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Flamethrowers III: Watching It Burn

I don’t think of myself as a contrarian critic, but as soon as I read Andreas and Joshua’s agreeing with my generally negative take on the middle of Kushner’s novel, I started liking the book better, including the structural flaws that anyone could point to, and I only got tetchy at the very end, or in some sense after the very end.  Arguably this is because in the last four chapters Reno is portrayed as being on (what I deem to be) the Right Side of History, and of art history; or rather, as the time-line of the novel gets a bit gnarled, Reno finally gets to be on the same side of history that Kushner herself seems to be on.

I say that the time-line of the novel starts to get gnarled.  This happens after chapter 15, which adheres to the straightforward time-line: after Reno sees Sandro and Talia, she impulsively gets in Gianni’s car and they drive to Rome, where she spends a tumultuous period in the political unrest of the summer of ’76 there, not officially with the Red Brigades or any other group with a clear ideology, but with the Volsci, which (Kushner makes this clear in the Afterword) Kushner approves of because they do not have a clear ideology. (One of the graffiti: “Underneath, a crude picture of an ass, and “What do we want?” “Everything” (271).)  She also approves of them because the Via del Volsci is so ugly, architectural proof that Italy’s postwar recovery was slapdash, unequal, and very limited (Kushner takes this theme up again briefly in the references to Italian neorealist cinema in the chapter dedicated to Sandro’s point of view, which argues that Italian history began with the founding of the Cinecittà studio but that its white telephone movies were left behind by actual Italian postwar history).  And, at least for me, Kushner finally hits the right balance between her critiques of ’70s sexism and her own tendency to not play well with other women in this chapter, which compares and contrasts  her situation with that of the other foreigner the group adopts, the pregnant blonde Sardinian-Frenchwoman who is not a photographer with a prestigious passport, but who rather is photographed and is virtually stateless; Reno is tolerated, but not quite liked, while the biondina is well liked but casually and routinely exploited.  Meanwhile, Kushner shows that Reno hasn’t left off being dependent on the alpha male in a situation, and she shows that Gianni both is and isn’t part of the Volsci; and she shows how the other women shun her, along one misunderstanding, just as the group had let her in at first under another misunderstanding  (“As we encountered people [Bene] knew, she introduced me as an American who told Roberto Valera to fuck off.  I didn’t want to let her down by saying that I’d done no such thing” (272)).

And Reno gets to see the riots, where she loses her own status as photographer by losing her camera.  It seems important to Kushner that Reno leave Italy with nothing but experience, no body of work that she could either use to help the world understand the events in Italy (what we might call the political and moral use of art) or turn into an art exhibit that would shore up her position in the New York art world (the crass, capitalistic uses of art that will be more overtly satirized in the next chapter).  K’sky said that Reno’s position here as a witness to history seems familiar to him, and he’s right:  the idea that a historical novel involves putting a fictional character into a real historical milieu goes all the way back to the beginnings of the historical novel, and theorized in Georg Lukács’s work of Marxist literary theory, The Historical Novel (written in 1937, but published in translation in English in 1963, much sooner than his Hegelian, pre-Marxist Theory of the Novel (1920/ 1971)).  Basing himself primarily on Scott, Thackeray, and Tolstoy, Lukàcs points out the preference of historical novelists to center their stories around peripheral people, who have to observe the events not as the actual movers and shakers of those historical times understood things, but as stand-ins for the that way that the reader might (only partially) understand them.  I also felt that Reno’s loss of her camera means that she cannot play the hero the way that whatshername does in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, documenting the violence of the Russian repression of the Prague Spring –but then, I barely remember that novel, and am going on memories of the movie:   moviemakers are much more likely to heroicize the makers of visual images.

[Let me put here my grouchy reaction to Kushner’s afterword/”portfolio”:  I thought the images were uninteresting in themselves and that really the afterword was her attempt to try to show the reader that she and Reno weren’t the same person and that she is a better person than her protagonist was.  The lady doth protest too much methinks.]

But as I said, this whole chapter follows the novel’s chronology without a hitch.  After this, she makes a decision to leap around: she saves Reno’s experience serving as a getaway car driver for Gianni until the last chapter, giving us plenty of time to imagine what the supposedly fateful trip really involved.  Instead, she jumps back into New York art life.  When I thought Kushner was trying to make us respect what Abstract Expressionism and action painting had devolved into by 1975, I disliked her narration; here, when she is in flat-out satirical mode, I was quite charmed.  Gloria Kastle’s offering of her vagina to anyone who wanted to put her hand into it really isn’t any more knuckleheaded than the things that Marina Abramovic did at the beginning of her career, and she wasn’t the only woman performance artist who seemed only to be able to critique female masochism and male misogyny by giving in to it.  Still, my favorite part of this chapter was the 15-page set piece which in its length threatens to capsize it:  Ronnie’s impromptu invention of an autobiographical incident which is actually a long coded message from him to Reno.  It wasn’t clear to me why Kushner had invented Ronnie in the first place; I had thought that he was the ’70s artist as vulgarian while Sandro got to be the artist as austere figure of order.  He is that –Reno is clear that the deliberate tastelessness of the photographs of bruised women (smartly related to Reno’s function as the girl whose white skin allows the filmmaker to correct for color) is highly prized by the art world because it is vulgar, even if the critics can’t say it flat out in 1977–.  He also gets to elucidate, in the ugliest way possible, the continuity between the high modernists like Pound/Eliot, the aloofness of the abstract expressionists, and the cool figuration from Pop through Warhol’s Factory:  “‘Let me introduce you to a concept  Two concepts, actually.  Important tools for surviving the human condition. One is called irony.  Say it with me. Eye-ron-ee. [I kept on misremembering his name as Robbie, not Ronnie.  I-Ronnie.] Now, the next is harder to pronounce, but let’s try.  Diss-sim-you-lay-shun'” (315).  Ronnie also gets a fifteen-page speech because it’s his interpretation of what Reno’s life has been like in the New York art world.  Reno wanted adventure and experience, and behaves as if she’d forgotten everything about her past life; she’s brought on board this adventure by older people who exploit her sexually; she doesn’t at all mind, until suddenly she minds and it’s time for her to go home again.  Of course that’s not the only way to read Reno’s experiences –for one thing, Ronnie’s adventure tale eliminates the idea that Reno has come into the art world in order to be an artist; Ronnie never claims that he was an apprentice who was learning the ropes in order to be the master of his own boat someday–.But it makes clear that Reno’s function for the older men who keep her around –in fact, to a certain extent also her function for Gloria and Stanley– was almost exclusively sexual (for the Kastles, faux-familial, too). “Hookers and children.”

