Nevada Girls: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: A Novel


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.


The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore

BOOK REVIEW: Jill Lepore, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. Knopf, 304 pp, $27.95. (orig. published in The Boston Globe, June 3, 2012)

“The shape of life was changing” in nineteenth century America,” writes Jill Lepore in her new book, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. “Life used to begin where it ended; it ended where it began.” But with the coming of the industrial revolution, “all those circles were turning into lines. The sun still set at the end of every day, but now you could turn on the lights and the day would never end. The very idea of history came to a kind of close.” [xxiv-xxv]. Lepore begins with the history of the board game we now know simply as Life. It’s a clever meta-metaphor, analyzing a game about life to find what it reveals about the lives of those who played (and created) it. Reading the book is much like the game, too: each chapter offers a new twist in the zigzagging path of American thinking about birth, life, and death.

The Introduction to the book begins with Milton Bradley (1836-1911), the eponymous game maker whose greatest success was the 1860 Checkered Game of Life. Bradley’s game was based on an English parlor game called The Mansion of Happiness, which was itself based on an ancient Asian tradition of games such as the Nepalese “game of karma,” familiar to Americans as Chutes and Ladders. One spin sends you up; the next all the way back down. [xvii]. As Lepore notes, these older games taught a clear lesson. Fate was whimsical and the line between good luck and bad luck was very thin. Most importantly: it was fate/luck that mattered most in life, not talent, hard work, or good intentions. Milton Bradley’s 1860 version was distinctly American: there is no death in the Checkered Game of Life and although fate (in the form of a spinner) plays a part, it is also possible to strategize one’s way to success. Milton Bradley “turned a game of knowledge into the path to prosperity,” Lepore writes. “Nothing is in God’s hands. It’s best to have a plan.” [xxvii]

It’s fascinating stuff, but Lepore, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor of American History at Harvard who has written about the intellectual and political history of colonial and nineteenth-century America, isn’t really interested in board games. Instead, she wants to know what Bradley’s game can tell us about American values and aspirations. As in the game of Life, each chapter takes the reader a little further along the path of human development. Chapter One focuses on conception, Two on breastfeeding, Three on childhood, and so on, all the way to death… and even beyond. Like any good American game player, Lepore has a strategy for tackling these gargantuan topics: she goes deep and narrow, focusing her gaze on just a few key thinkers and actors in every chapter. The marriage chapter examines the life and work of Paul Popenoe, famous for posing the eternal question, “Can this marriage be saved?” The oddly contentious story behind E.B. White’s story, Stuart Little, makes up the chapter on childhood, and Lepore dismantles the myth of Taylorized efficiency in “Happiness Minutes,” the chapter on working. Her patchwork approach brings to mind a very American phrase, E Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one. Like the country itself, no one figure can tell the whole story. Of course, just like Life (and just like life), some stories succeed better than others

In the Introduction Lepore contrasts the can-do spirit of Bradley’s game with the harrowing history of the Bradley family in America, beginning with Daniel Bradley’s arrival in Massachusetts in 1635. The traumas endured by just one of Milton Bradley’s ancestors can stand in for the rest: Hannah Bradley, daughter-in-law of Daniel, was kidnapped in 1697 and held by Indians for two years until her husband tracked her down. Five years later she was kidnapped again while pregnant, forced to march through the woods for weeks. When she gave birth in the woods her newborn baby was murdered by her captors. She survived this trauma and was eventually rescued again by her husband. Several years later she was once more confronted by an Indian at her home, and this time she managed to shoot him. [xviii-xix] Hannah Bradley’s life inspired a Cotton Mather sermon – a sure sign that her “suffering was biblical.” [xviii or TK] As Lepore writes, Hannah Bradley’s life “was a story not of success or failure but of fate.” [xix] It’s a tremendous way to begin a book on life and death and Lepore has a brilliant way of selecting just the right historical detail to illuminate a larger point. I would have been happy to spend the entire book with the Bradley family but there is more – so much more – to come.

