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Flamethrowers II: Just like the ’60s, Only with Less Hope

This post is late, almost two-and-a-half days late.  If you inferred from that that I have been sick, a copy of Kushner on the bed table while I lay trying to get more than four hours of sleep with a heavy perpetual cough, you would have been right, for the first few days.  But I got better, and yet I still couldn’t make reading the book a priority.  So my apologies, as the person who chose this book, because I am more and more realizing that this book is not “for me.” (I think some of you felt that way last time around with The Flame Alphabet.) Some of my comments and topics for discussion will probably seem dutiful, though not I hope perfunctory, and I hope to keep from being a party poop if you’re enjoying it more than I am.

When we left Reno at the end of ch. 6, she was still in flashback mode, and we would continue on in it through ch.7, a chapter that tries to give some idea of Sandro’s friendship with Robbie and life in New York before Reno arrives; Reno crashed the motorcycle at the end of her first chapter, chapter 2, and wakes up at the beginning of ch. 8; after this point her (even-numbered) chapters follow Reno chronologically, interrupted every other chapter (and these chapters become quite short) by back material about the shift in the Valera fortunes from engineering to rubber manufacture and transport (chapters 9 and 13), as well as the story of the Motherfuckers in the ’60s in New York City (chapter 11).

[The chapters are also interrupted by some photographs –at first I thought that Kushner had taken them herself, but now I see that there’s a copyrights page at the end, which includes sources both for these photos and for the photos in the section after the Acknowledgments, “A Portfolio Curated by Rachel Kushner,” on unnumbered pages. I guess we’ll talk about them at greater length later.]

I appreciate the Amazon chapters.  Although in a limited way this historical novel is trying to be a Great American Novel, with Reno’s life and passions bringing together American Nature and (a specific moment in) American Art, we’re no longer in the world of Huckleberry Finn or even The Great Gatsby.  We live in the era of the “global novel,” global fictions, which are supposed to find a way to incorporate the connectedness of the whole world and not just the mere nation-state.  If you’re a kinda liberal mystic like David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, people are connected through space and across time through something like reincarnation and shared stories; if you’re Rachel Kushner, it’s through capitalism, and a particularly exploitative version of it at that. Kurtz’s men were also exploiting the Africans in the Belgian Congo in Heart of Darkness by forcing them to be rubber plantation workers; in real like, the Englishman who blew the whistle on the mistreatment of African workers in the Congo was then reassigned by England to rubber plantations in the Amazon (Peru, not Brazil, but whatever).  Kushner is making it easy for us to hate Sandro’s father in these scenes, much more than our guarded respect for his survival instincts and his practical imagination in the earlier chapters in which he featured.

There are two other ways that parts of the world are connected to each other in the novel so far.  The first is through the connections between the US and Europe’s art world and sports circuit.  I suppose you could argue that these are connections of very different kinds, but it seems to me that Kushner is putting these two worlds on equal footing in many ways.  One way is through her satirical examination of the people in these circuits;  Didi Bombonato is a pretty funny comic creation, and belongs for that reason in the same book as the people mercilessly dissected in the “Faces” chapter at the dinner party at the Kastles’.  The other way that parts of the world are connected is through a very specific take on class conflict during the ’60s and ’70s.

Justin Bond, surveying the orgy room in the Shortbus club in the movie Shortbus: “It’s just like the ’60s. Only with less hope.” That might be from a scene in 2003, but it was a much more common way to contrast the ’60s to the ’70s.  Kushner not only buys into that relationship between the ’60s and the ’70s, she backdates it:  the scenes of the Motherfuckers are supposed to show us that the violent and “hopeless” ’70s already coexisted with the hopeful ’60s hippies.  Woodstock and Altamont, so to speak, one on top of the other, not one after the other.  The groups who engage in those anarchistic spasms of violence, organized in cells and with vague radical ideas of liberation and revolution, had supposedly succeeded in taking over the turf of the Lower East Side just before Rachel arrived in New York, and Burdmoore Modell’s biography is supposed to show how (little of) the spirit of the Motherfuckers made its way into the supposedly more anarchistic and “hopeless” ’70s.

