Written for Mlexia Magazine
In today’s post-postmodern literary arena, the literary elements necessary to be a national book award finalist include:
- Must explore elements of misogyny in a patriarchal world
- Must contain political undertones that mimic today’s political climate
- Must expose the pretentiousness and many posers of the art scene
- Must artfully disguise what is real and what is fake
Rachel Kushner’s critically acclaimed second novel, The Flamethrowers, contains these components and many more. The novel thrusts the reader into the 1970’s conceptual art world, motorcycle racing and the social political climate that plagued the Italian upper class. Using extremely detailed language, Kushner transports the reader seamlessly into this world.
Some critics, like Frederick Seidel have ripped apart the novel and dubbed it “heat, no warmth”- specifically, he is claiming that the novel was plotless, shallow and under developed. This critic believes that Seidel, is a bloviating sexist jerk who over values his own perspective and status as an opinion maker and due that major fault, misses the beauty of the novel. Whether you agree with Seidel or this critic is up to you, once you read the novel. In my opinion, Seidel doesn’t realize the novel’s lack of plot is a literary device that Kushner is using to show how aimless and naive the main character Reno is.
The heart of the novel is a coming of age story about a young artist from Nevada, who is nicknamed Reno, and moves west to New York in the hopes of “starting her life” as an artist. Soon after her move, she catches the eye of Sandro Valera, an older artist who is also the heir to the Valera motorcycle and tire empire in Italy. Sandro is a minimalist/conceptual artist, who along with his many friends in the art scene, give Reno an education.
Kushner brilliantly portrays the posing and posturing that plagues the art world, by beautiful illustrating how fake and pretentious its’ members can be. The clearest instance of the art world’s hypocrisy and insincerity in the novel revolves around a character named John Dogg, an artist who projects light onto walls. Before Reno’s trip to Italy, Dogg is mocked and treated as an outsider by Sandro and his friends. Yet, upon her return to America, Dogg has somehow transformed into this renowned artist by those who previously wouldn’t give him the time of day.
Interwoven through the novel is the story of Sandro’s father and how his tire empire was built on the backs’ of slave laborers in Brazil. Personally, found these chapters distracting from real story of Reno. But it is possible that Kushner does this on purpose to demonstrate the power of a man’s story and its power to undermine and diminish a woman. But who really knows?
At the start of the novel, while Reno is integrating herself into Sandro’s life and the 1970’s New York art crowd, she is depicted as a shy, unsure of herself, silent observer of others. She is also completely unable to interpret the world and the actions of others around her- it’s like a foreign language to her. Her boyfriend and his friends become her “tutors”. Through watching and listening during her time in New York, she is learning how to navigate the world around her.
The turning point in the novel is when Reno catches her lover, Sandro en flagrante with his cousin. I think this experience forced opened Reno’s eyes and allowed her the permission to see through the insincerity of the people around her. Although the news of Sandro’s cheating was a surprising shock to Reno, it was not to the reader. Kushner employed many literary techniques such as foreshadowing to cue the reader as to the real character of Sandro Valera. He was not the person who Reno thought she saw. After the climax of the novel, and her relationship with Sandro comes to an abrupt halt. She now sees life more clearly. I believe that Kushner does this to demonstrate narrator bias, as most of the story is told through Reno’s narration. The bigger question Kushner is posing to the reader is whether we really trust our interpretations of what we see with our own eyes in life? Are we missing the bigger picture?
Even though Reno is supposed to be this though biker chick and be a symbol for the feminist movement, she is not an empowered character. From the beginning to the end of the novel, she is always turning to men for guidance and a sense of purpose. First to Sandro when she first moves to New York and then to Gianni. She is constantly turning to men. She relies on men while avoiding relationships with women, because she finds them threatening and intimidating. Reno uses men as a way of trying to connect to the world, while in reality she is looking for a connection to identify her sense of self. Is this Kushner’s way of saying that all women hate other women in their youth, when they don’t feel a great sense of self? I’ll leave that as question for you to answer.
The novel kind of fizzles out at the end, but before it does, it shows how Sandro’s careless and misogynistic attitude towards women was molded after his own fathers’ treatment of women. Sandro’s father was selfish man and callous towards his own wife. Sandro’s father also clearly condones older men dating younger women, justifying it by saying that some men become emotionally stunted, which causes them to be unable to relate to women their own age. As a reader, one must ask themselves if Kushner is alluding to people today, like Hugh Heffner. Ultimately, I think she is asking the reader to examine their own relationships with their parents, to see how they were shaped by them. And consequently, make changes if necessary, so that the next generation is not plagued by misogyny and mistreatment of those with little agency of their own.
The writing in this book is exquisite. Kushner is a metaphor machine. There is the most absolutely beautiful descriptions of places, moods and feelings on almost every page and she incisively crucifies the phonies, fakers and hanger-on’s that populate the art world and the wealthy. She is full of witty observations and writes with an authenticity that I have granted her based on her descriptions of skiing (I am an avid skier).
If you are reading this review in hopes of finding a brainless chick-lit page turner for the summer, Kushner’s novel is not what you are searching for. Instead, if you are looking to examine the human condition and what it means for one’s “life to begin” then you should order this paperback from amazon. Forewarning, you’ll need to have a pen in hand and easy access to google to fully gain meaning and understanding from all the erudite references.