“Hatched,” Chapter One, examines the sensational 1965 debut in Life magazine of Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s photos of human embryos. We’ve all seen them – the subsequent book version, A Child is Born, is, according to Lepore, the best-selling illustrated book ever published. Yet as Lepore explains, there is a strange and chilling irony in the way these images were presented. Nilsson is not actually depicting the birth of a child; all of his subjects, from egg to embryo to fetus, were dead (with one exception, an image of a live, full-term newborn). Although referred to as “babies” and “people” in the text of A Child is Born, Nilsson photographed miscarriages and abortions, because it wouldn’t have been possible to photograph them any other way. Lepore goes on to discuss the powerful role Nilsson’s photographs played in the anti-abortion movement and their use in the Roe v. Wade decision, then segues into an analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s Nilsson-esque Space Child image in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If it sounds like a trippy experiment in stream-of-consciousness thinking, well, The Mansion of Happiness can sometimes feel that way, but to Lepore’s credit she does return to a few key themes and historical examples throughout the book. Questions of motherhood and an individual’s right to determine her own life come up repeatedly, as does the disturbingly perennial American fantasy of a “world without women.” [21]

The premise of The Mansion of Happiness game was to instruct its players on how to live a morally sound life. In Bradley’s version, players would learn how to live a productive one. Lepore’s book, with its weighty subtitle, “A History of Life and Death,” does not aim to be a primer on how to do anything. Instead, the whirlwind of people and concepts flashing by help us understand just how transient many of our contemporary American opinions may be. Americans once distrusted breastfeeding; then they embraced it; then they dropped it again. A hundred years from now, how will Americans feel about it? No one knows. It’s the same with every important topic, from childbirth to puberty to marriage and death. The most valuable lesson here is that of impermanence. Everything changes. And although, as Lepore writes, “it’s best to have a plan,” [xxvii] as her multifaceted, sometimes dizzying joyride of a book reveals, the next roll of the dice could, in fact, change everything.

-- Buzzy Jackson

Read "The Call."

I had the pleasure of reviewing Yannick Murphy's new novel, THE CALL, in last week's Boston Globe. You can read it on or below...

The Call, by Yannick Murphy (Harper Perennial, 223 pages).

Many readers disdain high-concept novels for good reason: they’re usually more fun to write than to read. But if they give it a chance, most readers will find that Yannick Murphy’s remarkable new novel THE CALL succeeds where others fail. The concept? This novel is written in the format of a daily journal; to be precise, the call log belonging to a veterinarian in a small New England town.

CALL: A horse with lameness. ACTION: Drove to farm. The poorest farm I have seen so far... The owner’s boy sat on the rusted seat of a tractor that did not look like it could move, but grew up from the ground where it was, pushing itself through the dirt and had come to rest…Tall grass grew up high alongside its tires, past the height of the wheel wells. RESULT: After I felt the horse’s leg, I told the owner about the heat. I told her she would do well to stand the horse’s leg in a bucket of ice water. The woman shook her head. “No ice,” she said… WHAT I SAID TO THE WIFE IN BED: Am I getting grayer? The children told me I have more gray here… WHAT THE WIFE SAID: No, you don’t have more gray than usual. It’s just that the children are taller. They can see the gray they have never been able to see before. WHAT THE NIGHT SAID: Coyotes rule.

THE CALL is a portrait of a family, Dr. David Appleton, his wife Jen, and their three children: Sam (12), Sarah (10), and Mia (6). When Jen says, early in the book, “Be careful hunting, David. He’s still so young. You only have one son, you know,” we can tell something terrible is coming.

“CALL: My son. I can’t get him fast enough… I can see the holes in the cloth of his coat, and the goose feathers sticking out from them, wavering in the wind.”

