The Flamethrowers is the book you never knew you needed. A roughly cut coming of age story that isn’t neat or final.
In Jon Caramanica’s review of Taylor Swift’s most recent album in the NYTimes, he praises Swift for “making pop with almost no contemporary references.” 1989 (Swift’s album, titled after her birth year) is not just a period piece, he argues, but is “a mode of timelessness” that aims “somewhere even higher.”
In an industry over-saturated by cross-genre musical collaborations and instructional dance songs, Taylor Swift reimagines “timelessness” as being outside of one’s particular cultural moment. According to Caramanica, cultural references have no place in art.
So, you may ask, what do Taylor Swift and Rachel Kushner have in common? Well, for starters, they both have die-hard fans that ruthlessly defend them on social media and in academic book reviews (I’m looking at you, Nicholas Miriello). They’ve both developed cult followers by connecting so fiercely with a particular moment they flip it on its head. Mak describes this phenomena in LARB:
“A Good Novel will present a vision that draws from, subverts, and transcends its tradition, social context, and even its own author”
The effect of cultural references in art is not a comprehensive one. What makes something timeless — it’s connection with time, or a departure from it?
While Swift’s album carefully avoids associating itself with any historical time-frame, Kushner muddles her text The Flamethrowers with so many obscure cultural references, the text transcends that particular moment:
The first four words on the back of the book scream at us in red ink, double the font size of the rest of the synopsis: “The year is 1975 …”
The novel reads like a dense collage of flashing images. While each image is painfully specific to the time-frame of Kushner’s novel, together the moving pictures evoke a feeling so powerful it cannot be imprisoned by four arbitrary numbers. Kushner meticulously constructs The Flamethrowers with layers upon layers of stories and cultural references that are so deeply rooted in their time, the novel hovers above it.
Don’t be fooled by my ambitious Taylor Swift references above(they’re done I promise), Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is not for the faint of heart. She will draw you in with dazzling and vivid descriptions, until your senses are completely burnt out.
While Kushner ambitiously weaves together two separate, loosely connected narratives, the novel seems more interested in the main female character, Reno. The novel follows Reno as she desperately tries to quench an unnamed desire within her. The Flamethrowers is the new bildungsroman; except, Reno never really completes her coming of age story. Gone are the cliché and feel-good platitudes we expect at the end of the novel where the main character should, presumably, learn something. Reno is complex and infuriating. We follow her throughout the whole 384 pg. novel, but never really get to know her. Even her name, Reno, is derived from her home-state of Nevada. But Reno’s identity, like her name, remains a mystery. We get to know Reno through her connections to and observations of other people, but are left to construct our own mosaic of who she really is.
Goeff Mak describes our relationship to Reno by referencing the,
“asymptotic relationship to the self: the close you get, the stranger it appears.”
Reno is like the underachieving daughter you never wanted (too dark?). Her interests (read: obsessions) are deep and fleeting. Her commitment to art and cycling eventually burn out, and Reno’s indifference and disappointment become the only constant throughout the novel. Reno wants so desperately to feel anything that she latches on to any opportunity presented to her. Reno loses her way as easily as you might walk into a room and forget what you had been looking to grab.
The novel mimics Reno’s unplaceable desire. There’s something missing, but, like Reno, we just can’t figure out what it is. We want so badly to make it something more.
__The Flamethrowers starts off hot, like one of Reno’s passion projects, but loses momentum and leaves us feeling confused and empty. The title seems to imply a climactic and fiery plotline, but when the energy dies out, it doesn’t happen in a dramatic and colorful explosion. The elaborate and exacting descriptions lose their magic and read as tired and over-worked.
How do we make sense of such a tired and disappointing ending? Kushner leaves us leafing back through pages, aimless mapping Reno’s ephemeral impulses and trying to fill the gaping hole within us that she created. What does it all mean?!
My feelings about this novel can best be summed up by Reno’s own musings on love:
“People who are harder to love pose a challenge, and the challenge makes them easier to love. You’re driven to love them. People who want their love easy don’t really want love.”
Kushner doesn’t want you to read The Flamethrowers at the beach and manically text your book club about the fun new book they just haaave to read. She wants you to hate her for a hundred pages. You have to question her genius and tear her apart, only to slowly develop a complex and terrifying attachment to the same novel you wanted to burn. The Flamethrowers is a hard and slow developing love. Like the younger brother you constantly tease, but ruthlessly defend on the playground.