Women writers need to “raise the bar,” write more forcefully, set aside relationships and other supposedly female business and tackle “bigger” subjects. So says the young male novelist Jamal Ouariachi in last week’s Vrij Nederland, repeating a popular current assessment of women writers’ problem. Now, to my mind, the idea that novels by women are too domestic or too subtle is roughly 90 percent bullshit. But on the other hand, it’s exciting when you come across a book by a woman that’s obviously out to impress.
“The Flamethrowers” is just such a novel, self-confident, ambitious, burning with the thrill of its own achievement. From the opening scene, in which one man brains another with the headlight of a motorcycle, the American writer Rachel Kushner seems to have served up the book the critics ordered. She has been rewarded with high praise, a place on almost all the New York best books lists, and murmurs of “Great American Novel.”
All this enthusiasm creates enormous expectations, and for a while, it looks as if Kushner might fulfill them all. From its start in Italy during the First World War, cut to America in the 1970s and the main character, a young artist called Reno, riding a motorcycle through the Western desert. Her plan is to race across the salt flats, then photograph the tracks. “The two things I loved were drawing and speed,” Reno tells us. She thinks of her motorcycle run as “drawing in time (…) drawing in order to win.”
I tucked in and pegged the throttle. The salt stretched out in front of me. (…) I was going 145 miles an hour. Then 148. I was in an acute case of the present tense. Nothing mattered but the milliseconds of life at that speed. (…)
There’s a false idea that accidents happen in slow motion. (…) What happens slowly carries in each art the possibility of returning to what came before. In an accident everything is simultaneous, sudden, irreversible. It means this: no going back.
Kushner is showing off her exhilarating writing, but she’s also talking about artistic daring. An artist, she says, can’t be afraid to crash and burn.
“The Flamethrowers” never crashes, although it never again attains this level of speed and excitement. Like one of her models, Don DeLillo, Kushner loves to digress and to slip around in time and place, stringing her scenes together on the thinnest of threads. She takes us to early-twentieth-century Italy, when the Futurist artists were getting drunk on speed, youth, and violence, and to the Italy of the 1970s, the years of the Red Brigade. Mostly she hangs around in the New York art world circa 1977, where Reno returns, having crashed, survived the wipeout with nothing but a twisted ankle, and, shortly afterward, set a women’s land speed record.
In New York, Reno takes a job as a “China girl,” a young white woman whose skin tint is used by developers of film footage to calibrate the color of the actors’ skin. Her face is the reality by which other images are measured, but she herself is never seen. Searching for a role she can play in life, she often views her surroundings as a scene from an arty road movie, “Zabriskie Point” or ‘Five Easy Pieces’. Also caught in the ambiguous space between life and art is Reno’s friend Giddle, who treats her day job as theater: she “was a waitress but also playing the part of one: girl working in a diner, glancing out the windows as she cleaned the counter in small circles with a damp rag.”
Kushner (1968) was an editor at the New York art magazine BOMB before she published her first novel, ‘Telex from Cuba,’ in 2008. Not surprisingly, she writes with assurance not only about art but about artists, whose interactions Reno observes like a fly on the art-world wall. (These sections are admirable in their structural daring but, unless you love eavesdropping on the self-centered bla-bla of the New York art world, make dull reading.) The artists that Reno meets are all searching for the perfect gesture, the judicious pose, the fiction that represents reality better than reality itself. Later, in Rome, Reno finds herself caught up in a very real milieu of protest and terrorist violence. In a traditional novel, this would be the moment for Reno to stop chasing illusions and return to reality. In Kushner’s view, though, reality is never as interesting as artifice.
Kushner has a terrific talent for description. A singer’s voice “entered the room like a floating silk ribbon.” Driving to Rome, Reno watches “all the little snub-trunked Fiats on the autostrada, matchbox cars in white, beige or yellow, a few of them cherry-red and gleaming in the rain like children’s plastic slickers.” The descriptions help give the book its undeniable authority, but they also overload it and slow it down.
“The Flamethrowers” is far from lightweight, but it is one-sided: on an emotional level it has no ambition at all. Reno as a character is something of a blank—though she’s easy enough to fill in with the reader’s own dreams (if any) of moving to New York and having brushes with artistic fame. I admire Kushner’s audacity and the sureness of her prose. But I’m not sure I’m ready to trade away the traditional pleasures of the novel—like caring what happens to the characters—for any amount of writerly fireworks.
Trouw, March 15, 2014. Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (New York: Scribner, 2013), De Vlammenwerpers (Amsterdam: Atlas Contact, 2014).