Rachel Kushner’s second novel The Flamethrowers shines and it is with no surprise I find myself adding to the amassed praise it has received since publication. Set in the 1970s, the novel follows the growth of a young artist and motorcycle rider named Reno, nicknamed appropriately for her place of birth, as she navigates the social nuances of the New York art scene and the ramifications of dating an older man who is an established artists with family ties to the Valera motorcycle brand.
With the exquisitely detailed way Kushner describes the setting, I felt as though I had teleported into the setting myself. It was a time when you could be mugged before sunset and before widespread gentrification became the norm, little insulation between rich and poor. A character in the book, Nadine, transforms from a former prostitute who lets a man rub the barrel of a gun between her legs into the posh arm candy of newly accoladed artist. Kushner has nailed a fluid crossover between historical detail and fictional plot that truly brings the story to life though its background. On what she aimed to accomplish, she says this:
“I wanted to conjure New York as an environment of energies, sounds, sensations. Not as a backdrop, a place that could be resolved into history and sociology and urbanism, but rather as an entity that could not be reduced because it had become a character, in the manner that a fully complex character in fiction isn’t reducible to cause, reasons, event.”
From the unbelievable names of the art scene inhabitants to the depictions of mafia chauffeurs, I reckon Kushner succeeded. There have been complaints that the artifice of certain elements in the novel, such as the character names, detracts from its ability to convince. To that I say three things.
- Have you ever met an art snob? They’re insufferable. With little imagination, I can easily picture a Burdemoore or a Didier existing in real life, except today their names are Saffron and Atticus and they live in Brooklyn, not Manhattan.
- Artificiality, confusion between truth and reality, does not, at least in this case I believe, act as some form of novelist, highfalutin razzle-dazzle. It’s another motif that is utilized to convey meaning. Take the classic The Things They Carried, for example. A paradigm of mind-bending “phoniness” and the power of narrator bias.
- It’s fiction.
The foreground of the novel has garnered criticism as well. Some detractors of the author’s widely-acclaimed second novel contest that it lacks an adequate plot. I say, hogwash. So Kushner does not keep us on our toes as we flip from page to page. Fine. So there was no nail-biting. We weren’t on the edge of our seats. Even when the main character Reno stumbles upon her older boyfriend Sandro in rather compromising position with another woman, the reader is hardly meant to be shocked, prior hint after hint foreshadowing this likely possibility was doomed to expose itself eventually. But does that really detract from the messages she attempts to get across through other means? I would argue that her subtlety, in fact, adds to the value of The Flamethrowers.
Aesthetics aside, this is a book that deals with a wide variety of issues from political upheaval to guns to poverty. Kushner covers feminism and misogyny in a manner that is strikingly accurate and, importantly, never overbearing. It wasn’t heavy, it was personal. What makes this novel so wonderful and particularly relatable was that many of Reno’s experiences really were not out of the ordinary for many women today. Mansplaining, for example:
: (of a man) explain (something) to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.
Used in a sentence, “The aging, self-absorbed novelist mansplained what proper skiing form is to the young girl, a former ski racer,” which is precisely what happens in the novel when the protagonist, Reno, is seated next to her boyfriend’s mother’s lover. With a set-up like that, it’s hard to imagine things running smoothly. But they do because the yielding Reno sits and listens to the man drone on and on about a sport she surmises he hasn’t done in years, decades even. Kushner’s quotidian approach to broaching the subject of misogyny makes the subject extremely relatable; a book need not address the glass ceiling or human trafficking to be an important piece of subject matter for women’s issues.
Not a lot “happens” in this novel aside from a few climactic moments, but the slow pace of the story does not dissolve the plot’s enjoyability. Kushner fills the gaps between climaxes with revealing dialogue. Alas, I will concede that Sandro’s best friend Ronnie’s longwinded epic on his childhood could have been a bit briefer. But all the same, it’s the interactions that Reno has with the other characters that bring her to the conclusions she forms and ultimately result in her personal growth.
Reno doesn’t always see things as they are right away — as mentioned previously, she’s essentially the last to know her own boyfriend is just another older man with a string of much younger girlfriends. But who wants to willingly categorize themselves as “just another girl?” We don’t always realize what is wrong with a situation right after it happens. The structure the book captures that function of our consciousness. If we were always capable of immediately sounding the alarm in an iffy situation, the world would not be chalked full of girls saying, “But he loves me.” Kushner first introduces us to Reno as a motorcycle-riding badass, and we only find out later that she’s trapped in a box of misogyny. Having seen her freedom outside that box makes her confinement even more present and her inability to put her accomplishments in perspective even more frustrating. Shock-value be damned, this book is relatable, and for that reason evermore enchanting.