Rachel Kushner writes beautifully. Time and again reading this novel you'll pause to admire a near-perfect sentence or to marvel at an innovative description or a simile that bursts with freshness. Consider for example this evocative passage: "It was the morning of the fourth of July and kids were lighting smoke bombs, sulfurous coils of red and green, the colors dense and bright like concentrated dye blooming through water." Wow. Hardly a page goes by which doesn't contain another such well polished gem. Unfortunately, extraordinary prose can only serve as a pillar for a novel, it can't be the entire foundation. Different readers rely on different aspects of a novel to carry the whole, but for me writing alone isn't enough. When it comes to "The Flamethrowers" other deficiencies of plot and character proved too weighty and subsumed the whole.
Other reviewers and the description have summarized the novel's premise, but here is my take: a beautiful young woman -- the narrator -- recently out of college with a penchant for motorcycles and dreams of becoming an artist moves to New York from out west. She is nicknamed Reno for the city of her birth and quickly falls into the New York art scene of the late 70s. As a plot, this contains all of the needed ingredients for a fine novel.
Yet "The Flamethrowers" depends on Reno captivating the reader. Time and again, she fails at this task for the simple reason that Reno spends so much time "observing" that she forgets, it seems, ever to make any genuine choices. Instead she drifts. She meets people and goes along with them, befriends this one and sleeps with that one, but she seems far more interested in giving us those surroundings than ever really engaging with the plot. The resulting novel often more drags than flows.
To be clear, her observations are often keen, but they feel as though they have less to do with the story and more to do with the author working towards a broader theme. The lives of the rich? Reno has penetrating insights on the irony that just as the wealthy once only ate the whitest white bread as a sign their bounty, now that everyone can eat it, they favor what they once would have considered peasant dark loaves. Likewise in art, Reno muses on the difference between those outside and those in, and how fluidly one can move over those lines. Yet these observations often feel like they are less authentically those of Reno groping to understand her strange new world, and more Kushner groping to offer deep insights.
Perhaps no where is this issue more acute than in the novel's portrayal of New York's SOHO neighborhood in transition. As with the plot, this novel's SOHO feels oppressively thin, more concept than living breathing cultural nexus. Contrast this, for example, with the same neighborhood offered in the same period in Irini Spanidou's "Before" where one gets a sense of the place's real vibrancy. Instead one gets the sense that the setting is offered more as a point of contrast to the modern world and a point of commentary, a movie lot set. In a way, Reno as a character suffers from a similar problem: she is more a collection of attributes than an a recognizable whole, more carefully constructed cypher than someone who leaps into the reader's mind.
On the power of her prose alone -- not to mention the strength of her wonderful debut "Telex From Cuba" -- I will eagerly await Kushner's next novel. "Telex" left my heart pounding with a story I couldn't put down. Unfortunately, with "The Flamethrowers" that same heart rarely even quickened as I trudged my way to the end.
The Flamethrowers was a challenging but ultimately rewarding read for me. Kushner's prose is beautiful; among the best I've read. But the main narrator (who I guess is called Reno, but I really only recall one character referring to her as that) is a bit of a blank slate. While it becomes clear why the author has made this choice later on, it made it tough for me to connect to her or the novel at various points.
The other issue I had with becoming fully invested in the work was that it at times feels like a collection of essays. I'm not talking about the occasional temporal shifts to the history of the Valera family/corporation. There are passages where one of the characters that "Reno" is observing will rant or wax about some topic or another. These are wonderfully written and contain smart points and clever turns of phrase, but sometimes left me scratching my head after a few pages. But, like the narrator's cryptic viewpoint, this does reveal itself to be thematically relevant later on.
Rachel Kushner has many valuable things that she says with this novel - about art, and gender, and identity...among other things. This review sounds a little more negative than I meant it to, but its purpose is to encourage readers to stick with a sometimes difficult read. I know that I'm glad that I did.
on January 18, 2014
The love interest of the protagonist in this 2013 novel is an artist, whose artistic creations are described in this way: "...large aluminum boxes, open on top, empty inside, so bright and gleaming their angles melted together....objects that shone like liquid silver." That description summarizes the impact of this novel, in my mind.
The writing is bright and gleaming and shines, with numerous striking descriptions and similes (although sometimes self consciously clever and strained) and a whole series of fascinating little set pieces. It is structured like a classic bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, yet, contrary to expectations, the young protagonist does not seem to mature or change despite all her unusual experiences. Throughout, she reacts rather than acts, letting others determine for her. She seems anonymous (her real name is never given) and empty inside, making the whole novel seem pointless and empty, although polished and well written (for the most part).
