Written for: npr.org
Written By: Colbey Plutzer
Despite the move to New York City, Reno seems to be inescapable- given that it is the name of a small town in Nevada where our protagonist grew up, and is additionally the single form of identification for the main character in Rachel Kushner’s novel, The Flamethrowers. Wanting to take the world by storm, Reno embarks on an adventure with the hopes of simultaneously reaching record-breaking speed and capturing the experience through the markings left on the blank canvas made by the landscape. “The two things I loved were drawing and speed… I had combined them. It was drawing in order to win”. On the Salt Flats of Nevada Reno, a motorcycle and speed enthusiast is given the ultimate opportunity to display her unique passions simultaneously. And just as Reno mounts her bike, hears the gunshot (which allows her to embrace the speed demon she secretly is), and glances at her speedometer, she begins to loose control. It is in this moment that the deception of the novel is exposed. As the events of this novel unfold and become increasingly intriguing, Kushner will shift to a new time period, narrator, or tangent, in order to leave the reader teetering on the verge of excitement and frustration… it’s a specific feeling you will become familiar with when reading this novel (if you haven’t already).
Poof. We’re back in New York. We’re not only back in New York, but we have returned to Reno in New York, prior to her artistic representation of speed. When deciding to move, Reno romanticized her new life on the East coast. However, she was hit with reality when meeting Ronnie Fontaine (who was her mysterious midnight lover), Sandro Valera (her long-term boyfriend and son of Italian business mogul T.P. Valera), and Giddle (her first friend). All four of these people are artists (although Giddle may not outwardly admit this), all four of these people are not native New Yorkers, and the relationships held by all four of these people are oddly intertwined.
Reno is quickly introduced to the artists’ lifestyle, surrounding herself with the eccentric personalities of the deep reflective thinkers and those who are constantly searching for “the next greatest thing”. Preferring to be an observer rather than a leader of the conversation, Reno is therefore thrust into the various tales provided by those around her. Stories of “legendary” art students, anarchist movements, having shot a gun and having been shot by a gun, affairs, instances where someone is in the presence of a celebrity, and more. This novel takes place in the late 1960’s, therefore many of the stories mentioned reflect specific trends and events from this time period- including but not limited to the 1962 song “Green Onions”, The Motherfuckers (a radical group who desired change in New York), the 1973 film “The Way We Were”, the consumption of rubber in the Amazon, and more. These recapped and renamed events are tossed around the novel like a hot potato- never in one place for an extended amount of time and a game that grows old fast.
Even though she may not outwardly express this, Reno has the desire to find her own niche within the artists’ community. Both Sandro’s and Ronnie’s art is reflective of minimalist ideas. In conjunction with one another, these two friends (which Reno was not aware of at the time of her rendezvous) project this type of artistry onto her. This style was originally something that Reno did not particularly like, or understand. However, these men eventually overpower and subtly belittle her without justifiable cause- “he told me not to feel bad”. Despite her plea for a newfound independence, the ease with which these men control her deters Reno from the devotion she had to the original project. This is probably why she is confused upon the realization that she is wasting her film on videotaping balloons. They’re not even the ones for the Macy’s Day Parade… they just white.
“As I heard another window shatter I saw white balloons, a flock of them, rising. I took out my camera and filmed. Why this? I couldn’t say. But I watched through the viewfinder as the balloons went up, riding smoothly skyward on invisible elevators”
Selecting this event for her model, which is something that she cannot assign a meeting to, which is essentially the premise of minimalism. This form of art is attributed to defining something as exactly what it is. For example, Sandro’s “genius” is expressed through his exhibit of metal boxes. “I knew enough to understand that it was Minimalism, meat to be about the objects themselves, in a room, and not some abstract or illusory thing they represented”. By being unable to extract meaning from this image, Reno is diverging from the original intentions of her artwork.
Through the presence of minimalism, is it possible that Kushner is attempting to have her novel interpreted in this way as well? This begs the question as to whether or not we are reading too much into the novel when trying to assign it a meaning- making it more complex than it is intended to be. Is it all right to assume that the unfocused writing style embraced by Kushner is imperative for the tone of this work? Does Kushner simply combine fiction and historical events in order to write a satirical novel?
The peaks and valleys of the novel continue when reflecting on the purpose of T.P. Valera’s interjections throughout this work. Although there could just be a one-page summary of who he was, and what he did for a living, Valera is the novels second narrator. His chapters describe the story behind the Valera Company (which could be summed up rather quickly, and readers can then spare themselves the time of day this takes up). Coming from nothing and creating an empire, Valera is one of the main reasons for the turmoil that erupts in Italy (which is another setting that connects this character to Reno). In addition, this narrations tell of the rubber industry and its roots in the Amazon.
At the time of booming business in the rubber industry, Valera was the main supplier. By recruiting the natives to work, and hiring overseers to maintain the production, Valera was on his way to the top. However, the evident maltreatment of the laborers should have raised questions, but never does. Instead, it simply points out that:
“There will be no problem rounding up enough labor to harvest the rubber. Brazil had joined the Allies and was sending men off to the war… the minister of industry, said, to convince these men that harvesting rubber was better than going to fight in the war”.
If Kushner is writing with a minimalistic perspective, then the events that unfold within the novel regarding the working conditions and the treatment of the men, would prove to be slavery. However this isn’t the first instance of slavery in the narrative.
Both Sandro and Ronnie are fixated on the sculpture of a slave girl. This obsession stemmed from their first introductions with one another while working the night shift at a museum in New York. Although they see beauty, Reno is only able to see a slave. As minimalists, their perceptions must be somewhat distorted if they understood that this was an image of a slave, and this is all it should have been. Therefore it makes me wonder what they would have thought if they could have seen what was being conducted in the Amazon. Would this be beautiful as well?
The switching of narrators in conjunction to the fluctuating pace of the novel is well intended and yet not executed to the best quality. Repeating unnecessary details, using characters who are too wrapped up in their own stories, and the constant digressions, produce a novel that is ultimately anticlimactic. Additionally, this novel seems to be structured like a TV series. Due to the inconsistency in the stories, it felt as if I needed to stay tuned for a next episode in order to solve the plot line from a month ago. The novel also attempts to be taken at surface value, and yet it is unable to do so due to literary scholars who look for meaning within every word of text (the author did this, that, and the other thing on purpose). For these reasons, Kushner is a fine novelist but lacks the shock-value that is present within traditional novels.