“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young, Sexy Woman”: Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers”


“The Flamethrowers”: Kushner’s second novel

Let us consider, briefly, the world built by the mid 20th century philosophers of post-structuralism (better known today under the banner of ‘post-modernism’).

 Modernism, with all its emphasis on the evils of imperialism and the disillusionment of ideology, was dead or in a process of dying. Writers like Eliot and Woolf had seen to that but by now they too were dead or dying, and their inheritance—their prophecies of doom—were being left to a new generation, one whose upbringing (as well as history itself) had taught them the vital message that society could not be trusted. The logical question to then follow was who, or what, could be trusted?

 Perhaps their childhood, spent in disenchantment of the ‘civilized’ world, was what first gave the oracles of post-modernism the attitude that nothing, not language, reality, and certainly not the state apparatus, could be taken on faith alone. Everything was left to question.

 Enter Jacques Lacan, that enigmatic French theorist with sandpaper skin and a penchant for slamming his hands on his desk while declaring that we as well as our very mental development, are all slaves to language, the true creator of the world. God was dead and with him had died the concept of mastery. We were no longer the owners of our own conscious representation, this was a myth, a truth heralded by Freud and the unconscious and reiterated by Lacan with a smack on the table for good measure. And so began the systematic killings of all delusional components of mastery: Roland Barthes killing the Author (“Death of the Author”) a mere decade after Lacan killed the master; Jean Baudrillard killing reality fourteen years after that (“Simulacra and Simulation”); Jacques Derrida killing the idea of perception (“Differance”), and, to cap it all off, Lee Edelman killing the future little more than ten years ago (“No Future”). We, of course, are left with nothing. Very tidy work in less than half a century.

 Under this backdrop enters Rachel Kushner’s new novel (it should be called a masterpiece) “The Flamethrowers.” The year is 1976. Philosophy has already disposed of the notions of reality and mastery and, with the novel’s opening scene from 1917 of a young Italian soldier braining a German with his motorbike headlamp, it was soon to make quick work of the grim future. Kushner’s unnamed first-person protagonist makes her appearance on the Salt Flats of Nevada. Twenty-two, an amateur filmmaker and sexy dirty blonde (or, dirty sexy blonde), riding her motorcycle over a hundred miles an hour on the empty roads, she realizes she has something to prove, a stake to make in this “slag-heap world of the West” that involves burning her vehicle at precarious speeds. Her destination is the Bonneville Salt Flats where her land speed racer heroes chase their own death wishes at constant acceleration.  

 The romanticism of the lone rider careening down roads, as if in the search of an elusive ideal, is a distinctively American image, yet any sense of the romantic in this protagonist is fleeting. Her goal is not “Spiritual America” as the chapter’s title would suggest, but the “need for risk;” not the forging of a path across the continent, but erasing it, “going as fast as you possibly could…drawing in a fast and almost traceless way.” As it is with most of Kushner’s writing, this comment has a double meaning, a reference not only to the perpetual reshaping of American culture but also to the protagonist’s own mentality, which rides upon a balance of wanting to create and wanting to erase; needing to remain passive, to wait, in order to “become an artist” and needing to actively pursue it.

Whichever the choice, passivity or pursuit, both end abruptly when a gust of wind topples narrator and motorcycle, going 120 miles per hour, and sends them skidding and tumbling across the flats. The lights go out. There’s a sense that the sudden crash by a chance burst of wind is a portentous symbol for the flimsiness of the American Dream of freedom, but the story ducks away from the scene and drops the narrator in New York City, one year beforehand.

 The contrast in scene is immediate and shocking. Kushner’s Nevada Salt Flats are ugly and violent but they are visually alive; her prose ripples with such descriptions of clouds with bottom edges “melting on a hot griddle.” There are details of “afterimages” and mirages and “objects in contrast,” which give the feeling that reality as we know it is nothing more than utter bareness, a desert of the real, to borrow from Baudrillard.