When Sam is shot by an unseen hunter, he falls into a coma and the Appleton family feels everything that was once stable slip away. And yet… as much as David and Jen fret about Sam’s prognosis (“WHAT THE WIFE SAID I DID IN MY SLEEP: Cried.”), life in all its tiny details goes on. (“WHAT THE TRUCK IS TELLING ME: Check engine.”). As David makes his rounds to the horses with toothaches and pregnant goats his community comes into focus. Aging Dorothy, for instance, with her pet sheep Alice, who lives inside the house. The rich couple with their mansion and Great Dane. Jim Bushway, the careless farmhand who shoots “rock tiger” — chipmunks — and leaves them where they fall. With his son frozen in a coma each member of this small town becomes either a source of information about his attacker or a suspect. The person calling the Appleton’s home and then hanging up, over and over, isn’t helping matters.

What will become of the wounded son? Why is David seeing spaceships in the night sky? And who is calling him and what does he want to say? This is a suspenseful novel; the format demands that much be left unsaid, so the reader is constantly looking for clues wherever they turn up. Just how suspicious is that careless farmhand? Will the tension in the Appletons’ marriage finally explode? (“WHAT MY WIFE CAN DO: Make me angrier than I have ever been.”). Although most of these questions are answered, they’re not ultimately the point of this novel, because no matter how tragic Sam’s condition, daily life still includes things like lunch, and sick cows, and swim meets. “WHAT I THINK WE MUST BE: Crazy to spend an entire weekend waiting in the gym of a technical school, but I know years from now we will look back and say these were good times, maybe the best because we were with our children all the time.”

The truthful evocation of family is the real triumph of THE CALL. “When we are alone we like to tell each other how wonderful our children are, but it is something we do not tell others,” David says, describing a conversation with his wife. “We tell each other with abandon, things we have lately seen in our children that prove how smart and wonderful and cute they are… it’s cathartic, as if we need every once in a while to do this bragging, or so that we remind each other of how right it was for us to have married one another.” There is much love in this novel, and just as much truth about the pain and pleasure of family life. “What is taking place is as layered as something in nature,” writes Murphy of an encounter between two of her characters. She could well be describing her own clever and beautiful book.

So where DO good ideas come from? A review.

Thomas Edison with one of his best ideas - an invention that came to signify inspiration itself: the lightbulb. In today's Boston Globe I review the new Steven Johnson book, WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM: The natural history of innovation (Riverside: 2010). The one point I did not have space to make in my review was the unsung debt owed by Johnson (and many others) to the great James Burke, best known for his BBC television series, CONNECTIONS. Johnson's new book is in many ways a streamlined, sexier book version of CONNECTIONS, a show which traced the incredible paths of various scientific innovations from ancient times to the present. I can't recommend it highly enough.

My review of Johnson's book can be found on the Boston Globe site or, for your convenience, below.

