Review: Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

10112885>>Published: August 2013

Cordova obviously took great care in assembling his players, every one from different backgrounds, some with no acting experience at all. He brought them here to live in his remote world, locking them inside it, allowing them no contact with the outside. Who would willingly agree to such a thing, signing away their life to one man?

Hopper had asked Marlowe this. Yet did he need to? Millions of people walked through their lives numb, dying to feel something, to feel alive. To be chosen by Cordova for a film was an opportunity for just that, not simply for fame and fortune, but to leave their old selves behind like discarded clothes.

What exactly did Cordova make them endure? Everything his characters did? Then his night films were documentaries, live horrors, not fiction.

He was even more depraved than I’d realized. A madman. The devil himself. Maybe he hadn’t always been, but it was what he’d become living here. But if his films were real, how easy it would be for the man to slip into harming real children, in order to save Ashley.

***

Ashley Cordova, twenty-four-year-old musical prodigy and troubled daughter of the enigmatic and mysterious Stanislas Cordova, the Academy-Award-winning director of fifteen films—some of which are considered among the most terrifying ever made—has jumped to her death. While the death is quickly ruled a suicide, Scott McGrath, a disgraced investigative journalist with a bit of a hard-on for Cordova, is unwilling to ignore the growing trail of bodies that have followed the director’s career. McGrath’s got his reasons: several years earlier he voiced an unsubstantiated claim that Cordova was a Manson-style predator, said he had evidence Cordova had in some way hurt or endangered children. The accusation not only cost McGrath his career, but also his reputation, his marriage, and a quarter of a million dollars.

So yeah, he wants to know the truth behind Cordova and what it was that drove the director’s daughter to break out of the Briarwood Hall mental institution, with the help of a gullible and possibly horny security guard, a week and change before she committed suicide. Because the best revenge is a story that carves right to the bone, and McGrath wants to be the one to serve it to the world. Toss in a couple of plucky research assistants each with their own tales of woe and mysterious pasts (and guarded interests in uncovering Ashley’s unfortunate fate), and an extended family of actors, actresses, devoted assistants, occultists, and a rabid underground fanbase of “Cordovites”—men and women who hold underground screenings of Cordova films, latching on with dear life to every shred of information or sighting reported—and you’ve got yourself a modern day noir. Or a close approximation thereof.

Marisha Pessl’s second novel, Night Film, is at once an unexpected treat and a curious disappointment. I’ll say right off the bat that I did enjoy this book, though it does have its share of problems, both technical and thematic. However, I really don’t think I can carve to the root of my issues with this book without spoiling the ever-loving hell out of it. So there it is, there’s your warning: if you’d like to remain in the dark, know that the book is fairly enjoyable, but it is at its heart a page-turner steeped in the horror film aesthetic—light on deeper literary themes and ideas. Lots of fun to bring to the party, but it likely won’t stick around to help you clean up. If you’ve got a passing interest in film history, especially horror and thrillers, or if you’re looking for a decent end-of-summer mystery, you’ll likely find enough meat on this bone to justify the meal.

Still with me after all those metaphors? Brilliant. Let’s sink our teeth into this.

First, the novel’s strengths: This book is Cordova’s, through and through. Though McGrath is our protagonist, it is the myth and legend of Cordova that gives Night Film its character. From the atypical use of external media sources—newspaper and magazine clippings, web pages and articles reproduced to varying degrees of quality within the text—to the very layered, very detailed manner in which reality slowly warps to Cordova’s aesthetic (complete with talisman’s discretely and effectively pulled from the man’s filmography), Pessl has gone to great lengths to craft a believable life and career arc of a filmmaker seemingly born out of a Petri dish containing the DNA of Hitchcock and Kubrick, with just the smallest possible smattering of Polanski—you know, the whole “potential child endangerment” thing.

