The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Rachel Kushner introduces us to Reno as the young woman is heading across Nevada on her new Moto Valera motorcycle. She is on her way to the Salt Flats of Utah where she is about to a) set a new world speed record for a woman driving a motorcycle and b) as a proponent of Land Art, turn that experience into a work of “art” with her camera.

Let’s address that “art” concept first. Here’s the way author Kushner presents its genesis to the reader:

When I was little, skiing in the Sierras, I felt that I was drawing on the mountain’s face, making big sweeping graceful lines. That was how I had started to draw, I’d told Sandro, as a little girl, five, six years old, on skis. Later, when drawing became a habit, a way of being, of marking time, I always thought of skiing. When I began ski racing, slalom and giant slalom, it was as if I were tracing lines that were already drawn, and the technical challenge that shadowed the primary one, to finish with a competitive time, was to stay perfectly in the lines, to stay early through the gates, to leave no trace, because the harder you set your skis’ metal edge, the bigger wedge of evidence you left, the more you slowed down. You wanted no snow spraying out behind you. You wanted to be traceless. To ride a flat ski as much as possible. The ruts that cut around and under the bamboo gates, deep trenches if the snow was soft, were to be avoided by going high, by picking a high and graceful line, with no sudden swerves or shuddering edges, as I rode the rails to the finish.

Reno will set that record on the salt flats, but the artistic side of the project gets literally blown off course — a gust of wind means she crashes her cycle shortly after crossing the speed measuring line. Even that accident has a side benefit, however. Team Valera is also aiming for the world car speed record. And when their driver has set that, to keep a competing American squad off the flats, they put a bandaged-up Reno in the car — and she proceeds to set the woman’s world record in that class as well.

While Reno was born and schooled in Nevada, she has moved to New York to pursue her art interests and is now part of the 1970s art community in SoHo. She has been taken up as a student and lover by an established installation artist, Sandro — we don’t know yet that he is Sandro Valera, son of the Italian family that makes the motorcycles and cars, but we will soon. He is the one who arranged for her to get that competitive motor cycle although the excuse for the gift was the artistic side of the project.

He pretended I was placed in his life to torture him, when it was really the other way around. He acted smitten but I was the smitten one. Sandro held all the power. He was older by fourteen years and a successful artist, tall and good-looking in his work clothes and steel-toed boots — the same kinds of clothes that Bobby and Scott and Andy [Reno's Nevadan uncle and cousins who had a trucking business] wore, but on Sandro they added up to something else: a guy with a family inheritance who could use a nail gun, a drill press, a person not made effete by money, who dressed like a worker or sometimes a bum but was elegant in those clothes, and never hampered by the question of whether he belonged in a given situation (the question itself was evidence of not belonging).

Anyone who has read Kushner’s debut novel Telex From Cuba (I have and I was quite impressed) will be aware that she has a political side to her (one of its themes is the collapse of American economic imperialism in Cuba) and that theme shows up here as well. It is introduced with a brief prologue from 1917 featuring a Valera who is part of the Italian cycle battalion in that war. In chapters dropped into the main narrative, we follow the Valera family into their support of Mussolini during WWII and their imperialist development of exploitative rubber plantations in Brazil during and after the war. Fast cars and motorcycles may be the Valera firm’s branding — they make most of their considerable fortune off of selling perfectly ordinary tires. Needless to say, Sandro the New York artist rejects the family business, although he is quite content to live off its proceeds.

With those threads in place, author Kushner allows Reno to roam. Much of the book is spent with the contemporary art community in New York — we meet dealers, patrons and most importantly unconventional “artists” pursuing the oddball projects that characterized the era (I won’t even offer an example but they did produce more than the occasional chuckle).

The book also spends some time with the Valera family in Italy. Reno’s world-record status means that she has been invited to take part in a Valera promotional tour, but Sandro insists they must first spend a week with his mother at the family villa on the slopes above Lake Como. It is 1975 and Italy is in political turmoil with Red Brigade demonstrations and kidnappings — needless to say the industrial empire of the Valeras and the family itself are targets.

An unconventional notion of “art”, a troubled love-life and the global politics of inequality — even in summary outline, that suggests a cluttered agenda for the novel and for this reader that was the biggest problem with The Flamethrowers. Each of the story lines held interest, but as the book bounces from one to the other it became a distraction. Each time one thread got interesting, the author moved to another one and the threads never really come together. Kushner is both an accomplished stylist and clever storyteller but the novel never became the sum of its parts.

It is only fair to note that my somewhat grumpy assessment is not shared by an assortment of prize juries, where The Flamethrowers has been a regular feature in recent months — a New York Times 2013 Top Ten book, a finalist for the National Book Award in the U.S., shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize in the U.K. and now shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize). While it has not emerged as a winner, that is still an impressive list.

