The year is 1975 and Reno--so-called because of the place of her birth--has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world--artists have colonized a deserted and industrial SoHo, are staging actions in the East Village, and are blurring the line between life and art. Reno meets a group of dreamers and raconteurs who submit her to a sentimental education of sorts. Ardent, vulnerable, and bold, she begins an affair with an artist named Sandro Valera, the semi-estranged scion of an Italian tire and motorcycle empire. When they visit Sandro's family home in Italy, Reno falls in with members of the radical movement that overtook Italy in the seventies. Betrayal sends her reeling into a clandestine undertow. - from cover p. 
I'm surprised more of my reading crew hasn't read this—I enjoyed it a lot, even though I didn't buy the monologues for a minute and it fell a bit flat toward the end and lost focus (which it didn't have a ton of to begin with). But this was a really fun ride, and its skewering of the NYC art scene of a Certain Time was right on and very funny. And a lot of the writing was just fabulous, very evocative and unclichéd.
One thing that was notable was the very strong feeling of detachment for such elaborately careful writing... a wrong-end-of-the-telescope sense of looking at the world. Not in a bad way, either, but interestingly arm's-length. Maybe it's the subject matter, I dunno. The book had a real swaggering bravado to it but I never felt all that invested. And at the same time I didn't mind, which speaks well, I think, to the general quality.
The Flamethrowers is a compelling story, written with confidence, but does not sit well in the historical context it has chosen to portray. It attempts to evoke the downtown New York art scene of the 70’s, the Futurists of Italy, before and during World War One and labor and student unrest in Italy, also during the 70’s. Only the scenes set in Rome ring true. The art world of 1970 New York is particularly shallow...even more than it really was! Actual art and events are lifted and given to her novel’s characters. There is no attempt to pass these characters as the real artists so grafting real events onto their stories does not ring true. Allen Ginsburg and Robert Smithson seem to be excessively maligned in the book.
Our hero, Reno, named after her Nevada home, comes to New York City in the bleak early years of the 70’s to make it in the art world. She makes some connections, goes to some parties, rides a Valera motorcycle (the family plays a large role in the book) and, basically, not much happens.
The book alters chapters of Reno in New York, with Valera in Italy at the outbreak of the First World War. Art serving the fascist state underlies this part of the story along with the making of the motorcycle company that will come to play a large role in Reno’s life 60 years later. Kushner writes strongest when she writes about actual events. The scenes set in the rubber plantations of Brazil are particularly compelling.
Since FT is meant to be great, I'm judging it next to later Dostoevsky, which is ridiculous, but also the only way to take the book as seriously as it wants to be taken.
So consider the atrocious banality that Kushner stoops to time after time (perhaps to perform the banality of the philosophy of time embedded in the novel): "time had stretched like taffy, the night a place we would tumble into and through together, a kind of gymnasium, a space of generous borders." "This was a different Italy from what I had experienced during my two semesters in Florence" (a phrase, or one like it, repeated ad nauseum, lest we forget the oft-stated fact that the narrator spent two semesters in Florence). "There is the woods, his cashmere scarf wrapped around my neck for extra warmth, I felt like everything was going to be okay" (just one of many passages that seem to have migrated from the 50 Shades of Grey side of the border). "I never would have guessed that nay of the bad news would have an impact on me" (migrated from undergraduate writing seminar; this kind of foreshadowing returns again and again, as in Helen DeWitt's 'Lightning Rods,' except in LR *it's satirical*, unlike this rubbish: "I wouldn't have guessed that his silence would be so effective. It grafted me in. To a way of proceeding. Of not knowing where we were going except someplace in Rome, not knowing where I would stay or what I would do").
That last sentence brings me to the lauded prose, dazzling, sexy, glorious, urgent, etc etc... It's just possible that I'm showing a real bias against American-style prose, which makes a mockery of my constant protestations that there's little difference between U.S. lit and other forms of it. But take the first paragraph of chapter four, of whose ten sentences all but one start "I [verb]", and the one that doesn't is one of those fake 'look at how literary this book is, following speech patterns and stuff' sentences ("...a way to make an impression on him. *Then I'll call.* I knew no one else..."). Now, there's a point to all this I'ing; it shows the narrator's loneliness. But much of the book is written in the same way, only with a different pronoun at the start of the sentences, or, at best, a concrete noun of some description. As the novel develops the writing improves, primarily because there's more dialogue and so fewer of these awful, sub-Hemingway sentences, as well as less reportage from the immensely boring and yet also implausible Reno. Which leads me to...