Right from the novel’s outset, Cordova is pitched as McGrath’s Great White Whale—a being glimpsed only in passing, by those fortunate enough to be granted an audience; a man talked about in hushed tones by those who knew him best. The mystery surrounding Cordova—his life and his work—is a large onion pulled apart layer by increasingly thin layer, each successive discovery revealing yet another degree of the darkness that populated the director’s existence. Along with his films, some of which had inspired real-life killings—which in turn led to copies of the films being hunted down and destroyed, public screenings banned, and Cordova labelled equally as a genius and a pariah—Cordova’s 300-acre upstate New York estate, The Peak, figures prominently into the filmmaker’s legend as both home for himself and his cast and crew, and a working soundstage.

All this to say Cordova outclasses the remaining members of Night Film’s expansive and colourful cast—he is the fulcrum around which everything revolves. To put it another way, Cordova is the novel’s setting—a statement with a certain degree of truth to it, given the novel’s longest and most climactic chapter—and the setting, in this case, is the only thing I felt truly invested in.

Now for the not so great: Let’s take a few moments and talk characters, tone, and style. First up: McGrath. We quickly learn the details of his situation—from his brash actions and subsequent legal troubles, to his failed marriage to Cynthia and limited visitation rights with their five-year-old daughter Samantha. McGrath’s your typical to-the-truth-of-the-matter journalist-cum-wannabe detective who rushes off into the fray and, frankly, gets in over his head in no time at all. He’s a bit of a live grenade who doesn’t play well with others… until the plot demands that he play well with others. More on that later.

Next up to the plate, Hopper Cole and Nora Halliday—McGrath’s mismatched pair of not-so-intrepid assistants. Both Nora and Hopper were in some way connected to Ashley Cordova: Hopper was very much in love with Ashley and the two shared a prison-like camp sentence, while Nora is a wannabe actress moonlighting as a coat check girl who also happened to be the last person to see Ashley alive. Both have their moments of levity and/or inspiration, but more often than not they seem to be around to keep McGrath in check—and to conveniently have had enough of the investigation when it becomes suitable for McGrath to go the rest of the distance alone. In the case of Hopper, his disinterest with continuing the investigation is more or less believable—he learns what he needs from Ashley’s room upon their break-in at The Peak and finds his closure. Nora’s removal from the case, however, makes much less sense. In essence, after a couple hundred pages of them barely getting along, she decides to reveal to McGrath, in the wake of their time at The Peak, her true feelings for him, a man more than twenty years her senior who seems to only tolerate her existence in his life. When he shoots her down (in one of his few genuinely noble acts in the book), she gathers up the loose threads of her life and moves on. Both associates are removed when, frankly, it seemed like there was nothing more to do with them, narratively speaking.

Detective Sharon Falcone is McGrath’s inside source with the police, a razor’s edge of a person with little patience for anyone but herself. It’s an attitude that sees no real change throughout the novel. To the other side of things—the Cordova side—is Wolfgang Beckman, a film scholar and intense Cordovite, who also happens to help deliver the novel’s most interesting turn of events. Like Falcone, he’s a source for information whose moods appear to shift on a dime with little rhyme or reason, save for his labelling as an eccentric.

Character problems are equally prevalent in the Cordova camp. His son, Ashley’s older brother Theo, is in the story briefly, but exists more as a three-fingered example of his father’s dedication to his craft over his family’s wellbeing. Additionally, Cordova’s second wife Marlowe, her estranged sister Olivia, and his dedicated lifetime assistant Inez Gallo all exist as oft-whispered about associates, who when finally approached seem to have no trouble expounding at great length about Cordova and the goings-on at The Peak. As a matter of fact, it’s almost hard to believe the depth of information about Cordova so wilfully given by the three women when barely pressed at all. In these moments it feels as if Pessl had detailed Cordova’s life to such great depth that she couldn’t decide what needed to be said and what to leave on the cutting room floor—hence the rather large information dumps with each readily successful interrogation. In particular, the detail and clarity of the information provided by Marlowe is especially surprising, given her consistently drugged-out state of mind. For a junkie-recluse living out her last days in isolation, she certainly had a lot to offer.

