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July 1, 2013

The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner


“A funny thing about woman and machines: the combination made men curious.”

I do wonder if one day there will be a literary genre distinguished by its treatment of women whose broken dreams are symbolized by their dissatisfaction with their kitchen renovations. I noticed this first in Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, whose middle-class preoccupations were redeemed by Cusk’s Woolfian narrative, and then recently in Krista Bridge’s The Eliot Girls which was more Picoultian than Woolfian and left me frustrated with narrative in general. And so I turned to Rachel Kushner’s The Flame Throwers next, because it promised to be not Picoultian in the slightest and featured a female protagonist who never went into the kitchen at all.

Though to call her a “protagonist” is not entirely accurate, because Kushner’s narrator is more of an observer, and a cypher than one who the story happens to. We get a sense of her internal monologue, but not of her self–we don’t even know her name. (I am careful not to refer to her as “Reno” [um, for the city, not the abbreviation for “renovation”] though she is referred to as such in the book’s copy. But in an interview, Kushner remarks, “Twice, she’s referred to as Reno, and so reviewers have latched onto this.” And I don’t want Kushner to think that I am a latcher. Never.) This is a novel about motorcycles, motor racing, rubber manufacturing, Fascism and terrorism, which is the kind of novel that generally wouldn’t appeal to me, except that it’s also the book that everybody is talking about and for once I wanted to get in on that action. Plus, it’s a novel about all of these things from the point of view of a female character, and I was curious about that. And so I picked up The Flame Throwers, and perhaps I’ve got a thing for speed and crashes after all because I was hooked by page 21 with the story of a legendary American racer whose parachute failed and had to stop from 522 miles per hour on the salt flats of Utah.

Of course, to call Kushner’s character an “observer” is disingenuous, because while the novel doesn’t happen to her, her voice and perspective are certainly key to its construction. She has more agency than we can really understand. The story begins with Kushner’s character on the salt flats in 1977, riding her Valera motorcycle (which had come from her boyfriend back in New York, Sandro Valera, the estranged heir to the Italian motorcycle/tire manufacturing fortune). Her aim is to race her bike, and also to photograph other races. She is an artist, we learn, who has moved from Reno to New York where she met Sandro. Her racing plans are curtailed by an accident, however, and she, previously the lone wolf, ends up with the Valera racing team by virtue of her motorcycle’s make. She ends up setting a world record for female drivers in the Valera car, the Spirit of Italy, and a scheme is concocted wherein she will travel to Italy on the coattails of her racing fame.

And then the narrative takes us to New York nearly two years before, the girl from Reno arriving in the city to make herself (though we learn a few peculiar details to suggest she’s not entirely formless–she’d been a success as a ski racer years before, and once acted in a McDonalds commercial. She grew up in a household with two motorbike-mad cousins, and an uncle who watched TV in the nude. And even the most mundane detail begins to seem conspicuous because there are so few of them). She tells us, “I thought this was how artists moved to New York, alone, that the city was a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh and you simply found your pulse, your place.” But she fails to, remaining estranged from the city itself, from its art scene. She is young and naive, and through a cast of eccentric characters (“I once went to a house in the Hollywood Hills that was a glass dome on a pole, its elevator shaft. Belonged to a pervert bachelor and he had peepholes everywhere. He was watching me in the toilet. Some guy drugged me without asking first. Angel dust. I was on roller skates which presented a whole extra challenge.”) she meets artist Ronnie Fontaine, and falls in love with his best friend, Sandro Valera. She makes her place on the scene as Sandro’s girl, but overrides him when he resists the idea of her trip to Italy.

In chapters involving Sandro’s father, we learn the sordid details of how he made his fortune and these suggest just why Sandro is so uncomfortable with returning to Italy and why he is determined to remain distanced from his family heritage. When the trip finally happens, it is the disaster he predicted, as Sandro’s mother shows disdain for his American girl, and the whole family is troubled by political uprisings by their factory workers, which were part of a movement sweeping the country in 1977. And finally, our character is faced with the truth about her boyfriend’s intentions toward her, and in an instant she makes a decision that embroils her in Italy’s underground radical social movement.

Kushner’s prose thrums with a Didion-esque rhythm, and her narrative concerns read like a combination of “Good-Bye to All That” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”. Her sense of time and place is stunningly evoked, and while details waver in a few places, the overall impression is of remarkable realization. There is a reason everyone is talking about this book, and that’s because it’s a great American novel in the grand tradition but as rendered by a female hand, but then this novel with all its masculine concerns is a treatment of the feminine as well. What is the place of Kushner’s female character in this kind of story? Is she the I or just the eye? Does anybody hear her voice beyond us, the reader? We hear her, but what are the impressions of those who can see her? In a way, she is as invisible as the “China Girl” appearing among the first frames of movie film, ever present but anonymous and glimpsed by almost no one. Is this the extent of possibility for the woman artist? (“You’re not supposed to evoke real life. Just the hermetic world of a smiling woman holding a colour chart.”)

So much of this book’s impact comes from its evasive approach, which is summed up in its final sentence: “Leave, with no answer. Move on to the next question.” And that’s why so many people are talking about this book–because it’s a difficult one from which to draw tidy conclusions.


3 thoughts on “The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner”

  1. Tanya says:

    I love your use of “Picoultian”!! Have you read Kushner’s earlier book? Telex from Cuba? t

  2. I admire this one, but I never really fell into it as a reader. Love the questions that you’ve posed about I/eye and the narrator’s identity (I am a latcher, I called her Reno Heheh); I think it would make for a great discussion in a bookgroup filled with patient and curious readers. I have had her first novel here for ages, and have heard it’s quite different, so now I’m curious! (Sweet pic. Congrats, BTW.)

    1. Kerry says:

      You’re right, BIP. She certainly puts her reader at a distance. It’s not a book I loved, but definitely one I admire and I think it’s doing important, remarkable things.

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