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The Mythmakers

Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers is overly cool and stylish. So, why do the critics swoon for her?

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Tano D’Amico, Girl and Carabinieri (Looking), 1977. (General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
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For Reno herself, who has not yet discovered her voice as an artist, the vehicle of self-expression is just that, a vehicle—specifically, the motorcycle manufactured by the Valera company, of which her boyfriend is the unhappy scion. “There was a performance in riding the Moto Valera through the streets of New York that felt pure. It made the city a stage, my stage, while I was simply getting from one place to the next. … It was only a motorcycle but it felt like a mode of being.” One of the novel’s most vivid set-pieces involves Reno trying to set a speed record on her motorcycle, in the salt flats of a Western desert. She plans to photograph the tracks she leaves, turning the traces of speed into a kind of inscription.

What’s fascinating about The Flamethrowers is the way its interrogation of performance, of image-making, is entwined with its own commitment to performance. Just as much as any of the artists she mocks—or is it mockery?—Kushner is out to create a mystique, and her book is full of portentous atmosphere and self-conscious cool. In other words, The Flamethrowers manages to be a macho novel by and about women, which may explain why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics. This is a novel that declares on Page 4 that “People who want their love easy don’t really want love,” and on Page 5, “That’s the funny thing about freedom. … Nobody wants it.” Such musings would sound best in the voice-over to a film, and The Flamethrowers is heavily indebted for its mood and imagery to the films of its period, many of which are name-checked (Klute, Zabriskie Point). The anomie, the political doominess, the stylish alienation—all of this reads “1970s” in marquee neon letters.

Kushner could not evoke all this so well if she did not buy into its mystique, at least imaginatively. She has a real gift for grasping the prose-poetry of ideologies, whether it is the art-ideology of SoHo or the left-wing violence of the Italian Red Brigades or, in the sections of the novel set around World War I, the right-wing violence of the Futurists:

They were smashing and crushing every outmoded and traditional idea, Lonzi said, every past thing. Everything old and of good taste, every kind of decadentism and aestheticism. … Lonzi said the only thing worth loving was what was to come, and since what was to come was unforeseeable—only a cretin or a liar would try to predict the future—the future had to be lived now, in the now, as intensity.

The plot of The Flamethrowers is alternately attenuated and supercharged, depending on where Kushner needs her characters to go. Much of the time Reno is hanging out in New York, drifting from rooftop party to art gallery to bar; then suddenly she is whisked by Sandro to his aristocratic family’s mansion in Italy; then she is hiding out with communist revolutionaries. She ends up witnessing both a political march in Rome and the 1977 blackout in New York, less for any compelling internal reason than because these are moments Kushner longs to evoke, to mythicize.

One of the greatest powers of the novel is the ability to penetrate the myths we make about ourselves

The first words the reader of The Flamethrowers encounters are the epigram, “Fac ut ardeat,” Latin for “made to burn.” This was, we learn, the motto of the Arditi, an Italian commando unit in World War I, in which Sandro’s father served. They also help to explain the title: The young in every age, the novel suggests, long to burn up and to burn things up, to be bright and vivid and violent. What is missing from The Flamethrowers is a sense of what all its characters are like when they are not aflame, not performing their selves but simply being. As a result, even Kushner’s critique of artificiality ends up reading like a celebration of it: The novel itself is, if not “mansplaining,” at least always insisting on its own mystique.

But a novelist should not be a mythmaker, not when one of the greatest powers of the novel is the ability to penetrate the myths we make about ourselves—to show how things really work, instead of how they claim to work. The Flamethrowers is too cool, too stylish; in this it resembles some of the most famous writing of the 1970s, including Robert Stone’s novels and Joan Didion’s essays. (Stone, in fact, blurbs the book). But in the gray work-shopped world of contemporary fiction, Kushner’s bold gestures and grand ambitions rightfully stand out. We read her the way Reno listens to the artists she meets—with pleasure, amazement, and not a little suspicion.


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Adam –

this was such an interesting review. i read James Wood’s piece and was left confused by it – was he saying that this book was good because the action it described seemed real – because he ‘believed’ things that were not factually true (the existence of the motorcycle company, for example)? the point Wood made was facile (why is realism an end in itself? cannot suspension of disbelief be upheld a number of different ways?) yet Wood was obviously super-excited by this discovery. i frequently admire Wood’s reviews, but, especially recently, just as frequently am puzzled by them – this was an example of the latter, and your overview of the critical response was helpful in explaining why.

thank you.


Norman Snider says:

Resentment of “cool,” huh? Bet you Kirsch is some fat-ass schlepper.

I felt a bit empty when I finished reading “The Flamethrowers” and wondered what I’d missed. This review reassures me that there was something missing in the book itself.

brianhurley says:

Kushner seems to have foreseen Kirsch’s “macho” argument.

“A funny thing about women and machines: the combination made men curious. They seemed to think it had something to do with them.” — The Flamethrowers

hahaha, omg a dude is accusing a woman of “mansplaining.” he is mansplaining to a woman what mansplaining is, and then tells her she’s mansplaining. what a dumb-dumb. dude, just stop.


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The Mythmakers

Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers is overly cool and stylish. So, why do the critics swoon for her?

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