Possibly the most aggravating character issue, however, is regarding McGrath’s relationship with his ex-wife Cynthia. Following an altercation with Hugo Villarde, a former friend and associate of Cordova’s, McGrath’s daughter Samantha is hurt—not seriously, but enough to cause Cynthia to seek sole custody. Now, it’s been made clear that, for a variety of reasons not limited to just McGrath’s earlier legal troubles, their marriage simply didn’t work. What’s not made clear, however, is if McGrath was or is in any way a danger to his daughter. Following this one incident, Cynthia seems as if she switches characters completely, eschewing the moderately exasperated ex-wife persona she’d embodied up until this point in the narrative and instead embracing an angry, needlessly antagonistic mindset that seeks to unjustly punish a man who again, until this point, seems like not a terrible father, even if he is prone to falling face-first into his work-based obsessions. I could see Cynthia being angry and upset with McGrath for taking Samantha with him while he went to look into details surrounding the case he’s investigating, but he’s a journalist, not a cop willingly and knowingly taking his infant child into violent scenarios. It was a stupid mistake, but not one deserving of the vitriol and punishment levied on him by Cynthia. Her reaction was extreme to an unbelievable degree—a betrayal of the character that had been previously established for the purposes of inserting extra drama into an already tense situation.

Enough about the characters—let’s take a look at Night Film’s tone. Immediately the novel is set up like a modern-day noir. The question I have, however, is if the novel is in fact intended to be a noir, or if it is McGrath, narrating events from the first person, who wishes to see the mystery surrounding Ashley’s suicide in such a light? If it is the former, then only McGrath is apparently in on the look and feel of things, as none of the other characters subscribe to expected genre portrayals. McGrath though, he’s the hard-boiled wishes-he-were-a-hard ass whose ready to risk life and limb to get to the bottom of Ashley Cordova’s death—and more than that, to get to the truth of her father’s possibly satanic, possibly murderous proclivities. And if it the latter, then McGrath’s self-important delusion isn’t taken far enough. There was a real missed opportunity to blur his realities within the aesthetics of the films being described, to take a seemingly normal man and twist his sensibilities beneath the false idea that he’s the right man for this job and not just a man with a bruised ego who doesn’t know when he’s been served his just desserts.

As a character, McGrath’s tone also shifts, sometimes unexpectedly into areas he has little apparent interest in before or after, but are brought out in the moment for a laugh, or to try unsuccessfully to add depth where it doesn’t quite fit. The most obvious example of this for me was the Apple products rant on page 194:

It appeared in the Internet age, pianos, like physical books, were fast becoming culturally extinct. They’d probably stay that way unless Apple invented the iPiano, which fit inside your pocket and could be mastered via text message. With the iPiano, anyone can be an iMozart. Then, you could compose your own iRequiem for you own iFuneral attended by millions of your iFriends who iLoved you.

Instead of being sharp or quick-witted, this reads a little more like the old man standing on his front porch, shouting at the clouds or those damn kids who won’t get off his lawn. McGrath’s in his forties and seemingly computer literate—enough that he owns and knows how to operate a laptop. He’s not quite crotchety enough to make this sort of rant believable or effective, and as a result it sticks out like a sore thumb. In this sense, the rant felt more as if it were coming from the author than the character—a little too “clever for clever’s sake.”

One last point about tone before we move on to style: What begins as a promising exploration of one man’s notoriously dark and explicit films is quickly overshadowed by elements of the occult that, while they do play a part in the novel’s resolution, removed tension from Cordova’s established raison d’être. This is a personal preference, and likely not one shared by many readers as I happen to have a background in and love of film history and theory, but I felt as if the middle of the novel gave too great a focus on the occult aspects of the story, which ultimately proved to be, to varying degrees, misdirection. It’s not until the excursion to The Peak that the narrative felt like it had found its footing again, the surreality of Cordova’s manufactured world once more at the forefront while the occult aspects were thankfully relegated to the background for the novel’s final chapters. In this sense, the reveal of Ashley’s true conflict—biological and not supernatural—is both gratifying and a relief.