 From the desert of the real then comes the realm of hyperreality: New York City, looming monstrous and threatening like a giant, glassy face of Moloch. For the artist fresh out of college, it’s the natural destination: a Mecca for young creators trying to harness and control an artistic energy from a collective without sacrificing their autonomy. “The energy of the young seeped out of the ground;” rising like miasma.

 Kushner’s New York, far from serving the hopes and aspirations of her young protagonist, is a synthetic nightmare, a “plaster death mask” where there is no pure creation but an obsessive performance art. The playing’s the thing, runs the maxim of the protagonist’s friends, the first of which is the desperately lonely Giddle who ‘plays the part’ of a waitress, chasing the performance-of-life-as-art until she at last achieves her perverse victory, when the “performed life grew roots” and “became authentic.” Playacting to achieve authenticity? And it only grows more absurd as the story goes on.

 There is Thurman and Nadine who shoot one another with pistol blanks, denigrating death into a drunken play act with no consequences. Ronnie, who invents nearly everything he says, including a trip to prison and a ‘biography’ fourteen pages long about how he once got amnesia and wound up sailing around the world, sleeping naked in the bed of his commodore and wife, gives the protagonist her nickname Reno (the one in Nevada) before expressing his goal of photographing every person in the world: a brilliant feat regardless of whether it was never and can never be accomplished. Words like “metonymy” and names like “Bubalev” are dropped in bar conversation, passively, with a sense that no one is really paying any attention, for no one knows if anyone else is telling the truth, whether it be about names or histories. Each fiction is as arbitrary as each truth.

 Two neo-Lacanians invite Reno to a dinner party where one of them plays a reel of his own voice, giving monologues about the importance of choosing words. “We should torture language to tell the truth,” he confides in Reno when the tapes have been played. It’s like something out of Paul Auster’s “City of Glass,” words commanded to yield their treasure through any means necessary (especially the ones where someone gets to punch something and punch it repeatedly).  

 Kushner’s balance of theme and content is masterful. Her aim is not for a philosophy but against it, giving readers the City as an intellectual death drive that renders thinking impotent. The story and not its truth is what’s really key, we are reminded with each new digression. Because, for all their depth, each theory drilled home by one of Kushner’s characters is a command falling on deaf ears: everyone talks and nobody moves. The growth of the City becomes stunted by its own intellectualism; post-structuralism itself, flushed with knowledge, can arrive at no agreement other than that nothing, no one or anywhere, means anything. It is also, at the same time, quite hilarious.

 Of course, Reno has a saving grace. Sandro Valera, the middle-aged son of an Italian automaker (who once brained a Nazi with his motorbike headlamp, and then created the Valera Company) enters the set, promising not the simulated play performances of Reno’s friends, but a sense of real creation. Reno clings to Sandro because he offers her a destination, amplification to match her speed. Their stay in New York is brief, a year, before Reno finds herself on the Bonneville Salt Flats, her Moto Valera lying in pulverized shambles having been crashed while going 120 miles per hour.


Rachel Kushner, the authoress

 We are left a little startled when we realize how long the tension of the crash’s aftermath has been held since the beginning of the novel, and how expertly Kushner has played the scene out, but before anything can be said the scene picks up right where it left off. Reno has a sprained limb but recovers quickly, staying at the Salt Flats where, in the meantime, she watches the racer Didi Bombonato break the land speed record at over 500 miles per hour in his cruising vessel, the Spirit of Italy. Reno is approached afterwards by several of his officials, who ask her if she’d like to break the women’s land speed record. She does and becomes, “improbably, the fastest woman in the world.”

