113 of 128 people found the following review helpful
Beautifully written, albeit often slow,
This review is from: The Flamethrowers: A Novel (Hardcover)
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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.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 28, 2013 6:38:45 AM PST
I agree. Reno = a cypher. I can't understand the fuss. Kushner writes well in many places, and remarkably poorly in others. The plot is silly, and the ending with the attempted "escape" over the Alps, not well thought through.
Posted on May 14, 2014 7:39:18 AM PDT
Lewis A. Friedland says:
Was going to write a separate review but this one captures my sense of the novel perfectly. Kushner is a talented writer who has less to say than meets the eye and spends a lot of time and space saying it.
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 20, 2014 11:50:05 AM PDT
In reply to an earlier post on May 14, 2015 6:59:49 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 14, 2015 7:05:40 PM PDT
Lazlo Shorts says:
I totally disagree. There wasn't a moment in which my interest flagged. One of the problems with Amazon reviewers is that many seem to think that when they review a book, they're stating some objective truth. But it's just an opinion -- everyone has one -- and that should invite some perspective. I didn't find the plot 'silly." Nor did I find any of the writing "remarkably poor." Further, I found that I was continually re-reading passages for the beauty of their expression. Far from being a cypher to me, Reno was vividly drawn. As far as Soho goes, having been in NY during that time (and after), I found Kushner's account authentic. Oh, and by the way, Reno is not attempting to "escape" over the Alps.
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