For the NY Review of Books
By: Kevin Bustamante
I have a golden rule when I try to explain something. Use three words. The best explanations can be summed up in three words. If I were to explain what Rachel Kushner’s novel, The Flamethrowers, is about, I’d say: girl on motorcycle. Kushner’s novel centers around two key things: Moto Valera, a fictional motorcycle company whose family, Valera, we explore and the second central figure is Reno, the nickname of our 20 something year old female protagonist. The novel opens with an Italian soldier, T.P. Valera (the founder of Moto Valera and father of one of Reno’s various love interests) caught in the midst of World War I and killing a German soldier by using the headlight from the crashed motorcycle of his recently deceased comrade. It is a violent scene that thrusts us into the heat of the novel. The intensity fades quite a bit from here.
The book transitions us from Italy and World War I to Reno riding a Moto Valera motorcycle through 1970s Nevada in her quest to make art by “drawing a straight line across the salt flats.” Kushner weaves us through these stories with Reno serving as an intelligent attractive woman whose voice guides us through her story and Valera serving as the charismatic bold male counterpart. Reno is an artist. She is a strong and formidable character – at least in her head she is where most of the novel takes place lost in Reno’s thoughts of how she experiences and understands whatever scene Kushner has written her in.
Reno is an adventurer. She manages to go from her humble upbringing in Nevada to New York where she immerses herself into the art scene and meets her boyfriend, Sandro Valera, one of the heirs to the Moto Valera empire. Reno, with the help of Sandro and his great wealth, returns back to Nevada riding her gifted motorcycle where she hopes to beat a land speed record and create her art in the process. She gets into a terrible dizzying crash that leaves her with an unimaginable injury – a sprained ankle. This unimaginable injury, similar to those in Fast and the Furious films, does not prevent Reno from hopping into the Spirit of Italy, the racing car of the most prized Moto Valera driver, Didi Bombonato, and breaking the world speed record and earning herself the title of fastest woman alive. Considering the amount of detail dedicated to motorcycles, near death experiences, speed, and time throughout the first third of the book, one would imagine Kushner using these devices to tell a grand philosophical story of how quickly life progresses or something. Anything at least.
Instead, it serves the role of plot device and does not give any added value in terms of what the novel is really about: an issue we will return to shortly. Reno then returns to New York where she meets artists like John Dogg and Burdmoore, the latter being a failed bohemian artist who once was part of a radical New York group called The Motherfuckers – Kushner using the group to symbolize the radical atmosphere of the 70s and suggest something about men and their relationship with women and their mothers. Reno learns of what New York was like in the 60s and we are further hinted at the class dynamic that is ongoing in the novel – something that also feels more like a plot device than actual exploration of.
From New York, Reno travels to the Valera private family estate in Italy (!) which she escapes after seeing Sandro cheat on her with his cousin. Reno, and a rogue groundskeeper named Gianni, drive to Rome in the midst of massive protests and riots to help support the Red Brigades. Reno, herself not being an active participant in the movement aside from being an observer, witnesses the great clashes between protesters and the police. After a stint in France, Reno returns to the safety of New York where the great New York City blackout of 1977 takes place and rioting and looting ensues. The plot ends here (with several more chapters still to go) and somehow, we have come full circle.
Somewhere along Reno’s travels, we explore characters like Ronnie Fontaine and Sandro Valera, both close friends and Reno’s love interests (at different times albeit). Both are artists in their own respects. Ronnie’s art has an intense focus on artificiality and artifice while Sandro prefers a minimalist approach to his art. Kushner goes as far as having Sandro replicate one of Donald Judd’s untitled art pieces consisting of a set of plywood boxes. With a trio of core artists from various socioeconomic backgrounds, Ronnie and Reno being far less fortunate than Sandro (not to mention Sandro’s own struggle with not wanting to be associated with his upper class status and his namesake) we would imagine there to be at least some commentary on “high” art versus “low” art. If there is any discussion on that, it is tenuous at best.
In the midst of the lengthy 384 page novel, Kushner zig zags between themes of class, gender, and the making of art and the significance of art. Gender is easily the most developed theme of the novel. The issue though is how Reno rarely asserts herself in front of any other male characters. Instead, most of what can be considered “growth,” in the sense of female empowerment, occurs in Reno’s’ mind rather than in actions towards Sandro or Ronnie. Yes, Reno does break up with Sandro after she finds him having an affair with his cousin but that is about as far as her independence goes – a notable feat but ultimately insufficient for what the novel hopes to accomplish.
At the end of the text (separate from the story) is a section titled “A Portfolio Curated by Rachel Kushner.” The portfolio consists of an essay by Kushner, previously published in The Paris Review, and a series of images ranging from a Jack Goldstein vinyl record to a man holding a shotgun. In her essay, Kushner discusses how she studied 1970’s art and found a vast amount of pictures of naked women and guns. Mainly separate, not often in the same image. At one point in her essay she says, “What does it all mean? Many things, I’m sure.” In reading the novel, we find ourselves asking the same question.
What does it all mean?
What does it mean when a novel open with an Italian soldier killing a German soldier with a motorcycle headlamp in World War I and then ends with riots during the 1970s New York City blackout? Many things, I’m sure.
This is not to downplay how masterfully Kushner depicts the world of the 70s in New York and Italy or the dazzling language that Kushner employs throughout the novel, “Many runaways were caught. The ones who weren’t died alone, among animals, watched by those huge trees that weren’t in God’s matrix.” The novel is peppered with references to figures of the past, be it Nina Simone or the Red Brigades in Italy. We are always able to identify where we are in space and time even if we may be a bit unsure of how exactly we arrived there. This, perhaps the biggest strength of the novel, may also be the cause of the biggest weakness in the book. It is easy to become immersed in the novel when Kushner writes of what Italy was like in the 70s, “San Lorenzo had been bombed in World War Two and now it was a mass of drab, modern apartment buildings with television antennas jutting from every balcony and roof like hastily stabbed pushpins.”
Yet it becomes difficult to reconcile this with the superficial aspects of the novel ranging from things like people with names like Ronnie Fontaine and Fah-Q. Reno is caught in a terrible crash and leaves largely unscathed. How? Are we really supposed to believe that a girl from Nevada will somehow hold the title of the world’s fastest woman and then become caught up in smuggling a Red Brigade member into France as Reno does with Gianni? Sure, all of this may be possible. It’s a novel. Anything can be possible in fiction. But how exactly are we supposed to understand the detailed historical depictions of the 70s with the artificial? The novel ends with a series of disparate images which Kushner says helped her write the book. The novel tends to flow with the same type of disjointedness. Like a series of flashing images rather than a proper film.