I should also note that while reading the book I found myself frequently comparing it to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, another well-reviewed novel about which I was ambivalent. Tartt’s novel also has a strong “art” element, spends a lot of time in Nevada and New York and sends its central character off to Europe as part of the drama of the plot. If you liked one, I suspect you would like the other — I am quite aware that many readers and critics don’t share my assessment that both books have too much clutter to them.

There is definitely much talent on display in The Flamethrowers — I can’t help but conclude, however, that Kushner has a better book waiting in her future.

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14 Responses to “The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner”

  1. SANDRA KEATS Says:

    Kevin – there’s a bit of a problem with this weeks email. On my end it’s all in computer language.
    Sandra Keats

    >

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      WordPress sends out those alerts automatically and I have nothing to do with them ( beyond putting up the new post). I’ve checked with a few people who get them and this week’s was fine, so I suspect it was a temporary problem between their server and you. Sorry about that.

  2. Kevin MacLellan Says:

    hi Kevin,
    I am not surprised by your ambivalence. The opening convinced me that this is not worth my time. A close look at the original conception of “land art” reveals an almost ridiculous conception of art that is at once childish and contradictory: her desire while skiing is ‘to draw upon the mountain’ and ‘to leave no trace; to ‘stay within the lines’ and to ‘make bug, sweeping graceful lines.’ Suffice it to say, that Sandro wasn’t learning anything about Art from this sui dissant precocious five year old giant slalom skier. Later (when she knew more?), she conceived of the giant slalom as following preset lines: yeah, it’s called a course and its lines are actually drawn –not just as if! But she was drawing these sweeping lines both as ‘a way of being’ and as ‘a way of marking time.’ In other words, she apparently also became bored by her own efforts. It is not surprising then, that we should be also.
    This is truly atrocious, amateurish writing. I am not at all convinced by the pretensions about art and I am even less convinced by the daredevil braggadocio. It seems like pro forma empowerment stuff: I am woman, therefore hero. I have published, therefore I deserve an award.
    This is what happens when we go down the road after celebrating “graduation” from kindergarten.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You are much harsher in your criticism than I am. While I did find Reno’s concepts of her “art” na├»ve, at best, I did not mind that and saw it as a way of indicating that she is still a woman growing into maturity.

      I also thought the writing was quite good — my issues dealt more with plot confusion.

      And both of us have to consider how three different juries (and the New York Times) did manage to find it one of the best books of the year.

  3. Kevin MacLellan Says:

    I’m still trying to figure out how President Obama won a Nobel Peace prize just by showing up. As for the NYT, I am reminded of the scribe who, in reviewing William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic, admitted that he had not read JR –though ten years ealier he had reviewed that too!
    I suspect that politics has something to do with it. Whether it is ideology, political correctness or simple nepotism, there has to be a reason why a book with so many flaws wins so many hearts and minds. The poor writing tells me that it is not a good reason.

  4. Guy Savage Says:

    Hello Kevin: I looked at this title more than once. A reading friend really liked it, but there was something about it which put me off. Perhaps ultimately it sounded too gimmicky. You know how it is–sometimes you just can’t put your finger on why you think you might not like a novel..

  5. Lee Monks Says:

    As with The Goldfinch, I rather liked this. I’m probably a little susceptible to gimmicky prose, or, to be perhaps a little kinder, I’m always sympathetic to a writer trying something a little risky, which I think this is, certainly in terms of prose style. Perhaps Kushner won’t feel the need to force the issue stylistically as much with future efforts: be interesting to see what she comes up with.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      A lot of people did like it, so I think you are more in tune than I am. I do think there may be a bit of “age” at play here — I suspect that readers who are younger than I am are more comfortable with the jumpy elements that I found disturbing. And I certainly appreciated the prose — my concerns were more with structural elements that I did not think worked.

  6. Lee Monks Says:

    PS here’s yet another example of the UK cover being that much weaker than elsewhere: the cover heading the review here, which I’ve noticed before on Amazon, is markedly more appealing than the cover on my copy. Trifling stuff perhaps, but you wonder about what terrible covers do to the impressionable book reader, or indeed the more discerning one for whom a bad cover can chime with their reservations.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I did not like the North American cover much (too cluttered for my taste and I don’t like the bloodish color) but the UK one (at least from web images) is worse. At least the North American one carries a tabloid front page impression that relates to the book.

      And while I often have pro/con opinions on UK and NA covers, my impression is that it goes almost equally both ways. I don’t think it is trifling at all because the reaction does influence the attitude you take to the book.

  7. jacquiwine Says:

    Hi Kevin, great review. I read this book last year, and while I enjoyed the individual themes it focused on, I agree that it didn’t quite come together to form a coherent whole. I admired its ambition and scope, though. I have a copy of Telex from Cuba (which I keep meaning to get to), and it sounds as if you preferred that one.

    It’ll be interesting to see what she does next, definitely a writer to watch.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I did prefer Telex from Cuba and it has stayed with me. It too has some political elements to it — I just thought Kushner handled them more effectively in that novel. And she certainly developed her characters more fully.

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