Friday, November 15, 2013

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers
I had a second opportunity to review this title and my second attempt was published in the online journal Avatar Review. The link is here. Below was my first attempt after reading the novel in 2013.

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”The flamethrowers with their twin tanks, and their gas mask were Sandro’s favorite of the assault company dolls. The asbestos sweater and balloon pants and gauntlet gloves you could outfit them with so they could not carbonize when they set a woods on fire. A woods or bunker or enemy machine gun nest, depending. A supply line of trucks or a laddered stack of bodies, depending.

The flamethrowers could have been from a different century, both brutal and ancient and at the same time horribly modern. The flame oil in the twin tanks they carried was five parts tar oil and one part crude, and they had a little canister of carbon dioxide and an automatic igniter and a belt pouch with spare igniters. The flamethrower was never, ever defensive. He was pure offense…a harbinger of death…

But then his father told him the flamethrowers were…cumbersome and heavy and slow-moving targets and if they were ever caught they were shown no mercy. That’s not a thing you want to be, his father said…”

This astonishing meditation on art, rebellion, wealth creation, love, truth, and friendship kept me rapt throughout, but I am not going to lie to you. This is a big work, with lots of moving pieces, and it takes more time to process than others might. I’m not sure I got it all. If art is meant to inspire, to challenge, or to change the viewer, this work succeeded on all counts.
“Difficult to even talk about…I feel changed. Like, say my mind is a sweater. And a loose thread gets tugged at, pulled and pulled until the sweater unravels and there’s only a big fluffy pile of yarn. You can make something with it, that pile of yarn, but it will never be a sweater again. That’s the state of things.”

It is the late ‘70s. Reno is a young drifter with pretensions to art. She lands in New York and hangs at the edges of a group whose composition changes with the inclinations of Sandro and Ronnie. Sandro, Ronnie, and Gianni, the men Reno spends her time with and learns from, are central but elusive figures in this drama. Sandro’s father, the man who teaches Sandro about how life really works, is also a central but elusive figure.

Reno is, literally and figuratively, a printer’s reference, a human Caucasian face against which film color corrections could be matched to a referent. Subliminally viewed, if at all, her face might sometimes leave an afterimage. Only filmmakers and projectionists knew of her existence. “Their ordinariness was part of their appeal: real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were. No clue but a Kodak color bar, which was no clue at all.”

When we first see her, Reno is riding a fast motorcycle in the desert and later photographs her tracks. Sandro elevates her work by calling this a type of ‘land art.’ She wipes out, smashing the motorcycle, but her efforts lead to a larger success in setting a land speed record—more sport than art. She travels to Italy to promote the bike she rode in the Southwest desert.

I have seen references to this as a “feminist” novel. It would not have occurred to me to say that, though there is some movement of a young, untried woman towards a greater understanding of her place in the world who then begins to take charge of her freedom. She also has a glimpse, towards the end of the story, of the men in her life not merely as simple stock images or disposable short outtakes of a larger film. “Cropping can make outcomes so ambiguous…” These are men with all the feelings and dreams, histories and futures of men and she is growing up.

Reno as a character is particularly attractive in that she is able, in the course of this novel, to go off without a lover, rent an apartment on her own, and ride a motorcycle about New York City. This may be the dream of any young person anywhere: it is not feminism, but life. But what held me were the ideas about art, about looking, about believing, about making the effort.

Reno’s friend Giddle believed herself to be a performance artist of sorts, but somewhere along the way she lost the thread, the point. Sandro made empty boxes. Ronnie photographed beat-up women. Reno made short films of street life. The art created by these folk, and the folk themselves when we first meet them, are stock images, referents for life. But by the end we have had growth and all are in the process of becoming.

Sandro’s father has a critical role in this novel. The backdrop of his powerful and moneyed world of making tires for racing vehicles represents the old guard against which the artists and Italian Red Brigade demonstrators were rebelling. Yet he was a rebel in his time. The father taught Sandro important truths about the world: that there is evil and greed; that power matters; that guns don’t always fire as advertised; that Flamethrowers can be clumsy targets rather than objects of envy. Flamethrowers’ fire often ran back up the hose and consumed the perpetrator.

Kushner held me spellbound with her descriptions of New York’s art scene in the ‘70s. Using Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning Just Kids as a referent, we get a similar feeling of a young, edgy, trial-by-error art scene. I can’t help but wonder how closely she captured the riots in Italy in the same period.

Something happens in this masterwork that is all internal. It left me looking about myself, contemplative, silent. The poet Marianne Moore wrote that “the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence.” I reread most of it to see if I could untangle it in my mind. I got bits and pieces straightened, but ended up with more questions. But to me this is a sweet confusion. We don’t often have the opportunity to enjoy works of this quality.

A lot of this book is concerned with film. I can imagine this book as a film done in the European tradition—lots of long, slow panning shots and minimal dialogue—following the storyline, such as it is. Would be as confusing and absorbing as the book, I imagine. Kudos to Kushner.


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