Verisimilitude, there is none (unlike unnecessary inverted word order)--Reno, just an aw-shucks girl from Nevada, does the following things in 2 years: moves to New York, sleeps with a famous artist despite not knowing his name; makes friends with a woman pretending to be a waitress who is really an artist living as a waitress for the sake of art (Sartre alert); gets picked up by a different famous artist who is friends with the first one and ends up living with him; sets the land-speed record for women; falls in with a group of Italian Autonomists; accidentally seduces their heroic leader; fails to help him escape across the border to France (not her fault); has the stunning intellectual insight that she needs to find an "open absence" and "move on to the next question." Which would be impressive if she had the looks of [insert your favorite movie star here], the intelligence of Hannah Arendt, the charisma of Ayn Rand, and the talents of both Virginia Woolf and Ai Miyazato. Unfortunately it is merely incredible. She really is just an aw-shucks girl from Nevada, with no discernible talents (though she can work a camera and motorbike), personality or attractions. Even that would be fine if
i) the sections of the book that focus on her were written in the third person, but they're in the first person, and there's very little indication that the implied author finds his/her narrator to be implausible or ridiculous in any way.
ii) she weren't set up as some kind of Greek Goddess who can, as I said, go at 300 miles an hour, slip easily between radically different groups of people, and effortlessly conquer the penises of men. All men.
Interlude: Alison Bechdel suggests that one way to judge books is to see whether female characters have conversations that are about something other than boys. This is the 'Bechdel Test', and it's both funny and smart. There needs to be another test, which I hereby name the 'Evans Test.' Here, you judge a book according to whether the main character can have a relationship with a man or woman (depending on which genitals they like the shape of) that is not sexual or romantic. Reno fails, despite the fact that she never actually hits on anyone. And speaking of the Bechdel test, the female characters are all either Reno, bitches or skanks, and if Kushner's first name was Robert, he'd be rightly consigned to hell by angry women readers. I'm not sure that Kushner herself will escape it.
Then there's the cliched intellectual sentiments--that the poor Italian proles are welcoming and genuinely live out their political beliefs (by giving Reno food, for instance; the value of ideas and politics in this book often boils down to whether they turn their holders into the kind of person who gives *HOT* young women whatever they want) whereas the New York artists are too cold and detached. Yes, the poor are wonderful, whereas the rich are unbearable. That is precisely the effect of poverty on people: it opens their hearts, makes them generous, inclines them to accept outsiders.
The book's 'X' motif is tiresome, beginning with the description of a photo in which a gun barrel is "one long half of the letter X", in other words, there is no X there at all, it's just a diagonal. Other examples: Reno and Sandro's first date is him fingering her and then him saving a drowning man, and these two events "crossed to form an X, and the X pinned us together"; Reno skis an X into a frozen pond and photographs it; a man encourages characters to watch a porn movie that's "Trippel X". Just in case you didn't notice, it's, like, sex and violence and art and stuff? And, like, growing up and coming to a crossroads about this stuff? And making your mark, like, knowing your place in the world and stuff?
Now, reboot, because there are some truly fantastic, wonderful things about this book. Kushner takes on the difficult task of writing a serious book about camp people. The clash between the 'authenticity' of futurism/bikes/speed/revolution and the fakeness of artfulness/art/irony is well drawn and not simplified--there are good characters who are sincere (Gianni), and good characters who are ironic (Ronnie). A couple of examples of this opposition playing itself out: Sandro chooses love, suggesting that he isn't really living it, whereas Reno doesn't experience "love as a choice," and requires "sincerity" from her friends/lovers. Sandro plays with guns and treats them like art, whereas the Autonomists use them as tools to defend themselves from fascists. You get the point. This is a serious, timely issue, that Kushner treats with great sensitivity and great intelligence.
There are terrific minor characters, too, particularly Chesil Jones, notable American novelist, who is pretty much embodied Mansplaining, and utterly hilarious. The aforementioned Ronnie, who tells endless nonsense tales about himself in order to tell us the truth rather than to hide it, is wonderful and very moving.
And so I came to the end of the book. Stream of consciousness. Verbless sentences, and pompous. Words posing as thought. Individuality? None. Rhythm? Negatively absent. How much longer? Time-lines of one man stand only so much. Revelation! Sad post-coital emptiness.
I will read everything that Kushner publishes from here out, in the desperate hope that she develops into the real thing; I would have felt the same way after reading, say, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist in 1916, another ridiculously self-important Bildungsroman, the ending of which ("When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets") I've come to read ironically just to save myself the pain of rolling my eyes too hard, although when younger I found it a call to arms. So I choose to read all that silliness about open absences and blah blah blah as Kushner showing us that Reno hasn't changed at all, and is still just a twit, whereas she, Kushner, has great things ahead of her.