 There follows another deft scene change, to Rome this time, where Reno is invited for a gig with Bombonato and the Spirit of Italy. Sandro takes her so that she can meet his family but what follows is calamity and betrayal. Reno abandons Sandro and finds herself in the seedy back alleys of Italian revolutionaries: a bastard child of the New York she has only just managed to escape. But there’s more. The danger of New York: a plaything, a gun filled with blanks, is an all too-present reality in Italy. Bombonato is kidnapped. Reno is teargased. There are riots and looting. Sandro’s brother Roberto is kidnapped and (later) executed. The events begin to read like a Universal Studios thrill ride without the simulation. Reno goes back to New York, but she regrets the decision immediately. There’s nothing left for her but a haunting promise of Ronnie’s to “show [her] the uselessness of the truth.” Italy may be dangerous but at it’s real, it drives at a sense of purpose rather than repeat the platitude of meaninglessness. She goes back to her revolutionaries. She skis. She achieves speed, and she waits to become something.

 “Fac Ut Ardeat” are the first words you’ll read in “The Flamethrowers.” It’s a strange epigraph both for Kushner’s novel, which has little to do with burning and whose flamethrower motif is a mystery for most of the book, and for the Sandro Valera’s home where in the novel it is first displayed, like the word “Unashamed” in Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” as a kind of celebrated dare to the world. But neither the strangeness nor the irony of the words (they are taken from the Catholic “Sabat Mater” hymn to the Virgin Mary) is lost on Kushner, for the words are both an anthem and a promise to the reader: let it burn: we will let it.

 That “it” is troublesome. “It” could be the world itself, having long suffered under the friction of so many different thoughts that it finally sparked and immolated. Or, “it” is a reference for Kushner’s prose, much of it so powerful and dazzling it could be mistaken for masculine, which it can be on occasion, such as when two men contemplate a future where everything is whittled down to bare essentiality, arriving at the idea of a ‘pocket vulva’, “ideal for battle, for a light infantryman…transportable, backpackable, and silent”, or when Reno gives a rough sketch of her mother: “she was a switchboard operator, and if her past included something akin to noir, it was only the gritty part, the part about being female, poor, and alone, which in a film was enough of a circumstance to bring in the intrigue, but in her life it attracted only my father.”

And yet the prose also has the power to abstain from the punch line, to withhold, crackle, smolder, while making the reader burn with anticipation. For example, there is the death of Flip Farmer, Reno’s land speed hero, (and a fiction so masterfully rendered that, like the Valeras and the Valera Company, it will doubtlessly be mistaken by most readers for historical fact) given in four gorgeous pages, each one of them prolonging Flip’s drive with the weight of precise detail, gradually slowing the rate of frames, bringing the action within closer and closer intimacy: Flip burns out the breaks, Flip’s car goes past the finish line, Flip’s car goes over a hill, Flip’s car lands into a lake, Flip tears off his oxygen mask, Flip snags his suit on the fire escape, and so on.

 “The Flamethrowers” is perhaps one of the finest American Novels of the decade. Kushner’s inventiveness is unparalleled; each one of her characters is replete with a bevy of stories and anecdotes so flavorful you’ll end up quoting them like they were your own invention. How she has managed to conjure so much depth out of the worldly ruins of which post-structuralism has made us aware—taking Lacan, Baudrillard, Derrida into a blender and churning out narrative (one of Kushner’s character goes so far as to quote, like it was a delightful tabloid, a situational hypothesis about bathrooms and attendees made by Lacan in his thesis from 1957, “The Instance of the Letter”)—remains a mystery and one that I’m happy to leave undetected. Kushner’s novel may occasionally resemble an Auster New York detective piece but it is far more; a meeting-grounds for the all great postwar American artists, from Ginsberg to Warhol, with the silhouette of Hunter S. Thompson lurking somewhere beyond the shadow cast by the American Dream, and glimmers of Sylvia Plath in the prose (Kushner’s own being vigorous yet strangely yielding, so much so that it forsakes its own narrative style midway through the novel and transforms its paragraphs into a series of vignettes: flashes of scene, like pictures taken from a polaroid camera).

To post-modernism, it is Kushner’s answer: a triumphant assertion of narrative, a booming joke that dips in and out of history with a master’s poise. Edelman may have killed the future, but he couldn’t have been writing about Kushner’s. 


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