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Kushner, The Flamethrowers I: Topics of Interest?

Now that I’ve finished reading chs. 1-7 of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, I can hope to start asking questions about it, up to and including the most global questions –why do we still read fiction in 2018?, why do we read fiction at all?, why does anybody read anything?– down through the more specific questions of why this book?, what kind of book is it?, how does it address us?, what are its goals?.  When you pick a book to read not entirely at random but only by reputation, as we did three years ago with Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet and Tom McCarthy’s C, we risk that the answers to these questions might disappoint.

Aw, I was just funnin’ you.  I love this book!

Well, maybe it looks as though I’m not going to love everything about it –maybe Kushner’s interests and my interests don’t entirely overlap.  Hopefully, the stuff that doesn’t interest me will interest you:  by chance, two years ago a student doing an independent study in Comp Lit on “literatures of pilgrimages” with me asked me to re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and this last year a student doing her independent study in Comp Lit on the French woman performance artist Sophie Calle asked me to read Baudrillard’s America; so my lack of interest either in motorcycles or in the cult of America as being, as Valera puts it (p.108), “supposed to be a place ruined and homogenized by highways, that that was its unique character, crass and vulgar sameness” (or Baudrillard’s attempt to celebrate this supposed aspect of America) –well, I’m just saying I’ve recently done due diligence on these topics.

Conversely, I hadn’t anticipated how much of this books looks as if it will be about the art world in New York in the 1970s (I still haven’t read the book jacket blurb), nor that a secondary thread would be about the Italian Futurists before, during, and after World War I. As for the latter topic, I’ve always kept Futurism to the side of my interest in Surrealism, because Walter Benjamin told me to. (The second conclusion to “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility” has a long quote from Marinetti about the aesthetics of war; Benjamin, with a wonderfully useless Brechtian aphorism, counters,

[Humanity’s] self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.

So I’ve always kept the Italian avant-garde somewhat at arms’ length.  And yet, funnily enough and maybe more so now than in the 2013 when this book was first published, thoughts of  absurd autocrats are more interesting to me now than before.  So I am certainly enjoying the flashbacks to the Valera family before, during, and just after World War I, and hope that they will continue –the implication is that the Valeras will turn out to be collaborators with Mussolini.  And I’m amused by the coincidence that Tom McCarthy’s C also dwelt at great length on World War I:  it is tempting to say that if you want to write an avant-garde novel these days, you are driven to put your project in relationship to the moment of great avant-garde prose narrative that is the era of Mann, Gide, Breton, Woolf, Joyce, and Proust.

But of course the novel is not “about” where it starts, during World War I:  it’s “about” New York bohemia in the 1970s. What a coincidence, I just taught a course this last semester called “Sophistications: Queer Postwar Paris-New York Connections”!  Unfortunately, though quite deliberately, I stuck almost obsessively to the boundaries of 1946-1969:  the New York art scene that Reno wants to break into is already very different from the one that Frank O’Hara and then Susan Sontag and then Yayoi Kusama broke into, each on their own terms, of course.  But if I had done my research on the ’70s too, I would probably be insufferable and no help at all on this blog.  Let me share my innocence!

(One way I am not entirely innocent about New York in the ’70s is that of course I was born in New York in 1958.  But I sure don’t think Reno will be spending time in the only parts of Manhattan that a boy from Brooklyn would have seen of it:  Broadway, the big museums, the big-ticket movie events, and the subways en route to the baseball stadiums. I might have learned the city over the summers, but instead I spent the summers of 1975 and 1978 at Cornell, and 1977, 1979, and 1980 at this crazy place in the California mountains, you probably haven’t heard of it.  You should presume I’m learning this New York second-hand, the same as our born-in-Oregon-in-1968 novelist who came to NY for the first time in 1994 did.)

So let me end this first post with some topics that we might want to talk about from this first third of the novel:

  • what we in the biz call The Avant-Garde Historical Novel –how do you write a story set in a specific past (or two specific pasts) while still trying to create an ambitious polyphonic ironic post-Joycean Great Big Book? How do we read it?
  • what we in the biz would call The Female Bildungsroman –what’s Kushner’s take on how a young person finds out about “the way of the world” (title of Franco Moretti’s book about the 19th c. Bildungsroman), when the young person is a woman in a man’s world no longer content to follow domestic scripts (i.e., no longer presuming that the end of the story of Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, or Dorothea Brooke is to get her properly married off)?  Conversely, the novel is not (yet?) interested in telling a tale of sexual exploitation:  how “pre-#MeToo” is this novel?
  • what we in the biz would call The Kunstlerroman –the most prestigious variation of the Bildungsroman is “the portrait of the artist as a young (wo)man”: How does Kushner portray Reno’s artistic ambitions, the growth of her interior creativity, and how does she have to negotiate with the art world of New York 1975 so that she can express herself?
  • I’m a comparatist by nature, so I can’t help but see Kushner’s representation of New York in 1975 in comparisons at least along three axes:  New York vs. America/the open road/Bonneville Flats;  New York vs. Europe (Alexandria/ Rome/ Milan/ WWI); and New York 1975 vs. New York 2013-18.  What comes to the forefront in these comparisons?