Linguistically, Night Film is frustrating. Pessl’s first novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics was a delight in every sense. The author exhibited a light, graceful touch for language, affording the novel a feel and personality all its own. Night Film, however, struggles to find its voice. I’ve already touched on the character and tonal aspects of this, but now I’d like to get technical.

Italics. In short, this novel abuses italics in such a manner as to remove all sense of believable emphasis and replace it instead with cartoon-like enthusiasm. It’s as tough to read with any kind of seriousness as if every fifth period had been replaced with an exclamation point. Nora is especially guilty of this, but there is no one within the narrative that doesn’t fall into this trap. This, coupled with the relative two-dimensionality of many of the novel’s characters, creates the problem of sound-alikes—meaning that there didn’t appear to be much in the way of distinct voices throughout the novel. Bare in mind, the writing is not in any way bad, but it is also not exceptional or especially creative; much of the novel feels written to plot, and not written to character.

Following up this note on style is the use of multimedia in the pages of the book—screenshots and images used to impart critical information on Ashley, her medical background, her family’s sometimes brutal history, and of course, Cordova’s checkered and mysterious career. While at first the images included are interesting to look at, they do more often than not hurt the novel, as we lose, in reading them, the sense that McGrath and his dynamic duo are reacting to what we are seeing, and more importantly how they are reacting to the details learned on these pages. On a similar note, the multimedia parts remove some of what is usually left to our imagination, such as Ashley’s physical appearance, which as described within the text feels almost wraith-like, yet upon seeing her… she’s just a young woman and we’re left without the same sense of the possibly impossible and surreal that books afford us when imagining characters without things like boundaries and reality getting in the way. To the point, the images limit the author’s own creative descriptive output. Mind you, I have shown this book to a few people and received more enthusiastic responses to the inclusion of imagery, so it’s possible I’m in the minority on this. That said I stand by my admittedly narrow preference. I think, if I break it down, it’s the images of Ashley, Inez, and Cordova that hurt the experience for me—the transcriptions and articles weren’t a distraction in the same degree as having the characters I’d envisioned appear suddenly as something else. One could argue that this would be no different were the novel to be turned into a film, but in this specific case, with the novel as the be all and end all version of this story, I felt as if I’d been pulled away from the experience.

In terms of the narrative, I have more praise than I do criticism for Night Film. While yes, I do feel that much of the information McGrath accumulates comes in unnaturally heavy doses from characters whom you’d expect to keep a tighter reign on their secrets, the story itself is consistently engaging and exciting, with frequent and effective chapter ending cliffhangers and a tight narrative arc expertly wound around a wealth of detail and minutia. I’d go so far as to say that the manner in which the narrative resolves itself across multiple climaxes—beginning with their trek to The Peak and the blurring of realities between the film world and the real world, continuing through the “pull back the curtain” moment with Beckman discussing the various talismans and idiosyncrasies of Cordova’s filmography, many of which had somehow found their way into McGrath’s life—is indicative of Pessl’s impressive ability to not only wield a rather large checklist of ideas, but to pay them off one by one in an organic and believable manner. This house of cards-like construction pays off as tensions rise dramatically and Cordova’s presence (or lack thereof) in McGrath’s life takes on a truly threatening tone when it matters most. Whatever the novel’s weaknesses throughout its first two acts, it is in the third act that the Cordova gamble—crafting an entire life and career for a character never directly seen or heard from—lifts Night Film out of the pile and turns it into something more than “just another mystery.” In particular, the rush near the end where it seems as if the threads of the investigation are all disappearing beneath McGrath’s feet as contacts disappear one after another is exhilarating and perfectly paced.

