Art, Revolution, and Echoes of the Present: A Review of Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers”

kushner-flamethrowersThe Flamethrowers
by Rachel Kushner
Scribner; 383 p.

Above an open walkway at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art stands a 340-ton boulder, hovering over the shadowed heads of visitors. It was installed about a year ago by artist Michael Heizer. On a budget of $10 million, the boulder was carried through the Stone Valley Quarry, transported across empty highways — too heavy for the overpasses, too slow for daytime traffic — and hulled through the streets of downtown Los Angeles to a crowd of one thousand onlookers. The vertigo of walking beneath that levitating mass isn’t unlike the experience of reading Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers. Its title seems to be a way to describe nearly everything about this book: the New York art scene of the seventies, the workers revolution in Italy, the book’s quiet narrator who for one year holds the motorcycle record of The Fastest Woman Alive. Even the very cover of the book — a blond woman with war paint on her cheeks and an X taped across her mouth — implicitly tells you, This is not a small novel. And after finishing its 383 pages, I can tell you one thing: The Flamethrowers is not a small novel.

The book is, in a strange way, a love story about a revolution. Reno, the novel’s narrator, moves from Nevada to New York to become an artist in the tradition of land artists like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson. She arrives in the industrial Manhattan of the late seventies, the end of a certain romantic era that belonged to biker gangs and Factory Girls. There, Reno falls into a group of artists who swap galleries as often as they swap lovers.

Much of Reno’s narrative centers on the artist Sandro Valera and his wealthy Italian family. Shortly after they become lovers, she discovers that he is heir to the million -dollar manufacturing company that created the Moto Valera, the motorbike Reno later uses to compete in the land-speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Across the Atlantic, a workers’ revolution rises in Italy against the Valera factories, which Sandro prefers to ignore from New York. His response is manifested in his art: a steel cube in the center of the room, dubbed “minimal” because it’s severed from any reference to the world at large. It isn’t until both Sandro and Reno visit the Valera residence in Italy that they see the riots that erupt at the gates of the Valera factories. The point at which Sandro and Reno are forced to confront the bloody consequences to extreme wealth is the point where their relationship begins to fall apart.

The kind of minimal art that Sandro invests in seems to be exactly what The Flamethrowers is not. As with her debut novel Telex from Cuba, Kushner is devoted to writing political novels. Though The Flamethrowers takes place in the 1970s, it’s acutely aware of the political crises of our contemporary world. Halfway through the writing of this novel, the freak year of 2011 happened. She states in an essay that appeared earlier this year in The Paris Review, “By the time I needed to describe the effects of tear gas for a novel about the 1970s, all I had to do was watch live feeds from Oakland, California.” In this way, Kushner’s novel doesn’t feel like a period piece. It reads as if she were writing about the present moment.

But to call her novel political is not to say that it is dry. The Flamethrowers has frequently been described as a sexy novel, which is undoubtedly due to Kushner’s command of voice and aesthetic. She’s a writer deeply familiar with the currents of the subconscious state—the corners of the mind from which sex and violence are born. Here, revolution is as sexual as it is political. Kushner renders the art world as slightly satirized without robbing it of its provocations. She writes about a performance piece in which the artist, a woman, stands naked in a box with a window and curtain placed at the height of her waist, as a visitor reaches in:

He put his hand in the window, and barely realizing what he was doing, lost in an interior reverie about the construction “to finger,” and how interesting it was that it was gendered, and not reversible, that to finger a man was to pin something on him, a crime, and to finger a woman was to bring her off, and that he was just moving his finger in a kind of unconscious way, back and forth, back and forth…

Her prose here satirizes just how extreme and ridiculous the pioneering years of American performance art were. Yet there is still a connection that is deeply felt and deeply humane. It’s a nocturnal sensibility, as much of the novel takes place after hours, during midnight dinner parties, shadowed riots in the Lower East Side, under the neon lights of 42nd Street. Through Reno’s voice, the effect is as scathing as it is accepting—like stepping into scalding hot water. It offers the unique credibility of a woman who knows what it’s like to fall out of love. It’s intoxicating.

Though Kushner’s prose excels in poetic vitality, it lacks in character development. Considering how much of the novel’s space Sandro occupies, he is disappointingly one-dimensional for the first half of the book. He doesn’t come to life until he and Reno visit his family’s opulent Italian villa, where Kushner’s unsparing prose reads like a chapter out of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. The weakest part of the novel is a thirty-page stretch when Reno and Sandro first fall in love, which makes me wonder if writing about the buildup of a relationship just isn’t as fun as writing about its demise.

And the book is well-versed with demise. One of the sections in which Kushner’s prose soars is an episode during the blackout of 1977, when a shadowed Lower Manhattan erupts in burning buildings and overturned cars. It ends as four security guards are burned to death in a chemical bank, set ablaze by an arsonist, rendered in a harrowing prose that is hard to shake off after you put the book down.

Kushner states in The Paris Review, “An appeal to images is a demand for love.” Fundamentally, The Flamethrowers is a whirlpool of images and sensory provocations, and very well exists as a demand for love. It steeps itself in a tradition of French realism, while fitting into the American narrative of the outsider who sees the world from within and without. The Flamethrowers leaves a powerful impression on our times, and will be read for many years to come.

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