Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers is overly cool and stylish. So, why do the critics swoon for her?
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.
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Peter Rosenberg, rap purist and host of Summer Jam, talks about the music he loves and his Jewish identity