The plot goes something like this: the young lady protagonist heads to New York City in the '70s, following her graduation from college in Nevada, where she falls in with the progressive art crowd who are all hip and cool and smart talking. She takes a lover, who happens to be the disengaged son of an Italian industrialist who manufactures motorcycles; she races one of the cycles manufactured by her lover's family on the salt flats of Utah; she rather accidentally becomes the holder of the world land speed record in a race car; she journeys with her lover to Italy, where she meets his snotty family; she becomes accidentally involved in the radical movement in Italy; she returns to New York, where she seems to have learned nothing at all about herself or the world.
Author Kushner cleverly provides several motifs and symbols throughout, but in the end we are left with characters who show no change and elicit no sympathy and a narrative with interesting parts which lead nowhere. It's just....empty.
This novel was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and is considered a contender for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. Most reviews have been positive. So I am out of line with the crowd on this one. Take that into consideration.
You know, now that I think about it, maybe the pointlessness was the point. Is that possible?
on June 14, 2013
After reading Telex from Cuba, Kushner's previous book, and with all the media hype, I could not wait for this novel to appear in my mailbox. After an hour of reading. hoping the novel would catch fire (as its name implies, this flamethrower was stone cold. The promise of a a coming of age story writ large on the NY art world in the time of Andy Warhol held great promise, That the central character, Reno, loves speed and races a motorcycle at the Nevada Salt Flats offers another opportunity to heat up the story. Instead, the story, and its characters, never really take off, rather they fizzle out. the arc of the story is fragmented never truly coming together into a coherent piece of work. Reno is a young woman with no sense of herself, who looks for love in all the wrong places, and although imbedded in the eccentricity of the NY art world she does not appear to be influenced, in anyway, by her relationship to it. Early on she falls into bed with someone who remains nameless until she meets a wealthy older Italian artist, who becomes her lover, and, conveniently, is a friend of her one night stand. Her Italian lover is a narcissistic male who doesn't treat her right, and really, haven't we had enough of this kind of story? Perhaps the most frustrating is at the books end we leave Reno as we found her, unmoored in the process of becoming an adult. I slogged through to the end, and sold the book back to Amazon.
on February 27, 2014
"I was the girl on layaway. And it wasn't Ronnie who'd put me on layaway. It was something I had done to myself."
That quote, in a nutshell, is why I didn't like this book.
I don't at all believe characters need to be likable for me to enjoy a story. Often the more unsavory the character, the more exciting the book. And really the issue isn't even whether I "like" a character or not, but whether they fascinate me, even a little bit. It feels stupid putting it in this vague way but--a character has to be something. There has to be some glimmering reason why we're following a particular person's life, why we're engaging with their inner monologue.
I think with this one, Kushner sort of shot herself in the foot. Having decided to tell the story of a young woman who speaks very little, goes where people take her and does what people (ie men) want her to without objection, we are given a narrative where the narrator has effectively removed herself from her own story. There were pages and pages of dialogue between random characters saying senseless things they think sound intelligent, while our narrator, "Reno," sits by, inert and charmless, rarely part of the action, hardly ever making the slightest impact upon the people she encounters. If this happens often enough (it did) and the other characters are tedious enough (they were), then isn't anyone's natural response to demand, in a fit of bored frustration, why the hell should I care? The problem seems fundamental and maybe inescapable: a story about a self-described "layaway" will always be a secondary story, never the headliner.
It's fashioned as the primary story though. But then almost every other chapter focuses on the Valera family history, beginning during WWI and ending in present day. The Valeras are makers of motorcycles and tires--successful in business, but despised by their country folk for their historical ties to fascism and their perceived ill-gotten wealth. I know very little about late 20th century Italian history (it was apparently a time of heightened class tension, in case you didn't have a clue either), and Kushner drops us into that scene with little fanfare, making me wish for slightly more context earlier on. My transition from ignorance to understanding felt accidental.
So what, might you ask, does an Italian family have to do with Reno? Excellent question. I thought the separate stories didn't mesh well. The novel was choppy, unfocused, and seemed transparent in its attempt to combine two perspectives that don't really relate to each other. Temporarily focusing on one story felt like a cheap distraction from the other, a way of prematurely cutting things off before they could fully develop. But the stories are connected, however slipshod the editing may be, because Reno starts dating one of the heirs of the Valera dynasty. The heir that couldn't give a crap about the dynasty. So why should I?...I kept thinking indignantly, as I skimmed the section where Reno and Valera take a trip to Italy to visit the family he dislikes...