In taking the time to really think about what worked in this novel and what didn’t, I’m left feeling that, in attempting to cover a wide breadth of subject matter and ideas, the final product is disappointingly shallow. I found myself wishing on more than one occasion that Pessl had taken the opposite route: restricting the narrative’s focus to the world of Cordova seen almost exclusively through his films and constructing the narrative more by deep diving into film theory and history. I hesitate to condemn the novel for using Cordova’s films more as setting than subtext, but I can’t help but wonder how much richer it might have been were it to have dug a little deeper into why Cordova had the fascinations and predilections he did, and what in turn he was saying about both society and the characters in this novel as a result. Some of that is there, but more as surface texture than anything else.

Night Film’s narrative is resolved with a satisfying and thankfully restrained gesture, leaving more to our imagination in the novel’s final moments than at any time previously. However, while McGrath’s quest reaches its conclusion in an emotionally pleasing manner, the same cannot be said for his final interactions with Cynthia, Hopper, or Nora. It’s difficult to accept that such a bull-headed individual would not want to fight his ex-wife tooth and nail for continued joint custody of Samantha, especially given what was stated previously in this review. As before, it rings false. The same could be said for the unexpectedly sentimental farewells shared between him and his former research associates, whose lives he previously appeared not terribly invested in. McGrath’s well-established coarseness is so quickly thrown out in the novel’s final pages that it feels less like he is saying farewell to Hopper and Nora, and more as if Pessl is the one saying her goodbyes.

Despite my many reservations, it’s worth repeating: I enjoyed Night Film. It’s not quite what I expected it to be, and the novel’s missed opportunities and tonal problems almost overwhelm the whole. However, in the end, the mystery behind Ashley Cordova’s death and the investigation into her father’s shadowy past are enough to make this a title to recommend for those dwindling summer days.

*It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a note at the end of the book regarding some of the included multimedia pages and an associated iPhone app that when used on a symbol imbedded in those pages will help decode additional information and details regarding Cordova’s life and work. I did not use this app, as I have little interest in anything not included in the book. My crotchety old-man-self feels that anything worth mentioning in the book damn well better be included in the final product. While I understand and respect the need to market to a wide user-base that has embraced the idea of an expanded universe via additional online downloadable content, I want my experience reading the book to be singular and complete.

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Review: Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, by Ty Burr

gods-like-us>>Published: September 2012

>>Finally got around to it: August 2013

Pickford opened the patio door in her nightgown one morning to find a wall of applauding British fans. At a garden party, a seething crowd pulled her out of her car while Fairbanks and the police fought them off; in photos, Mary is clearly terrified. “I touched her dress!” shouted one fan, and again we see the restless throng convulsively ripping something it loves into a million souvenirs. The couple took to seeing the sights of Europe by moonlight.

What the public was saying as it threatened to adore Mary to death was simple: You belong to us. The gods are owned by those who worship them. The dream is not the property of the figures in the dream but of the person having the dream. Zukor understood that. It was the democracy of the new movie stardom, and it was tyrannical. In the end, Mary and Doug reigned for sixteen years from their Hollywood mansion, Pickfair (what else could they call it?), divorcing sadly but without much fanfare in the sound era. They drifted apart, as kings and queens do when they understand that their subjects need them more than they need each other.

***

Depending on whom you ask, the word “celebrity” denotes either a movie star who lives a life of envy and privilege (earned or unearned), an actor or actress (or musician, artist, writer, etc.) who spent years busting their ass in pitiless roles waiting for their one-in-a-million big break, or an unsympathetic four-letter word decrying a culture wasted on the unmitigated worship of vapid, false, pretty-looking idols.

As a child of the movies (ie: someone who has spent far more hours than is probably sensible watching and re-watching the films in his collection, pulling them apart and picking at the chewy depths), I’ve always been a little divided on the concept—respecting the art and the artist when warranted, turning my nose up at the imitators and wannabes searching for their fifteen minutes as they hope to stretch it into an entire career of posing on red carpets and making ludicrous amounts of money. Celebrity is a label not unlike most vocations; where it differs, and what Ty Burr points out in his almost-but-not-quite-academic dissection of the culture surrounding the term, is not just in the financial windfall afforded to most celebrities, but in the degree of social awareness and obsession that comes part and parcel. Because being a celebrity isn’t just a career path, it’s a 24/7 mind-body association that for better or worse disrupts the rest of the world.

