By Niki Cozzolino
April 26, 2017
<figcaption class="wp-caption-text">Image on the jacket of The Flamethrowers, written by Rachel Kushner</figcaption></figure>
Written for The Los Angeles Review of Books
Rachel Kushner’s award-winning novel, The Flamethrowers, has had its fair share of time in the spotlight. Whether the novel is getting ripped apart in The New York Review of Books, by poet Frederick Seidel, or Seidel’s review getting chewed and spit back out by Nicholas Miriello in The Los Angeles Review of Books, it’s safe to say this novel has “fac ut ardeat.” “A clever command, To make burn.” This novel has pushed critics every which way, burning its way through the shelves of bookstores across the country. This phrase not only relates to the how you may want to burn the novel while reading it, later forming a love-hate relationship with it, but the novel burns our eyes, shows us misogyny, gangs, guns, and porn. All different forms of art that Kushner wants us to see; art, which Miriello fails to establish in his review of the novel.
Nicholas Miriello is the Senior International Editor of the Huffington Post and has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, McSeeney’s, CutBank Literary Magazine, Huffington Magazine, World Riot, among others. It’s safe to say he may not be as well-known as poet Frederick Seidel, who has been called “the poet the twentieth century deserved” and praised as one of “the best poets writing today” by the Poetry Foundation. Miriello is still a sound source. Through ripping apart Seidel’s review of The Flamethrowers every which way, Miriello did stumble upon bringing a crucial theme of the novel to light: sexism.
The main female character, Reno, is a young artist who recently moved from Nevada to New York in order to “find herself.” As the novel progresses, if it even progresses at all, seeing as nothing really ever happens, Reno somewhat remains a passive observer, always on the outskirts looking in. As described in Miriello’s review:
Kushner has created a frustrating juxtaposition in Reno — her voice is strong and unique, and yet her character is silent, sometimes forgettable. This could be passed off as simple character development, until you realize the many foils Kushner places beside her ostensible heroine (the “China girl,” the “Girl on layaway,” “Giddle”). The intentionality becomes impossible to deny.”
What Miriello establishes here is that to the reader, Reno, as a character and narrator, is memorable, “strong, smart,[and] ambitious,” yet to the other characters in the novel she’s quiet, shy, passive, and quite forgettable. She is silenced by the men in the novel even though she’s the narrator. However, Miriello fails to elaborate on the important examples of these foils he so blatantly provides. In critiquing Seidel’s review, Miriello’s words can be used against him; for example, “It makes broad and severe statements about the text, most of them purely subjective, without ever supplying one textual example.” Even though Miriello provides plenty of textual evidence during his review, he fails to elaborate on the importance of the “female gaze” created by Giddle’s character, the art, in relation to the “China girl,” and the misogyny, in relation to the “Girl on layaway.”
Giddle, is Reno’s only female friend, pretty much the only friend she made while living in New York, without the help of her boyfriend, Sandro Valera. Performing as a waitress at the Trust E Coffee Shop, “Life, Giddle said, was the thing to treat as art.” Kushner states in her curated portfolio, “What does all this mean? Many things, I’m sure, but for starters, it means people were getting out of the studio. Art was now about acts not sellable; it was about gestures and bodies. It was freedom.” Kushner incorporates numerous accounts of different cultural references throughout her novel. Regardless if it’s non-fictional art pieces and films, or if it’s historical fiction, including fictional events or people based on real-life events, Kushner emphasizes the freedom of finding oneself in one’s art. While “grooming” for a job “interview,” Reno discovers a new side of herself, one she had not known before Giddle.
We looked at me in the mirror. Something had changed in my face, or in what I saw there. It wasn’t that I was prettier, exactly. It was that the whole charade of getting me ready to be looked at by whoever had placed that ad had exposed me to something. In myself. I looked at me as if I were someone else looking at me, and this gave me a weightless feeling… I wanted to be looked at. By men. By strangers. Giddle must have known.”
By simultaneously being looked at and displayed, Giddle’s “female” gaze objectifies Reno’s character, sexualizing her into this image, this sex object for men. Without elaborating on Giddle and her relation to Reno’s character and the sexism seen in this novel, the reader has no way of knowing why Miriello included Giddle as an example of a foil character to Reno, making the same mistakesthat he accuses of Seidel in his review.