Kushner seems to want to connect the negative energy of the Lower East Side before and during the ’60s with labor unrest on a global scale in the Valera factories, and with what I must presume will be an appearance of the Red Brigades in later chapters.  It looks as if I’m going to have to do some Wikipediaing of the Aldo Moro assassination.  Hmm, apparently Hardt and Negri and Deleuze and Guattari got involved.

What’s interesting, although perhaps unfortunate, is the relentless satire of Sandro’s Italian family in the last chapter we’ve just read:  interesting because she does a great job  with very little to work with, so to speak (although she’s brought a drunk American novelist paramour onto the scene just so that she can write a set piece with him wearing a Mussolini cap and reminding everyone of World War II, to parallel the delightful and much more “naturally unnatural” set piece in the New York party of Stanley’s monologue tape of the lovers who have an amputation fetish and then the way different language registers carry meaning), and unfortunate, because Kushner sets so much of the social satire around the horrible behavior of Sandro’s mother and Talia, i.e., women dissing other women.  Kushner seems to have done it on purpose, and feels the need to explain: “If she had been nicer to me I would have wanted to know Talia Valera. It was always that way with women I found threatening, that there was some unfulfilled longing to be friends.  I didn’t know quite why she threatened me” (243).  Is it any wonder, when the great and utterly unsurprising reveal comes that Sandro is kissing his cousin Talia passionately in an alleyway as part of the striking factory, that Reno goes after Talia and not Sandro?  I repeat what I said in my first post: Kushner seems to want us to see Reno’s ethical clumsiness as deliberately orchestrated by her, the author, to show us that Reno still needs to grow, to learn in her pursuit of opportunities, access, and experience, that she must be warier of men like Sandro and of generally not underestimating the power dynamic at work in her sexual and social milieux.  But I worry about the subtext, or the examples chosen to teach Reno these things, or something. The work stoppages and slowdowns that the Valera racetrack workers engage in on the Bonneville Flats are narrated for comic effect, and Kushner saves for later the darkening of these interactions with the “artists” (leading so far to the kidnapping of Didi himself, and I suspect there will be more).  It feels like saying, It’s all fun and games now, but sooner or later somebody is going to be hurt.  And there’s some part of me that feels that, despite the constant satire of both artists and industrialists, Kushner is also laying the blame on the union workers and the other motherfucking malcontents in this world that already has less hope in it than perhaps the real ’60s and ’70s in New York had.



July 10, 2018 - Posted by | boredom |


  1. I do not understand the ultimate unfeeling and vacancy of every character and every theme in this beautifully written and colorfully peopled novel. I don’t get the feeling that either novelist or narrator or any of the many passionate, zany, characters (Ronnie, Gloria, Giddle, etc etc) or any of its many would be revolutionaries has any pathos or dignity or feeling of realness. A pervasive feeling of drift and pointless gyration and satirical hollowness abides over every scene and every human: neither its sexual politics or romances nor its street riots nor its art theories nor its revolutionary Credos nor its historical tableaux seems really to matter, and every one, even the fall of Italy and Mussolini, doesn’t seem to change or transform anything or anyone.

    Reno’s remarkable art project and experiment w speed is as abortive as her ski career and her love affair w Sandro—she only manages to sleep w one guy one night (Ronnie) other than Sandro in spite of being deeply attracted to at least three other men—her desire is strangely stymied and pent and incredibly passive. It seems an almost misogynistic narrative in its brutal relegation of its lead voice to witness one damn thing after another and never to act to create a single relationship or bond of genuine loyalty and reciprocity.

    Are we meant to feel something for the exploited Amazon tribes or the Motherfuckers with their bullshit strutting anarchism (deftly punctured by Didier) or the Italian youth who wildly loot shops and clash w pigs in Rome or the futurists w their repulsive fantasies? I was interested and puzzled but never moved by any of these political and historical movements.

    The abounding futility and blankness is powerfully symbolized by the stunning images (climactic? that word doesn’t fit anything, even Reno’s or Gloria’s fingered orgasms), the images of looming blackness at the end of the book:

    the NYC blackout and its nighttime mobs and arsonists;

    Sandro’s despairing dutiful flight home to mommy, which ends with his plane suspended above a power outage that blackens the Milan airport just as the flight is supposed to land;

    & the darkened alpine Mount Blanc that seems to have swallowed Gianni the murdering conspirator, and another unfulfilled, unconsummated, seemingly uncaring lover of Reno—the cold blackness of night descending on Reno’s ever unanswered question as she awaits the border-crossing skier at the foot of a mountain but leaves empty and, again, as ever, as everyone in this world, alone unloved unhappy unchanged except by the ache of nothingness and surd churn that is the 20th century juggernaut of capital.

