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The Flamethrowers Paperback – January 14, 2014
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Guest Review of Flamethrowers
By Lauren Groff
Every so often, you’ll come across a book that burns so hot and bright it’ll sear a shadow on your vision. For a while afterwards, everything you look at will have the book’s imprint on it; your world will be colored in the book’s tones, and you will glimpse the book’s characters on the street and feel your heart knocking in your chest for a few blocks, as if you’d escaped a close call.
This is how I felt after I read Rachel Kushner’s brilliant The Flamethrowers. The night I finished it, I dreamt of racing motorcycles across sun-shot salt-flats and of floating in glimmering Italian swimming pools. In the morning, I tried to describe the book to a friend but I eventually faltered into silence.
This is a beautiful book, I finally said, a book full of truth, a book about art and motorcycle racing and radicalism, about innocence and speed and stepping up to a dangerous brink, a book very deeply about the late seventies in New York City and its powerful blend of grittiness and philosophical purity.
Oh, said my friend. So. What is it about?
I tried again. I said: It’s 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. It feels like a contemporary European novel, philosophical and intelligent, with an American heart and narrative drive, I said.
Oh, said my friend.
Just read the book, I said and my friend did, and loved it to speechlessness, as well. Wow, is all he could say when he returned the book to me.
I don’t blame him. The truth is, this is a strange and mysterious novel, a subtle novel. Much of its power comes from the precision of Kushner’s language and how carefully she allows the flashes of perception to drive the narrative forward. See Reno, the offbeat narrator, describing ski racing to her lover, Sandro, saying, “Ski racing was drawing in time.” Suddenly you can see what she means, a body’s crisp slaloming down the white slope, the way the skier draws a perfect serpent down the clock.
Or see Reno, racing her motorcycle: “Far ahead of me, the salt flats and mountains conspired into one puddled vortex. I began to feel the size of this place. Or perhaps I did not feel it, but the cycle, whose tires marked its size with each turn, did. I felt a tenderness for them, speeding along under me.” There is something deeply eerie happening under the words, something on the verge of tipping over and spilling out; and, at the same time, a gentleness and innocence at the core of all that noise and speed.
Rachel Kushner is an unbelievably exciting writer, a writer of urgent and beautiful sentences and novels that are vast in their ambition and achievement. I finished it months ago, but The Flamethrowers—startling, radiant—still haunts me.
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
An interesting overview of a slice of Italian political turmoil mixed in with a slice US life.Published 3 days ago by Rick Ussher
I loved Kushner's 1st book but was disappointed with this novel. Too much stream of conscience and wandering thoughts of too many characters I didn't like. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Bsp418
I stuck with Flamethrowers to the end, convinced that at some point the book would reveal itself to be something more than what it appears to be--namely, a bunch of people... Read morePublished 2 months ago by S. Porter
This is such a smart novel, and the epilogue afterwards clarifies what was the author's intent. She accomplishes her goals brilliantly, describing the themes like a college... Read morePublished 2 months ago by D. Busch
Not for everyone, but I loved it. I love to ride fast too, and so am not bored by long the descriptions of moving at high speed. Read morePublished 5 months ago by loves2read
Fell in love with the storyline, and then with the writing and then back again with the storyline. Great introduction book to a great author.Published 5 months ago by Marc Teatum