New York Times, Sunday Book Review
In her critically-acclaimed sophomore novel, The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner draws readers in with her brilliant language and captures their interest for the span of the novel by way of an exhilarating narrative—one which, while centering on a central character, involves the lives of countless people past and present.
Kushner effortlessly weaves together two storylines: a history of T.P. Valera, a World War I veteran and former radical who eventually founded the Valera Company, and the life of Reno, a recently-graduated art student trying to make it in New York.
Reno is fascinated with speed and art. Indeed, some of Kushner’s most beautiful writing comes from scenes in which Reno rides her Moto Valera:
“[T]he high desert gleamed under the morning sun…Pure white stretching so far into the distance that its horizon revealed a faint curve of the Earth. I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky.”
This masterfully elegant imagery featured here is just one example of the detailed scenes Kushner portrays in her novel. Whether depicting the 1970s art scene in New York, placing readers out on the Bonneville Flats, or immersing us in the political unrest in Italy, Kushner never fails to set a vivid scene entrenched in the social and political concerns of the time period. However, one is left to wonder how to reconcile this concern for these detailed, historical settings with the artificiality that permeates much of the novel.
While Reno is our narrator, several other characters in the novel act as story-tellers, for example, Giddle and Ronnie. They construct outlandish stories of their own lives, and while listeners might be skeptical—be it of Giddle’s origins, or of anything Ronnie says—they are nevertheless fascinated by the confidence of the storyteller. And I believe it is for the same reasons that readers are captivated by the novel. Kushner seems to create the reality of the novel with such a level of confidence that readers might forget, if at least temporarily, that they are reading a work of fiction. For example, the novel includes an extensive history of the Valera empire, and a detailed recounting of the narrator’s admiration for a racer named Flip Farmer—entities which of course do not exist in real life. Nonetheless, these features play into the narrative in very real ways.
The Valera company, whose origins Kushner traces in several chapters throughout the novel, is a great source of the social and political unrest in Italy. In this, Kushner weaves together fiction with fact and draws attention to the artificiality that pervades the novel. And while this leads some to question how to reconcile these two, Kushner is perhaps proposing a different question: Do they need to be reconciled? Or is Kushner trying to show us “the uselessness of the truth”?
If the worlds of art, motorcycle racing, and political revolution didn’t necessarily connect in reality, why couldn’t they exist together in the space of the novel? Especially if they allow for as compelling and complex a narrator as Reno. Kushner writes in The Paris Review of the process of creating her narrator:
“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, despite her intelligence and ambition, is, more often than not, a silent and passive character. It is this dichotomy—between the compelling character Reno is to the readers and the forgettable character Reno is to others in the novel—through which Kushner allows one of the novel’s greatest issues to emerge. Readers see Reno as a thrill-seeking, ambitious, and strong young woman, but the world in which she exists—one dominated by sexism and misogyny—diminishes these qualities in her. An otherwise-powerful and commanding presence is subdued by the world around her.
Kushner’s ability to effortlessly create such intriguing characters is perhaps the novel’s greatest strength. Often-outrageous characters like Nadine, Ronnie, Giddle, and even Signora Valera, despite their many differences, all exist within the same story. But at the same time, Kushner does not seem to fear accusations of their connection being nonsensical. Rather, she creates so many lively characters and vibrant stories that the novel is a triumph in and of itself for its brilliant writing.
Where the intrigue of the plot dwindles, the novel is kept alive by its compelling narrator and the reader’s interest in her fate. Indeed, after her journeys along two different continents, we see that Reno might still be unsure of what is to come:
“I have to find an arbitrary point inside the spell of waiting, the open absence, and tear myself away. Leave, with no answer. Move on to the next question.”
So too are readers asked to move on without answers. In whatever confusion might arise from the events, characters, or structure of the novel, lay the brilliance of the work. It complicates itself by stirring questions which it refuses to answer. This task, the answering, belongs to readers; and it is in this task that the reward of the novel is achieved.
Kushner once said that “there had to be the real possibility that the novel could be a disaster.” Luckily for her, as for Reno, she escapes any such fate–her work an instant success and very worthy of the praise it has received.