    Everything transforms nothing, just wears it down and swallows it in dumb blackness full of sound and fury but signifying jack shit.

    Comment by adkriefall | July 11, 2018

  2. PS The Flamethrowers, Sandro’s toy soldier figures, cloaked and hooded and faceless, invested with his boyhood fantasy of ultimate invulnerable demonic destruction, weapons of “pure offense,” is an exceptionally poor inapt image for the novel title. While it is fabulously inventive as an image, like so much of the detail in this rich, dense novel—it expresses none of the futility of these people. “The blackouts” would’ve been better

    Comment by adkriefall | July 11, 2018

  3. I’ll have more to say later maybe, but maybe not. I am considering bailing on the book after this installment and getting a jump on the next. I think there’s a fundamental problem with Reno as a main character in that, as Andreas said, she doesn’t seem to be trying to do anything or even actively seeking for anything. Her passivity stifles the possibility for conflict in a classic sense: there are no obstacles she needs to overcome because she isn’t trying to go anywhere. Without conflict there can be no coherent plot, just a bunch of incidents and temporary goals. (She wants to go to Italy and race the car but why? What need in her does it fill?)

    There are books that work without coherent plots, to be sure, or with meandering ones, but they are generally based around strong characters, and Reno is pretty uninteresting to me. There’s some good observation and some playing with ideas, but I can’t sense that it’s all in the service of anything that seems interesting to me. If someone wants to take a stab at summarizing the themes of the book in a unified way maybe I could be convinced otherwise. The various intellectual games Kushner is playing in the Faces chapter seem obscene next to the Brazil chapter, but in the service of what? Is the idea that artistic conceits are empty in the face of suffering? Or are only made possible by suffering that is the basis of wealth? It’s all very scattered and empty-seeming so far.

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 11, 2018

  4. Ooh, the two of you! Spoiler alert a little bit, why don’t you? As you can tell from all my subjunctives, I kind of like guessing what will come later in a book, even if I think that the book is so loosely plotted and structured that anything could be narrated.

    It’s interesting, Josh, that you say that you’ll put up with a novel with no, or a meandering, plot, as long as you are engaged with its protagonist. I am enough in agreement with you that I feel that my upcoming Big Old Funny Books course is going to start out with the hard sell, Gargantua & Pantagruel, because it has neither a real plot (albeit it has lots of comic anecdotes) nor real characterization; Don Quixote the easiest sell, for almost exactly the reason you give (I’m sure you were also thinking of Ulysses); and the other test case will be Tristram Shandy, which depends partly on whether you find the main characters (for most of the novel, Tristram’s father and his Uncle Toby) to be engaging but also whether you enjoy the narrative voice (the book’s full title is “The Life and Opinions” of Tristram Shandy, not “The Life and Adventures”) –this suggests to me that the readers who thought so highly of Kushner’s novel found her protagonist’s voice to be attractive, and I am duly trying to like and feel for Reno as a person with a life and opinions, not just a character who makes decisions.

    While I’m not surprised that you have been disappointed with the people themselves in this novel, Andreas, and with Kushner/Reno’s depiction of its milieu of poseurs and drifters and anarchists, I was wondering to what extent your stable of French Nietzscheans could be invoked to get a certain amount of sympathy or at least perhaps some parallax on this world. What would Bataille have thought of the Motherfuckers, or Foucault, or Deleuze and Guattari? As I said in my first post, there seemed to me ways that Kushner created an aesthetic for Reno that parallels interests of Paul Virilio and Baudrillard, neither of whom are quite in the French anarchist camp.