In Gods Like Us, Burr, a film critic with The Boston Globe, takes on the concept of celebrity—the lives of some of the more well known (and a few of the more obscure but still important) and their status as gods within our society—from an anthropological standpoint, charting the development of celebrity culture from its earliest days alongside the birth of the film industry through to the current generation of self-made YouTube stars.

Beginning with the origins of film and the studio system, Burr looks at the silent era and the first filmed images, and how, in no time at all, the people on screen became, in concert or not with their ambitions, icons of the changing structure of entertainment. The first few chapters of the book detail the beginnings of this iconographic association, and as illustrated in the quote at the start of this review, the unexpected public fervour that quickly developed alongside it. Burr briskly moves through the silent era and the rise of the studios to the talkies, the emergent fantasies revolving around star envy and how they went from being emergent to manicured, before introducing us to Brando and the breakthrough of stars not wishing to conform or bend to the wills of the studios. Personalities emerge unexpectedly, are quickly taken control of and carefully crafted to fit existing studios’ ideals, only to be upset yet again by a generational shift—it’s a continued narrative within the industry, one that sees studios forever losing ground and attempting to regain control over their self-styled deities.

The introduction of television and the rise of rock and roll added another wrinkle to the culture (or cult) of celebrity, by bringing the celebrities out from the theatres and into people’s homes. Couple this with the counterculture movements of the sixties and seventies, the at-long-last rise of the African American movie star, and the emergence of Andy Warhol as an identifiable celebrity in yet another corner of the entertainment world (with so much of his art and persona based on/critiquing/aping the film world in some fashion) and the notion of celebrity, still revolving around the film world as Earth to the Sun, was changed yet again. By the time the new millennium rolled around, celebrity had been redefined for the umpteenth time to include, quite literally, an individual’s fifteen minutes (or seconds) on the Internet where they became world-renowned (or notorious, as the case may be) for doing something amazing, awkward, intelligent, or earth-shatteringly stupid and posting it online for all to see, and often without a hint of embarrassment.

Beyond simply being an origin story for celebrity culture, Burr’s book is a fairly alarming but not at all surprising indictment of our need to constantly invent for ourselves new beings of worship. Without ever expressly doing so, his argument ties neatly into the criticisms many atheists have of religion as being an artifice dedicated to the creation of a non-existent supreme being or beings so that we on this tiny rock in the middle of a vast and seemingly unending universe don’t have to feel so gloriously alone. Celebrities are tastemakers and trendsetters to hitch our cultural wagons to in order to have decided for us what to wear, how to act, how to think about politics and the world around us. As Burr explores via the current explosion of self-made Internet celebrities, the tone and tenor of the conversation has shifted; while the large booming voices from above still linger and offer their opinions on our day-to-day lives (whether intentional or not), smaller, more isolated voices are now being heard with sometimes equal volume, also spreading their influential thoughts and opinions with the world, and in some cases affecting real change.

Conversely, we have a new type of celebrity, the Felicia Days and Joseph Gordon-Levitts of the world, who understand the privilege they have and the social lottery they’ve won through a mix of hard work and perseverance and being in the right place at the right time, and want to use their position to interact positively with their fans—to in some ways break down the previously omnipresent walls that existed between the average individual and their twenty-million-a-picture icons and to show that hey, we may make a lot more money than you and you know our names, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to know yours. Providing, that is, you’re not a stalker or an obsessed fan with thoughts of keeping your favourite star locked in a sex room of your own design.