Reno’s job interview, that Giddle and her were so excited and “gay” about, ended up being an audition to be a “China girl.” Reno’s skin tone would be used as “a printing reference for Caucasian skin, for the lab technicians, who needed a human face to make color corrections among various shots, stocks, and lighting conditions,” where her face would be seen by the projectionist loading the films in movie theaters. Then why did she have to wear “pantyhose and the black velvet bodice?” Why did she have to have to put excessive amounts of makeup on and curl her hair if they were just trying to match her skin tone to help with color correction? Marvin and Eric, her bosses, spent most of their time telling her what to do, what to wear, and how to pose, never thinking to stop and ask her if she was comfortable or if she had an opinion on the photo. Reno was clearly there to be a sexualized object for men to take pleasure in looking at, for scopophilia. Reno was playing this part as a “China girl,” this object for men to gaze at, she “would be looked at, but by people who didn’t know who [she] was. [She] would be looked at and remain anonymous.” She was drawing a line between artificiality and reality. Showing the reader two different sides of herself, the artificial sexual object intended for the camera and men and the reality of her passive, observing nature.
Reno’s boyfriend, Sandro Valera, is a Minimalist artist who was heavily influenced by his best friend, Ronnie Fontaine, an artist who treated women like he treated his clothes, throwing them away once he was bored with them. Sandro at one point referred to Reno as “the girl” while she stood right next to him, treating her more like an art project than an actual girlfriend. Similar to the picture on the jacket of the novel, Reno never truly had a voice when it came to the men in her life. Being told what to do, what to wear, what to say, how to act, what to do her next art piece on, the list is endless. Ronnie kept the “Girl on layaway,” only using her when he wanted and when he felt like dealing with her company, as well as, clearly objectifying women within his art project portraying beaten-up women. Miriello touches on the influence the men in Reno’s life had on her by including a quote from Kushner’s curated portfolio:
I was faced with the pleasure and headache of somehow stitching together the pistols and the nude women as defining features of a fictional realm, and one in which the female narrator, who has the last word, and technically all words, is nevertheless continually overrun, effaced, and silenced by the very masculine world of the novel she inhabits.”
Reno is stuck in this “very masculine world,” constantly being talked at versus being talked to, being viewed as this sexual object to do with as one pleases. As Kushner puts it, “Women are trapped in time,” always living in the shadows of the men in their lives, observing from the background. All Reno wanted was to make art and become famous, yet she is constantly failing because of the men in her life, somewhat similar to Kushner. I find it interesting how regardless of Miriello’s focus on sexism, he still neglects to include a sufficient account of Kushner’s voice throughout his review. It is dominated by his voice and his attack on Seidel, keeping the focus on men, which seems to me that he doesn’t fully comprehend the misogyny in the novel.
Miriello concludes his review of Seidel with: “Nowhere does Seidel point to the nuanced presentation of sexism in the novel’s world, nowhere does he examine the narrative choices Kushner made along the way, the research, the history, the careful structure. He dips his toe in a few times, but never dives in.” I feel as though Miriello didn’t truly comment on the history or the research Kushner went through when writing her novel, also “dip[ping] his toe in a few times, but never div[ing] in.” If he had done so, he would have elaborated on his examples that he so casually placed in his review. He would have elaborated on Giddle’s character, the “China girl,” and the “Girl on layaway,” describing the importance of performance and art in the novel, the “female/male” gaze, and the sexual objectification of Reno. One of the key elements that Miriello left out of his argument about sexism was “the Motherfuckers.” “The Motherfuckers,” also known as “Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers,” were revolutionaries in the 1960’s, men who took direct action against New York City in order to achieve a future where men were free to do whatever they wanted, a male-utopia of sorts. Did they ever achieve this no, but that’s beside the point. The point is, is that they were called the “Motherfuckers” because “we hated women… you think I’m joking. Women had no place in the movement unless they wanted to cook us a meal or clean the floor or strip down.” Along with their clear lack of respect for women, they further portrayed their lack of respect through the art work they drew for their movement. Repeatedly drawing male genitalia, guns, and “fucking” throughout their campaign, shows that their clear misogyny is crucial to the discussion of sexism within this novel. Miriello’s lack of evidence regarding Giddle’s character, the “China girls,” and the “Girl on layaway,” along with the lack of female input regarding examples of art, research, and history truly diminished his argument.
What Is This Review Interested In?: “Many Things, I’m Sure.”
by Rachel Kushner
Harville Secker, 400pp., RRP £16.99