    Quant a moi, I’m in the funny position of finding the New York art world characters in this novel to be least appealing when they are being most aesthetic, i.e., I’ve had a long-standing grudge against Abstract Expressionism, and I’m not crazy about Warholian Pop either. The course I just taught about “Parisian” NY 1945-1968 was partly structured, consciously and very tendentiously so, to be about what was going in NY literature and culture “underneath” Abstract Expressionism and “before” Pop (even though Frank O’Hara loved the Abstract Expressionist painters as much as he loved the downtown painters who were still doing some figurative work, and even though the first New York event in which Warhol appears is in 1962, well before he founds The Factory). So perfectly clean steel and aluminum boxes, or the photographs of the tracks in salt of a motorbike wipe-out, don’t do anything for me at all (whereas Stanley’s monologue tape about the amputee fetishist couple is much more evocative for me). Watching Sandro and Reno get ahead in the art world with material like theirs is for me a bit like seeing Gilbert and Sullivan become hits in Victorian England: they are representative figures, but is it art?

    If you’ve got nothing to do and/or like Edmund White’s style, here’s a brief New York Times piece I found by him last night which he wrote in tandem with publicizing his own memoir, and in relation to Kushner’s novel and the other recent big novel about New York in the ’70s by Garth Risk Hallberg, “City on Fire”: the photos that accompany the article are by Peter Hujar, whose work just got a big retrospective at the Morgan Library in New York, which of course I missed ( ):

    The Gray Lady’s daily reviewer, whose taste I normally trust quite a lot, Dwight Garner, loved this book; the Cuban-American novelist Cristina García (pressed into service no doubt because Kushner’s first novel was “Telex from Cuba”), whose taste I normally don’t really trust, gave the weekly review of the book, and expressed exactly the same reservations that we’ve had so far.

    But I’m committed. I’ll start finishing this book right now.

    Comment by poc2666 | July 12, 2018

  5. I probably should have also said that I’ll gladly read a book with no plot or a meandering plot if it’s funny or otherwise entertaining. Tristram Shandy is funny and so is Don Quixote. I actually have less patience with Ulysses than some. I read it once, I can’t see rereading it.

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 12, 2018

  6. I am of course behind and right now cannot find my copy, but am popping in to say that the burlesque of the work to rule strike was fabulous. I recognize that there’s something a bit austere about the book but I mostly dig it. Good old Walt B came up in the last entry and Reno has something about the flaneur; her neighborhood isn’t Paris in the 19thC but another period of dislocating social churn. If I can’t find the book I’ll just blog about the time I ran into Abe in Venice.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 14, 2018

  7. It me

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 14, 2018

  8. the delightful and much more “naturally unnatural” set piece in the New York party of Stanley’s monologue tape of the lovers who have an amputation fetish

    which was echoed nicely in this bit:

    […]Luigi was also a soft-core pornographer with a foot and leg fetish, and sold that work in editions of very limited print runs that cost thousands of dollars.
    “I am stumped,” Luigi said […]

    (I’ll show myself out.)

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 14, 2018

  9. Anyway, while I’m not entranced with The Flamethrowers, it’s not nearly as dismaying to me as to the Signores Malbin & Kriefall above. Reno seems carried along on the tides of history (capital-H if you’re nasty) like some other protagonists I must have known. I am just reporting in from last Sunday’s page goal, but it does feel as if her transit has a kind of mounting specificity of alienation. Starting in the naive exclusion of being an artist in Nevada, tuned into a movement (land art) but not really a scene, she goes into the up-close personal alienation of trying to fit in to the New York art scene but lacking the moxie to land anywhere other than through her boyfriend, and then into the even more personal alienation of being a non-upper-class non-Italian at the villa of a wealthy family. I assume that we’re heading towards radical political alienation as her transit intersects that of the Valera family’s short century of exploitation. I’ll read on.

    I’m not sure what exactly we’ll see of left-wing terrorism, but I have been thinking about how much I liked the film The Baader-Meinhof Gang which portrays the acts and the words of the German 1970’s radicals with bracing clarity. These movements get passed down as a kind of empty performative madness or a demographic quirk, and the movie makes clear that this was a generation that was protesting both the ease with which their Nazi fathers had been reassimilated into an ostensibly liberal society, and the ruthlessness with which that society disposed of any young people who hadn’t figured out quite how to fit in. Along with Just Kids it would make a fine companion to Kushner’s book.

    Reno might have had a better run of it if she’d met Robert Mapplethorpe instead of Sandro Valera.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 14, 2018

  10. Moxie!

    Comment by poc2666 | July 15, 2018

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