But these are maybe too-big questions:  I’m sure we’ll all be happy to hear about anything: about the back and forth between the novel’s present and past, 1st and 3rd person; about speed; about aluminum boxes as art; about sentence fragments as a stylistic device; about the almost total absence of secondary characters so far and about the few we do have (Giddle; Nadine and Thurman; Robbie Fontaine); about youth, danger, and thrills; about Nina Simone shooting at Chris Kelly; about Spiral Jetty, which I have never seen.  Whatever. Blog away–





July 1, 2018 - Posted by | boredom |


  1. I’m not quite caught up to the reading but I’ll put a few notes down now in case anyone else wants to play off them, and write a longer comment or a post tomorrow:
    freedom feels like the theme of the book, and the word pops up every 20 pages or so. It’s a political cliché of our time that the left doesn’t know how to talk about freedom, that it’s been ruined by anti-communism and jingoism. Will that make The Flamethrowers seem less of an artifact of our time, and more a dispatch from its subject eras? How does art locate and dislocate freedom? Its axis of free and unfree feels very personal, idiosyncratic so far. Even motorcycles don’t guarantee freedom, at least not in Milan’s rush hour.
    – The last book I finished was Just Kids by Patti Smith, which has an overlapping Manhattan milieu (Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe may well have been at that Chelsea Hotel soirée). Reno’s bare white apartment feels like it might have hosted the photo sesh from the cover of Horses.
    – I forget my third one, I’ll go back to reading.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 1, 2018

  2. So far I think The Flamethrowers is … okay. It’s fine. The stuff about Futurism and 70s art and the connection of aesthetic elites to potential fascism is abstractly interesting, though it seems sort of quaint and beside the point in 2018. It doesn’t really feel like the threats to democracy are coming from aestheticized masculinity, which seems to be what’s going on in the Italy sections of the book. The Italy sections, though much shorter, are also much more engaging to me because Kushner seems to be a lot clearer about where she is going with them. I’m not sure I understand what the various interludes in New York are supposed to be adding up to, in part because Reno seems like such a passive cypher in them. She was more interesting in the speed trial chapter that opened the book, because she was actually doing something, even if the actual thing she was doing seemed to be bound up in concerns that, as I said, don’t actually feel very relevant to me.

    I also had the reaction that certain parts of her adventures in New York would have to be written much differently now. You could not, for example, write a scene in which a powerful older man grabs a younger woman by the pussy without her consent, have her enjoy it, and not acknowledge the warning bells readers would be hearing. Reno would at least have to comment on it internally or something.

    There are tics in the style that bug me, that seem like they just needed one more look from an editor, occasional strained similes and mixed metaphors that I don’t think work. For the most part, again, I think it’s fine, though at times overwrought for a book that so far want to talk about speed. On the other hand, it isn’t going anywhere very fast. It’s talking about speed but meandering.

    Did anyone else feel like the opening chapters in Nevada didn’t really match up with the New York ones? For example, in the Nevada chapters, Sandro is described as an enthusiastic supporter of Reno’s art; at the end of chapter 7, Ronnie has to push him to give her a bike. She doesn’t spend any of her time in New York really thinking about or making her own art, but it is all that’s on her mind in the Nevada chapters. Is that just sloppiness? Or is Kushner trying to say something about the difference in making art in a supposed metropolis as opposed to the countryside?

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 2, 2018

  3. Oh I remember the third one, it was a metaphorics of knowledge and experience. I’ll dig around for it, I liked the way it kept coming back.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 2, 2018

  4. There’s also heavy themes about the beauty of technology and domination of natural spaces and landscapes, which I kind of find repellent. Not sure whether I’m supposed to.

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 3, 2018

  5. Also, am I supposed to absolutely loathe everybody in the New York scenes? Ronnie and Sandro in particular seem like completely miserable twats. It’s making those sections into a real slog.

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 6, 2018

  6. Let me do some replying to your replying before I start up on the next batch of reading. 1) Yes, absolutely true, this first part of the book is about what it might mean to be free, and 2) I kept bumping up against ideas of freedom, but also of sexual liberation, older man/ younger woman dynamics that made me think that either Kushner is trying to make an implicit critique of political correctness a la 2013 (“See? Women in the ’70s knew that the search for true experience meant that it was perfectly okay to make their bodies available to Older Established Artists!”), or she’s setting Reno up for a disillusionment later in the novel. It might be a mix of the two. Her final take might be a version of the dust-up over Aziz Ansari: sure, the sexual relationships between her and first Robbie and then Sandro are bad, but when you’re young you’re supposed to have a lot of bad sex, it teaches you The Way of the World, and maybe you get a nice motorcycle out of it. 4) Since the same people (Paul Virilio in particular) who write about the joy of speed also write about the beauty of technology and the domination of natural spaces, I think you’re supposed to not find it repellent. In their work it’s mostly about technology allowing you to fuse your consciousness more smoothly with nature, not “dominating” nature per se; I’ll look to see how that’s working out as the novel progresses. (But the novel is called The Flamethrowers, a not particularly positive image for the domination of man over nature through technology.) 5) You’re clearly supposed to loathe Thurman and Nadine; I think we’re supposed to like Robbie; I think we’re supposed to feel ambivalent about Sandro, exactly insofar as Robbie’s sex scene with Reno on the whole was fine and Sandro’s casual possessiveness towards Reno drops hints that Kushner may not be 2013-PC and 1975-Reno may not mind, but I think (I HOPE) Kushner and maybe even narrator-Reno herself will see this casual possessiveness as a problem. I had forgotten the bit about how the Futurists hoped to created pocket-sized vaginas that would allow them to dispense with women, but I’m pretty sure Kushner didn’t make that up, and it’ll be interesting to see how far if at all Sandro has evolved from treating women like his avant-garde forebears.

    Comment by poc2666 | July 6, 2018

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