What is the truth? More importantly, does it exist, and does it matter? These questions stay with you long after you finish “The Flame Throwers”. The second novel by American author Rachel Kushner thrusts you into the worlds of the 1970’s New York art scene, motorcycle racing, WW2, and a workers revolution in Italy. Kushner manages to move from theme to theme with a gracefulness that should not be so easy.
At the heart of all this, we find Reno, a young naive girl, from, you guessed it, Nevada. The main plot (if there is one) is about her coming of age. Reno originally dreams of speed, having gone from young skiing prodigy appearing in McDonald’s commercials to wanting to race in the Bonneville salt flats. She sees this whole ordeal as some sort of performance art which is amusing since she criticizes her friend Giddle so much for living in a false reality.
The constantly changing locations allow Kushner to poke and prod at all sorts of highly regarded institutions. From the hilarious passages about different kinds of work stoppages and the aloofness of those society consider to be important (Didi Bombonero) to the haughty and out of touch nature of the Italian aristocracy.
Kushner deals with every character and situation in the same way making no outright judgements about them on the page and letting them speak for themselves.
The biggest strength of the novel lies in Kushner’s prose. It is ridiculously delightful throughout and helps maintain the momentum of the novel in times when the plot is lacking. “There were bagels scattered all over the sidewalk, a heavy and rancid animal smell in the air. We stepped over puddles of lamb’s blood as we crossed the street to the other side, where there were more bagels.” and “Sometimes they just sit. Sometimes one turns on a radio and they listen to music, or to the news, but they don’t care about the actual news, just that the radio is issuing a steadyish sound whose particulars they do not have to follow to understand what the radio is actually telling them”.
The secondary characters provide infinite fascination with their tall tales and idiosyncrasies. They are all parodies and contradictions of themselves. How could they be with names like John Dogg and Helen Hellenberger. There is Ronnie Fontaine, a man who’s imagination seems to know no bounds, at one point he enthralls the guests at a dinner party with the impossible story of running away on a boat (named the Reno) during which he has an inappropriate relationship with an older couple. Like almost everyone else in the novel he is doing this because he can, because, what is so interesting about the truth anyway.
The characters Kushner exposes us to in the New York art scene posit and truly believe that they are realists, yet, the objects with which they interact with, tend to hold deeper meaning; take guns for example, they appear time and time again in the novel in a variety of ways.
From their intended uses in war, to symbols of power, all the way to objects used for sexual gratification. Much like the characters of the novel’s objects are never what they seem to be. Kushner is flipping everything on its head and asking questions about how and why we perceive the things we perceive. The art found and described throughout the novel is not about the art itself at all but rather the artist themselves.
The pop culture references Kushner includes are widespread and vary from Nina Simone to Pat Nixon. Mixed in with these real life references are made up ones, some with allusions to real life people such as Flip Farmer (Evil Kneivel), and some absurd, such as the Fah-Q. By combining fact and fiction Kushner gives her novel a sense of absurdist realism. One that is both engrossing and kept at arms length. More than once I found myself googling people and events which had not occurred. That is one of the strongest points of the book as a whole, no matter how ridiculous the plot or stories told within it the novel always feels real, alive.
Interspersed with the bildungsroman tale of Reno are chapters that detail the rise of the Valera family. In these chapters Kushner experience with style and structure in a way I have not seen before. The chapter titles become part of the text themselves, “Valera Is Dead was what he’d written in his notebook late that night,”. This decision separates these chapters from the main plot allowing Kushner to experiment both in style and subject matter. Interestingly enough these chapters (while dealing with the realities of war and enslavement) hold a much lighter and ethereal tone than the rest of the novel.
The grittiness found in the streets of New York and the lakesde villas of Italy is gone; replaced with a detached unimportance of the subject matter. Ultimately while interesting these forays into the past tend to fall flat and distract from the brilliant interplay of storylines found in the 1970’s section of the book.
“The Flamethrowers” tricks one as to its content time and time again. First seeming to be about war, then speed, then art, while ultimately being about all of these things and none of them. Much like the truth being malleable within it, the actual point it is trying to make it malleable, subjective. What a better centerpiece than the world of art, a world in which subjectivity is king. One in which wanting to make straight lines on a salt flat or pretending to be homeless are matters not only of life and death but matters of the soul also.
Kushner expertly explores gender relations throughout the novel. Reno exists inside a society dominated by men; by their wants, secrets, and elaborately spun tales yet seems to be the only character who is unaware of this fact. Telling the novel through her perspective creates a dichotomous reality. Even she, the most honest and pure character in the novel is disconnected from reality. Her passiveness gives us permission to look at her word in a voyeuristic manner. She exists more in her own mind and that of the reader than in the actual novel itself. With the rest of the protagonist seeing her as an object, an end. The novel functions then as a critique of the male gaze in a female construct. This explains why Reno is so naive at the beginning, Kushner needs her to be for the purposes of the novel. How else could she explore the way in which men assert themselves into the lives of others with a more self aware protagonist. Her naivety is broken in one fell swoop in a tire factory in Milan. This break was always coming, obvious to everyone except herself. When it finally happens the tone of the novel shifts, the world of infinite possibilities which Kushner created is still there but it is bleaker and less idealized. Reno is still fascinated by the fickle and ever changing nature of her world but self aware of it, “I was fascinated by their stories of tax shelters and cocktail parties, tennis elbow, summer compounds, and disowned children. Now, of course, this kind of thing couldn’t interest me less, though it’s often the artist’s duty to listen to exactly these sorts of details and to pretend they matter.”
Sandro sees Reno as another in a long line of muses which distract him from his own loneliness and allow him to continue to inhabit the nonsensical world of the New York art scene. Gianni sees her as protection and cover for his movements. Interestingly enough we never get to see how Reno views herself. In a way it doesn’t even matter. None of the characters do. It is rather in how she/they perceive their surroundings that are interesting. Every single person we meet throughout the events of “The Flamethrowers” has their own separate reality and are of no interest to break it. When they all clash together we are left with a grand and sweeping world that is constantly evolving, in which perspectives are constantly shifting and the truth changes so much that it is rendered obsolete. What we are left with then is a world that resembles and parallels our own.
It never becomes totally clear why the novel is called “The Flamethrowers”. There is only one brief mention of flamethrowers in the actual text and this is not until the very end of the novel. Like everything else in this book it brings up more questions than it answers. One thing that is clear however is that Kushner has created a modern American masterpiece about people and their truths. “people lost in the vast thickets of the world. People lost among people, since there wasn’t anything else.