner’s eloquent and elegant use of language means that she ends up sacrificing any hope of good pace and flowing narrative.
One interesting quality of this work is it successfully weaves together concepts of art, artifice, misogyny, history and politics of different eras and minimalism. Not only does Kushner weave these strands of thought into the storyline, she puts them into dialogue with one-another. This is no small feat and demonstrates Kushner’s ability as a writer and academic. An example of this is a scene in which a Greek statue of a slave girl in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is objectified and analyzed by two men who in turn analyze our downtrodden narrator. She becomes a piece of art to be improved upon and objectified as though she were the stone slave girl in a museum. Kushner’s clever comparisons here drawing out key contemporary issues, both of the time in the novel and our own. The narrative is saturated with historical and cultural references which can bog the writing down, making it slow, and at times difficult to grasp. As unconvincing as the plot can be, it allows Kushner to exhibit her skills at research and her academic knowledge of histories past political movements and events. It is academic showmanship or ‘showomanship’ at its finest.
A motif explored in the novel is speed. Reno temporarily sets the land speed record for a woman but also crashes a bike out on the salt flats of Nevada. Kushner appears to ask: how fast is the pace of man versus woman? The men carry the plot, as our narrator- Reno- is dragged along with them, guided by them and effaced by them. The matching of these speed machines to mankind in the novel is interesting and adds an element of danger and excitement to the narrative. The allusion to the bulky flame-throwing machines of World War I in the title adds to this allusion to peril and to an extent, aids the writing in that we are at times left yearning for more. The images Kushner creates through her exploration of machines are beautiful yet their menacing qualities remind the reader of the violence that comes with them. In this way, the novel can be seen to be very concerned with aesthetics, as the author creates image upon image, layering them to form an overall aesthetic that proves to be detailed and powerful in its connotations.
The novels intense concerns with creating images and scenes makes it interesting but the language that is needed to do this means it is altogether too lengthy and lacks sufficient plot to drive the narration. This piece is ambitious and brilliant but its flame is inconsistent, beginning as a roaring fire that decays quickly as it runs out of fuel that is never replaced. The fire is all but out by the end of the novel however, it retains its aesthetic beauty and is still something that should be appreciated. Kushner’s ability to control language and a maintain control over a complex intersection of concepts, characters, times and places are a must-see attraction: this book is worth reading.