WHY INDEED. That's my other problem with The Flamethrowers: I don't know what the heck I should care about because the book doesn't know what it wants to be about. The NYC art scene? Motorcycles and land speed records? Skiing? Underground movements? The infamous Valera family? Italian politics? American politics? The wackjobs you meet in NYC? A guileness, incredibly boring girl, fresh out of art school, looking for someone to cling to? It's all in there, and it all suffers for getting less individual attention than it should. The author needed to pick and choose, starting with who this book is about. Because it was about Reno, but it felt like it really wanted to be about the Valeras. Not that the Valera's particularly compelling either. Like Reno, I got the sense that Kushner takes them all seriously, and what an awkward situation it is for the reader to realize these characters are ridiculous before the author ever does.
Of course like any book that sabotages itself, there were elements I liked, peeking out from under all the narrative rubble. In fact, I enjoyed the first 100 pages. Reno is on her own for most of them, and she seems passionate--a person with interests, talent, and a slight bit of ambition. She also seemed observant to me.
Then she takes up with the much older Sandro Valero (established artist, estranged Valera), and their relationship, ("passionate" and "loving," but actually manipulative) dominates her part of the story--a relationship that began with her and him in a movie theater, his hand up her skirt as they pretend to watch a movie. But like, he put a coat over her lady bits so, chivalrous yeah?
Really, Reno is one of the least clever heroines I've come across in a while. You don't expect her type to pop up in literary fiction unless satirically, but this wasn't satire. As I said, Kushner takes her characters seriously. And so I suffered through Reno's first person narration, knowing her "problem" well before she did.
on May 21, 2013
Some novels grab you by the throat. Others seduce you with their intelligence and artistry. Rachel Kushner's THE FLAMETHROWERS, her second novel, is decidedly in the latter category. An intricate examination of art, revolutionary politics and the risks some people are willing to take in life and love, it gains its considerable power through the accretion of closely-observed detail and Kushner's skill at translating that into alluring prose.
"The two things I loved were drawing and speed," says Reno, the protagonist and narrator of most of the novel. Her name, after her Nevada home town, is bestowed on her by a man she meets when she arrives, young, friendless and jobless, but with a passion to make art, in New York City in 1975. She's quickly caught up in the avant-garde art scene and becomes the lover of Sandro Valera, a minimalist sculptor who creates "large aluminum boxes, open on top, empty inside, so bright and gleaming their angles melted together." Sandro, 14 years her senior, a man who recognizes that "vital life was change and swiftness, which only revealed itself through violent convulsions" seems well-matched to Reno.
Kushner takes some time knitting together the threads of her plot, whose circuitous course and sometime languid pace require an attentive reading. In addition to her passion for art, Reno is a motorcycle racer, and the early chapters of the story find her at the Bonneville Salt Flats, trying to break a land speed record in a vehicle manufactured by the Italian tire company owned by Sandro's family. She has also come to the site to photograph the tracks of her motorcycle as a piece of conceptual art. The balance of the novel plays out in the territory between these two pursuits, as we learn more of the controversial story of the influential Valera family and Reno's uncomfortable relationship to it.
By the mid-1970s, when the novel's main action occurs, the antiwar turmoil of America largely has subsided, but the New York Kushner depicts so vividly is a place teeming with a sense of danger, teetering on the edge of the apocalypse. It's a city that largely would be unrecognizable to anyone living there today. These are the days before the cleanup of Times Square, when that scene still was blighted by peep shows, prostitutes and drug addicts. Reno is there at the moment the July 1977 blackout hits the city. In flat, chilling prose ("Robbed a Chemical Bank on Delancey Street; firebombed a retailer of Thom McCan Shoes"), Kushner also catalogs the activities of the real life anarchist group, the Motherf***ers, acts of urban terrorism that would be seen in a vastly different light after 9/11. Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg appear, at least obliquely, through their connections to some of the novel's characters, and Kushner's picture of the times is so realistic one almost expects Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe to join the action.
For a novel that begins with a killing on a World War I battlefield and ends 60 years later with Reno alone in snowy Chamonix, France, Kushner displays an impressive command of her story's diverse settings and subjects. She excels at extended set pieces, like her account of a left-wing political demonstration that turns violent in Rome or the smart, but often hostile, banter of artists and artistic hangers-on at a SoHo dinner party. Whether she's describing the harvesting of rubber in a Brazilian jungle or the peculiar mixture of boredom and terror that surrounds the effort to break land speed records in the bleak Utah landscape, Kushner fully inhabits these venues without ever striking a false note.
