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.

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