Addendum: I just read a review in which Kushner described one of the aims of the book--to have her narrator perceived by the men and even women in the story as nothing other than a pretty little piece of tail, but have the reader see her depths more clearly. That's a pretty great idea, and does make me think better of what she was trying to do. On the other hand, I wonder if the task is just impossible: Reno's 'flat' outer life just isn't distinguishable, I think, from what Kushner intends to be her full inner life. Great idea, possibly impossible to execute well.
The novel simultaneously describes the lives of a young woman in 1977 and the man decades before who built the motorcycle she now rides about on as the roams through the avant garde art world of the day.
On the positive side, this book is a wonderfully written and carefully crafted piece of literature. The author has gone to great pains to weave together some really exceptional sentences. The march of words is precise and impressive...
... and unfortunately, seemingly endless. Kushner is a great writer but her story plods on laboriously and tediously for 400 pages without really accomplishing much.
In summary, I will simply end here because sometimes brevity is the true and right path to making a point. Wonderful writing but perhaps better broken into three or four books. A frightful and despairing trudge of a novel.
Reno meets up with some minimalist artists. She has a relationship with one Sandro Valera, who is from Italy and whose family owns a motorcycle and tire factory. She goes to Italy and ends up among the Red Brigades before returning to New York alone. Her two years as told in this novel are not pretty. This is the make believe world of up and coming art. The galleries are the ones in Chelsea. This is new, experimental art. Experience matters more than talent and sex trumps everything.
Reno experiences many thrills in this novel. She races and meets all sorts of characters, but there is no love. I am sure that this was Rachel Kushner intention. She wants the reader to experience all the newness and uncertainty that Reno does and so emotions are left out of many human equations in this novel.
The book itself is much like the main character. It veers from place to place, but never goes anywhere.
Shifting between Utah, Italy and New York during the 1970s, Kushner establishes a strong sense of place due to her detailed and poetic descriptions of local flavors, fragrances and images. She peppers the story with pop culture references and bohemian product placements from the era. At times, her nostalgic shorthand is a bit too perfect and becomes problematic when her fictitious SoHo radicals meet-up with real celebrities. One can only wince at her caricatures of Iggy Pop and Allen Ginsberg.
As the story unravels, characters become rather ordinary and the latent heaviness which shrouds the novel begins to get tiresome.
Near the conclusion, New York rioters blow their neighborhood to smithereens as The Red Brigades wave their brightly colored flags through the streets of Italy. Revolt and disillusionment are one of the many themes of the book. As the cities burn, the protagonist continues to be sidetracked by various charming intellectuals and their geopolitical gestures -- life lessons, however, are never learned, connections are never made, and, finally, her story fizzles out.
I've enjoyed reading stories of revolutionaries that trace their path to action. This has often been neighborhood, family, economic paths to realization of inequity in the reigning political system. This story might instead be called The Accidental Revolutionary. The story takes place at the great salt flats in Utah where a land speed record is set by a woman, accidentally. Her boyfriend where she lives in New York City, is Italian, an heir to an Italian motorcycle dynasty (interesting concept). They are part of the community of artists in NYC. When she travels to Italy with him, she ends up taking part in a labor revolutionary action, also accidentally. There is certainly a Great Gatsby side of the story. Mostly, for me, I just enjoyed spending time with these characters in these different settings and learning a little about their worlds. I wasn't very taken with the characters, but I did enjoy the book and will definitely go back and read Kushner's previous book, [[Telex from Cuba]].
We attend a dinner party with the Have Nots who give you their view on what's wrong with the world and why socialism is good for all. Later we see the other angle as Reno stays with the Haves who look down on most and believe they are right from taking from the less privileged and treating them as a step up from a wild animal. It's an interesting contrast and leaves you disliking both sides.
Although the plot is a good premise for a book it is a bit painful to read. Kushner writes very well, but takes a long time to get there. The dinner party with the lower class goes on forever to make her points. The time at the villa with the upper crust was a little better written as it covered more time and more events to get to her point, but still even that dragged a bit.
Good story plot just tries your patience a bit.
Overall, the book is not cohesive and the characters are not fully developed. Individual episodes are well-written and interesting, but when placed together they didn't do anything for the unity of the book. Also, many of the characters lacked substance and seemed like one-sided, stock characters.
I enjoyed the Bonneville Flats, Valera factory and riot episodes, but the entire novel fell flat. Maybe is should have been a series of related short stories....
Great look at New York in 1970s