Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers is overly cool and stylish. So, why do the critics swoon for her?
When James Wood reviewed Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers in The New Yorker, he praised the book for its ability to transcend the usual binary opposition between realistic fiction and playfully postmodern fiction. Here, he argued, is a meticulously imagined historical novel, one that moves from the Italian front of World War I to the SoHo art scene of the 1970s, with a confidence clearly based on thorough research. Yet The Flamethrowers, Wood wrote, is so powerfully, even recklessly imagined that each moment lives like the present. For Wood, whose holy grail in fiction is the elusive but recognizable thing called “reality,” this makes The Flamethrowers a triumph: “[T]he novel’s reality level [is] as high and blindingly brilliant as the Utah sunlight.”
Wood’s rave, itself the holy grail for contemporary novelists, put the crowning touch on the series of glowing reviews and profiles that greeted Kushner’s second novel. Her first, Telex From Cuba, was already a critical success—it was a finalist for the National Book Award—but The Flamethrowers has achieved something even rarer: It has made Kushner about as famous as a literary novelist not named Jonathan Franzen can get in contemporary American culture. Especially notable has been the personal quality of this attention. Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, published last year, was on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and reached the best-seller list; but Attenberg was not, like Kushner, profiled by the New York Times and pictured in Vogue.
It’s always fascinating to watch as the critical and publishing apparatus moves into action to anoint a new novelist. Why, hundreds of novelists must ask themselves, does one writer become famous, when others, perhaps just as talented, remain stuck on the midlist? In Kushner’s case, I think, part of the reason has to do with a different binarism than the one Wood identified—a conflict even more intractable than the one between realists and post-realists: the gender divide in contemporary literature.
In recent years, this has become a subject of intense debate. Earlier this month, I attended a panel at New York’s HousingWorks Bookstore titled “Sharp: A Discussion of Women and Criticism,” in which an all-star group of female critics discussed the state of their art. Among the issues raised were the so-called VIDA count, which has demonstrated in recent years that elite publications favor male authors and reviewers by a huge margin; and the gender-coding of book covers, a problem humorously highlighted by the Coverflip contest; and the split between commercial publishing, which markets primarily to women (often in the form of what some call, often disparagingly, “chick lit”), and prestige publishing, which continues to favor men. Some participants in the panel—in particular, Laura Miller of Salon—were impatient enough to suggest that “seriousness” per se is a male mode of writing and criticizing, a racket that mistakes humorless, self-aggrandizing pomposity for depth.
The novel that has waded most conspicuously into these roiled waters recently is Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Messud’s book, which I have not yet read, apparently features a furious and vengeful female protagonist, a fact that bothered a Publisher’s Weekly interviewer enough that she complained, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud’s wonderful tirade of a response, in which she named literary characters who wouldn’t exactly make best-friend material—from Humbert Humbert to Raskolnikov—had a strongly feminist subtext, which was made explicit by many of the critics who wrote about the episode. Why should male writers be allowed to create monsters and anti-heroes, while women have to create friends and confidantes? Does the societal requirement that a woman be likable—read: inoffensive—extend even to fiction?
What makes The Flamethrowers a book for our moment is the way it implodes all the usual assumptions about what gender means in literature. Are “women’s novels” supposed to have robin’s-egg-blue covers and deal with domestic issues and personal relationships and offer likable protagonists? Well, the cover of The Flamethrowers features a tinted photograph of a woman with her mouth taped shut—an image taken from a 1980 issue of an Italian radical newspaper. It deals directly with the largest political issues, including futurism, fascism, industrial exploitation, and terrorism.
And at the book’s center is a female narrator—known only by her nickname, Reno—who is our window onto all kinds of male pretension and charlatanism. In a celebrated essay, the writer Rebecca Solnit coined the term “mansplaining,” after an incident in which a man began to lecture her about the photographer Eadweard Muybridge—about whom Solnit herself had written a book. In The Flamethrowers there is a similar episode, where Reno has to endure a lesson on skiing from an aging novelist, even though she herself is an expert skier. “He didn’t bring up skiing to have a conversation,” Reno observes, “but to lecture and instruct. I’d seen right away he was the type of person who grows deadly bored if disrupted from his plan to talk about himself.”
Monologuing is, in fact, the favorite activity of just about every character in The Flamethrowers. If Reno herself feels underdrawn, less than fully alive, that is because her primary purpose in the novel is to be an audience for the endless self-dramatizing performances of everyone she meets. Take, for instance, Giddle, a waitress in the diner where Reno takes to hanging out when she arrives, friendless, in mid-1970s New York City. “Giddle … was a waitress but also playing the part of one,” Kushner writes, “a girl working in a diner, glancing out the windows as she cleaned the counter in small circles with a damp rag. Life, Giddle said, was the thing to treat as art.” Giddle used to hang out at Warhol’s Factory, and if Warhol could make movies of people just being themselves, why couldn’t just living one’s life constitute a kind of artwork?
The art world is, of course, the perfect place to observe this kind of self-dramatization. Art, as Kushner describes it, is a confidence game in the strict sense of the word: To succeed, you must be confident that what you are doing is art and not just puerile gamesmanship. Sandro Valera, the Italian artist who becomes Reno’s lover, makes empty metal boxes; John Dogg, a minor character seen in passing, projects light onto walls. Ronnie Fontaine, Sandro’s best friend, is also an artist, but his real creativity is poured into the outrageous lies he tells about himself. Some of his shaggy-dog stories go on for pages, like the one about the time he got amnesia as a child and ended up as a wealthy couple’s cabin-boy on a cruise around the world.
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