MOTHERS OF INVENTION Since there’s no copyright on book titles, Steven Johnson could have called his new book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions even though Thomas Kuhn used it in 1962. Instead, he went with Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Although indebted to Kuhn, Johnson is interested in much more than just scientific revolutions. This book covers everything from the history of reading to the influence of Brian Eno on hip hop producer Hank Schocklee. But mostly it’s about Charles Darwin. Where Good Ideas Come From begins and ends with Darwin, the intellectual hero of our day (and yesterday and presumably tomorrow), the genius whose insights into everything from the formation of tropical atolls to the process of evolution underlie so much of modern life. Darwin is the perfect foil for Johnson, both for his creative ideas as well as his creative habits. If that sounds confusing, consider how Johnson describes his book “This is a book about the space of innovation… If we want to understand where good ideas come from, we have to put them in context. Darwin’s world-changing idea unfolded inside his brain, but think of all the environments he needed to piece it together: a ship, an archipelago, a notebook, a library, a coral reef. Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor.” [15] “The space of innovation” is a pretty abstract concept. Johnson knows it and equips himself with an entire ordnance depot full of examples in order to explain. He’s not interested in merely recounting the well-known tale of how seventeenth-century coffeehouses fueled the European Enlightenment; no, this is a rapid-fire tour of “spaces” large, small, mental, physical, and otherwise -- we’re talking reefs, webs, brains, networks, platforms, and quadrants. Johnson steps back now and again to remind us of the bigger picture. He’s distilled seven patterns or properties and assigned a chapter to each: The Adjacent Possible; Liquid Networks; The Slow Hunch; Serendipity; Error; Exaptation, and Platforms. “The more we embrace these patterns,”Johnson argues, “the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.” [15-16] Johnson has been interested in these ideas for a long time – nearly every book he’s written addresses an aspect of human innovation or the properties of intellectual networks, from his very first book, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (1997) to The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (2008), and it’s clear that his research on the subject runs very deep. Where Good Ideas Come From may be the ultimate distillation of all his thinking on these issues and at times that’s the book’s challenge: it can read less like a book and more like a series of interesting concepts. Take the first five paragraphs of the Exaptation chapter, for example, in which Johnson leaps from Pliny the Elder and the invention of the screw press (for making wine) to fifteenth-century Rhineland and the bubonic plague to a first-century C.E. Chinese blacksmith named Pi Sheng (the inventor of movable type) and finally Johannes Gutenberg, who “took a machine designed to get people drunk [the Greco-Roman screw press], and turned it into an engine for mass communication.” [151] One admires the intellectual athleticism of Johnson’s maneuvers here, yet one can’t help wishing for a bit more time with each of these fascinating characters and their inventions. Distillation is a fine thing, but it’s also nice to sit back and slowly enjoy a tumbler of whiskey. Johnson achieves a more pleasing balance of story and factoid in the chapter entitled The Slow Hunch. Here, he constructs a dramatic and chilling set piece about the “Phoenix Memo,” the unheeded July 2001 warning from an Arizona FBI field agent named Ken Williams who tried to alert the U.S. government to the presence of suspicious foreign students enrolled in American flight schools. Johnson threads the tale of the Phoenix Memo throughout the chapter, visiting along the way with (naturally) Charles Darwin’s journals, John Locke’s indexing system, a Victorian England how-to book entitled Enquire Within Upon Everything, Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web, and the corporate environment of Google. Although packed with wide-ranging details, the narrative shadow of the doomed Phoenix Memo is always present, adding weight and a sense of foreboding to Johnson’s larger argument about the power of the “slow hunch.” It’s one of his most important ideas: that great innovations do not usually appear in a flash of inspiration but instead they accrete “by stealth, in small steps. They fade into view.” [79] By the end of the chapter, I was convinced. Steven Johnson must occasionally wonder why he’s not Malcolm Gladwell; that is, why his bestselling books haven’t become zeitgeisty pop blockbusters in the manner of Gladwell’s. Surely “The Adjacent Possible” is just as catchy a concept as “The Tipping Point”… then again, maybe not. While Johnson and Gladwell write about many of the same issues (they’re equally obsessed, for instance, with “the strength of weak ties”) and bring their ideas to life through the use of capsule biographies, Gladwell lingers on the unexpectedly interesting quirks of a high school basketball coach or a forgotten nineteenth-century scientist (and yes, sometimes he lingers too long, but that’s another review). Johnson, meanwhile, speeds through the connections between the coach, the scientist, and fifteen other seemingly disparate people across time to make his point about creativity, about communication, about idea-making. Johnson’s concepts are strong and his explanations are credible. But after a while one tires of explanation. Ultimately, good ideas come from people. Johnson is most convincing when he slows down to let us spend time with them.

Don't you just adore Scotland?

I do. I visited Edinburgh with my father a long time ago, when I was in fifth grade. What I remember most: Edinburgh Castle; eating baked apples; the story of Greyfriar's Bobby (a cute and heroically loyal little Skye Terrier - hey! I was in fifth grade!)... you get the picture. I loved the trip and still have the kilt my dad bought for me way back then.

Today I was reminded of just how much I love Scotland when I read this review of my book on the ScotGen genealogy blog. Oh, Scotland, you had me at Greyfriar's Bobby... and now this?