As Burr points out near the end of the book, our tabloid desire to live vicariously through our icons is what’s spawned this unquenchable desire to throw up every part of our lives on the Internet, to see if anything sticks, to see if we too can win the cultural jackpot and become the next Justin Bieber, rising to stardom from Internet obscurity without all that messy going out into the world and working your ass off in auditions or doing gigs for next to nothing in dive bars across the continent. The tragedy of this is that it’s the notion of celebrity, of each of us becoming individualized gods with wealth and visibility beyond containment, that has pushed so many to be all that they can be, and not necessarily the urge to create, to put forth an artistic stamp on the world.

Gods Like Us is a fascinating look at the industry(ies) that created the very idea of celebrity, how stars have turned that world on its head and claimed their fame for their very own, and the rationality we’ve lost as a species as a result of the lust for power and fame that many are unable or unwilling to quench. The book isn’t a film theory text but a narrative, anthropological glimpse into the culture and social contracts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and how, in the absence of kings and queens and emperors ruling the world, we have created them for ourselves.

Review: The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

9781439142004_custom-7e81f0840812e7c2097afb8f1ed7955662489442-s6-c30>>Published: April 2013

>>Finally got around to it: August 2013

Ronnie ended up in a nearby booth with Talia and the two less-pretty accomplices. My discussion with Sandro was put on hold as we watched them. The girls had gotten the idea to slap and hit themselves, with Ronnie’s encouragement. They were laughing, going around the table, each girl slapping herself. The first round of slaps was light, a light pat on the cheek, the heel of a hand on the forehead. Each of the girls slapped herself, and with each slap they all erupted in laughter. When it was Talia Valera’s turn, she punched herself in the face with a closed fist. She had especially large fists, like a puppy with huge paws.

Sandro went over to the booth and tried to reason with her.

“Calm down, Sandro,” she said. “It’s just a game.”

“You’ll end up with a black eye,” Sandro said.

She didn’t care. Ronnie had his camera and took pictures. She gazed at the lens in a frank manner.

I thought again of the girl on Ronnie’s layaway plan. Had she taken a bath and given up, gone to sleep? Or put on more lipstick, gone out looking for Ronnie, but to the wrong places?

Flash. Talia posed again for the camera. Her eye was swollen now, and had the taut appearance of polished fruit. There was a gash above her eyebrow, probably from the silver rings she wore, plain metal bands that shone prettily against her tanned skin. I detected pride in her look, as if she felt that the gash and swollen eye were revealing her inner essence, deep and profound, for Ronnie and his camera.

“This is great,” Ronnie said. Click-click. Flash. “Just great.”

***

Telex From Cuba author Rachel Kushner’s second book, The Flamethrowers, like the 1970s art scene the novel at once mocks and shows respect for, is grandiloquent, supremely purposeful in its syntactic construction, and frustratingly shallow.

Reno is a twenty-three-year-old artist interested in both line drawing and land art, influenced by such works as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Interestingly, she also harbours a love of motorcycles, land-speed records, and idolizes a certain style of guerrilla art. To this end, she wants to ride across a stretch of desert drawing a line in the sand as fast as possible, documenting the results after the fact. She moves to New York City in 1975 intent on carving out an artistic niche of her very own. While working at Bowery Film, Reno is seen by another artist—a man fourteen years her senior named Sandro Valera. Sandro, the estranged younger son of an Italian tire and motorcycle magnate, is quickly enamoured by young Reno. Together the two of them coast in and out of artistic happenings in SoHo, crossing paths with creatives from all ends of the spectrum: angry poseur waitresses, strange and aloof men obsessed with film stock, and even a pair who get off by firing a gun loaded with blanks into one’s vag.

It isn’t long before Reno is caught between the divergent extremes of art and sport, following her success driving the Valera team’s The Spirit of Italy. She soon finds herself walking a divisive line between the merits of Italy versus her home state of Nevada, the divide between the haves and have-nots, the hatred Sandro has for his family’s empire and his need to pull away from them, and the very real difference between artistic activism given the illusion of strength via self-appropriated importance, and actual life-threatening riots and social upheaval.