She is equally skilled at portraying her characters' inner lives, as she shows Reno waiting to race across the stark desert: "I'd spent half a day among those waiting on death and now I was in line for the long course and hoping I was not the sacrifice." And her snapshots of those characters in action possess a similar bite, as in this glimpse of racer Didi Bombonato: "He flicked his hands into open tens, shut fists, open tens. He jumped up and down in a controlled dribble like a prizefighter." Gems like these sparkle on every page and sustain the pleasure of Kushner's work even when the story's momentum occasionally flags.
Embracing the worlds of motorcycle racing, art and radical politics, THE FLAMETHROWERS sweeps us into the swirl of life amid a memorable group of characters to reveal what it's like to live on the edge or aspire to do so. "Life," one of these characters says, "was the one thing to treat as art." As Kushner does that, there are echoes of both Don DeLillo and Joan Didion, whose concerns and sensibility she seems fully capable of carrying into the next generation of American fiction. This is an audacious novel, one that showcases a brave and talented writer at the top of her game.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
on January 22, 2014
I suspect that many people did or will pick up this book for the same reason that I did: because it topped so many respectable “best of” lists in 2013. Did “The Flamethrowers” deserve the accolades? Well, I have mixed views about that.
As reviewer Lauren Groff succinctly puts it, “The Flamethrowers” is “a love story, about a young artist under the sway of an older, established artist, scion of a motorcycle family, who betrays her, and she joins up with an underground group in Italy.” That really sums it up. Does that little plot summary grab you? It didn’t immediately grab me either, but I thought: let’s find out what all of the fuss is about.
I suppose I could best describe this book as “literary.” And whenever I hear that from other reviewers, I often translate it to mean “don’t expect easily recognized plot structure” or “brace yourself for a rambling expanse of words that may or may not add up to anything.” I’m happy to report that Flamethrowers does have a plot and it’s fairly clear. it just doesn’t add up to a whole lot.
Rachel Kushner is a wizardess of words, she really is. Her writing style is lovely and sweet to savor in the way that well prepared food is; it feels nourishing to the brain and the imagination. It’s just enjoyable to devour. However--and here’s the big “but”--I simply feel that she needed a better storyline to hang her efforts on. As the saying goes, “there’s not a lot of there there.” For me, it was one of those books that makes you say “that’s it?”.
on February 8, 2014
Although it made many Top 10 lists, I found it meandering, boring and pointless. The main character never comes to life, as she simply drifts through the scenes. some of the writing is very good, other parts pretentious and self-absorbed.
on January 9, 2014
I picked up The Flamethrowers after seeing it named one of the NY Times 10 Best Books of 2013. How can you not pick it up after that sort of recognition. Ironically, I have Telex From Cuba on my "to read" pile in my apartment as well but haven't gotten around to it. I enjoyed The Flamethrowers--her writing is beautiful. It is jarring in places. Sensual in others. But the book itself was slow going and I can't say I enjoyed the storyline itself. The central figure in the story is Reno--a young woman named after the city she was born in. She migrates to New York and falls in with a artsy crowd who sleep around, have different perspectives on life, and who generally live in the fast lane. This is great for Reno at first because as a motorcycle speedy rider she loves speed and danger. The story centers around Reno's dalliance and relationship with the Valera family. We go back in time to see how they manufactured motorcycles, served in the army, and made tons of money in rubber and tires while beating back insurgencies from Indian workers. Remo eventually befriends Sandro Valera who is much older and eventually breaks her heart leading Reno to hit the road again in NY to take up with an insurgent crowd. I didn't love this book. I found it very hard to follow and despite the beautiful language and writing, the story didn't do anything for me at all. I can't recommend it highly although I am sure tons of people will keep reading it.
on December 22, 2013
I'm not sure how it is even possible, but this beautifully written book was 100% lacking in the ability to draw me into a relationship with it or the characters or the story. I've read many of the positive reviews and don't see one that describes a relationship to story or characters. In fact, quite a few if the reviews describe the effort it took to finish the book. At 400 pages it's not that long however without a compelling connection with the content, it's about 399 pages too long. Many reviews account for the excellent writing and I agree on that score, however perfect ingredients do not make a soufflé rise. I advise you to ignore the hype and move on.