The Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner (Scribner: 2013, 400 pages).
Freeway overpass, Spiral Jetty, you get the idea...
There's a sweet little riff in the second chapter of Rachel Kushner's new novel The Flamethrowers, when the book is still zipping ahead with energy in which Kushner writes of former First Lady Pat Nixon, "Hair dyed the color of whiskey and whipped into an unmoving wave… she was a ratted beauty-parlor tough... from Nevada, like me." This is supposed to be the voice of Reno, the young, Nevada-born aspiring artist at the heart of the novel and as of Chapter 2 I was still reading it that way, but by the end of the novel I stopped believing in that voice, despite how much I admired it.
In list form, The Flamethrowers is about: The 1970s Land Art movement; The meanings of speed vs. stasis; The New York City art scene; Motorcycles; Italian fascism; European student movements; China girls; Female sexuality; Minimalism; Futurism; Global capitalism; Corruption; The Bonneville Salt Flats and the World Land Speed Record. The writing is gorgeous. I could hardly wait to start.
Reno is a young woman on a mission to transcend her station, to get out of the doomed blue-collar world of dirtbikes and cheap beer in which she grew up and create a niche for herself in the art world of 1970s New York. If she can make it there, she can make it anywhere. Strangely, although she does sort of make it there - if you can count going to all the cool parties and sleeping with all the cool artists "making it," which you probably can - she fades as a character once she arrives. She a passive – frustratingly passive – protagonist. Which brings us to Maria Wyeth.
Maria Wyeth is the deader-than-deadpan, self-abnegating antiheroine of Joan Didion's 1970 novel Play It As It Lays and Maria haunts The Flamethrowers like Reno’s more sophisticated twin. Like Reno, Maria Wyeth is a native of Nevada who claws her way to New York City where she is valued for her beauty and carelessly used by abusive men. Both of these characters define themselves by their passivity, their “resigned tranquility,” as Didion puts it. Both women find momentary agency through driving, Reno on a motorcycle and Wyeth in a car through a maze of Los Angeles freeways, and on and on. Lots of similarities. Yet somehow Didion makes Maria Wyeth’s dispassion the subject of the novel; more than a coping mechanism, it’s a rational response to the craziness of the world around her. In Play It As It Lays, the events of the novel are a backdrop to real subject: Maria and her mood. In The Flamethrowers Reno becomes the backdrop.
Reno functions less as a character and more as a stand-in for the author, a partial observer who keeps all her observations – brilliant as they often are – hidden in an internal monologue. It’s a cliché to ask why a reader should care for a character but in this case one wonders: Why do the other characters care for her? “Hmm. Let’s see,” says Reno’s friend Giddle: “You’re young.” Reno is young, beautiful and compliant. That’s why they like her. It gets tiresome. Writing about housewives in the 1950s, Kushner observes: "The woman senses that time is more purely hers if she squanders it and keeps it empty, holds it, feels it pass by, and resists filling it with anything that might put some too-useful dent in its open, airy emptiness." And that’s the problem. Reno doesn’t have to be a hero but after watching her merely float past the action of most of the novel I stopped believing she was capable of the observations Kushner was writing on her behalf.
There’s no question Kushner is a talented observer of people and their peccadilloes, a writer who in less than ten pages can set young Reno up in a romance with a motel maintenance man named Stretch - Stretch! - and make you not only believe it but want to see the Rachel Kushner-directed version of the short film based on the interlude. That film doesn't exist, but if it did I would watch it.
"On occasion I let my thoughts fall into that airy space between me and whatever Stretch's idea of me was," Kushner writes. I know the feeling: ever since finishing The Flamethrowers I've let my thoughts fall into that airy space between the novel and whatever I hoped it might be. The Flamethrowers is worth reading for its gorgeous language and fascinating ideas. But like that hot guy on the motorcycle who becomes the world’s worst boyfriend, it might also break your heart.