Further than this, she is trapped, seemingly, between the perceived roles an artist can take while still maintaining their chosen label, as well as the expected roles of women in art and women in sport and how, in the 1970s as much as today, they crash together under the auspices of the “calendar girl”—of a woman’s worth being in her ability to fit within a certain mould of femininity, existing un-bruised and unblemished to the world in order to be worthy of the world’s admiration and desire:

“The problem with the bruises is they make you look not anonymous,” Eric chimed in.

“You’re not supposed to evoke real life. Just the hermetic world of a smiling woman holding the color chart.”

“Yeah. Anonymous. Friendly. Comely. Various –ly’s.”

It takes some time before the narrative’s foundations are made clear; it’s only when Sandro and Reno travel to Italy and we are introduced to the rest of Sandro’s family that The Flamethrowers sheds its artistic skin for what amounts to little more than a slightly atypical fish-out-of-water love story, complete with second-act heartache and a resulting period of loss and confusion. To put it another way, the décor changes but the food remains the same. The terribleness and arrogance exhibited by Sandro’s family—especially his mother—is predictable and lacks bite, as neither Sandro nor any member of his family, including his father who is given periodic chapters throughout the novel, are afforded any significant level of depth. They come across as cardboard examples of the rich toying with the peasant girl—oh poor thing, she doesn’t know what she’s in for, and to hell with her for shooting above her station in life. The second to last chapter goes to great lengths to humanize both Sandro and his mother, but these efforts are unfortunately limited in their effectiveness—some humanization is achieved, but not enough to elicit any degree of sympathy for their prior actions.

This shallowness of character is not limited to just Sandro’s family. Everyone in The Flamethrowers is a quotation-mark friend—a necessary interval in Reno’s New York City experience, but thinly sketched and almost never contributing any degree of emotional vulnerability to her evolution. In short, no one in the novel feels like a friend, but rather ideas of friends or what friends should be, awaiting further details to be filled in at some later date. It’s only Ronnie Fontaine, an acquaintance of Sandro’s and one of Reno’s only real connections, who, following a painfully long and overbearing monologue, offers her the painful, unsolicited truth she needs to hear: that so many truths are inherently useless.

There’s been a certain amount of chatter as of late regarding The Flamethrowers and its possible status as the next Great American Novel. Certainly it is ambitious in its scope and its themes of change, transformation, and the repercussions of one’s actions. However, the unevenness of the split back-and-forth narrative, dipping back in time to detail the elder Valera’s rise to rubber supremacy and contrasting it with Reno in present day 1970s New York and Italy, and the lack of emotional depth and growth in most if not all of the novel’s characters cripple much of its early momentum.

There is still joy to be found within the pages of Kushner’s grand artistic/socio-political opus, as her moment-to-moment writing is alive and beautifully renders each environment:

Milan was the same city Valera had experienced as a boy arriving from Egypt, but now the trams and their intricate overhead wires seemed beautiful. Neon was electric jewelry on the lithe body of the city, and he and the little gang were the marauders of this body.

Additionally, the chapter detailing the exploits of The Motherfuckers—anarchists masquerading as revolutionaries—is far and away the most interesting. In this chapter, the author manages to gather the novel’s most salient points within a single destructive bubble of proto-revolutionary counter-culture rage and abject misogyny.

All that to say, clever art world musings are unfitting substitutes for narrative depth and emotional availability—neither of which, I felt, were illustrated in the pages of this novel. We’re told more than once from characters within the narrative that Reno came back from Italy a changed person, but it is not evident in her behaviour—Sandro is still on her brain, and if not Sandro then Ronnie, or Sandro’s brother Roberto. In essence, Reno exists more through the people she crosses than she does within herself; she’s an observer in this world and not, it seems, an active participant.

As eloquent and as gracefully written as The Flamethrowers is, there’s a certain sterility to the novel that strips its characters and the world in which they exist of life—a world in the midst of riots and social upheaval, yet never feels dirty enough to be real, to be a place in a moment in time that mattered. The novel’s high ambitions are visible from the outset, but Kushner’s intelligent, layered writing is unable to brighten its weaker elements.