I repeat, the length of the anecdote throws off the rhythm of the final chapters.  The description of the blackout riot was surprisingly short, compared to the amount of foreshadowing that this was supposed to be where all the novel’s parallelisms were leading to.  (But I loved the idea of her finally making it to the porn film and being in the movie theater when it happens.) Why so short?  I really don’t know.  I guess I am happy that Reno was merely a witness, and a personal not a photographical witness, and neither a great hero nor a great villain during this moment. (I myself missed out on it, since I spent the summer of 1977 as a visiting student at this crazy place in the California mountains, you won’t have heard of it).  You could imagine her rescuing people on her motorcycle from dangerous situations; you could imagine her (less coherently) joining in the anarchist violence (she hadn’t joined the violence in Rome); you could imagine her photographing things and people, again for either moral/ political motivations or for aesthetic profit.  Instead, her passivity is treated as a character note that is also the wisdom she has learned from experience:

People said it was despicable that looters would turn on their own, and target struggling and honest neighborhood businesses.  Their own.  But they misunderstood.  It didn’t matter whether looters hit a chain or their local jeweler.  To expect them to identify particular stores as enemies and others as friends was a confusion.  We buy gold, any condition.

Looting wasn’t stealing, or shopping by other means.  It was a declaration, one I understood, watching the juicer crash through the window: the system is in ‘off’ mode. And in ‘off’ mode, there is no private property, no difference between Burger King and Alvin’s Television Repair.  Everything previously hoarded behind steel and glass was up for grabs. (349)

So why doesn’t she join the looting?  Possibly she understands herself as one of those people who fully become themselves during a moment of crisis, like the guy with the pole or Burdmoore organizing the local children for massive vandalism, and becoming herself involves being fully on the outside looking in.  I was fine with her description of the riots until I read in the afterword that she was partly inspired by the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which seems so totally and utterly different from what she’s describing that I had no way to process it.  In the end I concluded that the impersonal generosity of the Volsci in Rome was supposed to echo what she had seen in Zuccotti Park, not the rioters, the young vandals in training, or even the doofus directing traffic with his pole on Spring and Mulberry.

Another rhythm error at the end of the novel was to jump in the next chapter to Sandro’s point of view to have his life summarized while he is waiting for the plane to head to Italy to return to his withholding mother and her grief over the death of the one son she got along with.  But I didn’t anticipate that the blackout would ground their plane, so I liked that, and more basically I finally decided that this chapter was “written by Reno,” that we were supposed to see this chapter not as an objective description of his thoughts but what Reno guesses that Sandro was thinking.  Just some turns of the phrase here and there sounded more like her than like an omniscient narrator.  Of course Reno is unlikely to have access to the kind of detailed anecdote we get of Sandro’s visit with his father to Brasilia, but I repeat, I preferred to see the story that way.

The final narratorial decision (before the stupid and bossy Afterword) was to finally give us the narration of her aiding and abetting someone she must posthumously conclude was one of her ex-lover’s brother’s assassins.  Again, it feels too short, and full of unnecessary authorial restraint:  why make a big deal of her own ability to ski when it’s Gianni, not she herself, who will be doing the skiing?  Is the implication that in radical politics, like avant-garde art in the ’70s, the women with the talent are forced to wait on the sidelines while men do less good jobs, at skills the women have trained in but for purposes they don’t really believe in?  Is waiting for Gianni different in kind than waiting for Sandro, because she angrily gives up on Sandro, whereas she can never know why Gianni could not appear at the rendezvous?  I found Kushner’s will-to-parallelism, without successfully pulling off the parallel (whereas I found Ronnie’s faux-autobiography to be a very successful instance of parallelism), to be inherently interesting, in part because I happen to not think that the political unrest in Italy in the ’70s ought to be compared to either the hollowness of the ’70s art world or New York’s riots in the long hot summer.

I might have picked a Big Book for us that I would have ended up liking more than I liked this one, but in the end I liked this one just fine.

July 15, 2018 - Posted by | boredom |


  1. I didn’t hate it, I was just a little bored and annoyed and didn’t feel like finishing it. I have started Donoso and it’s great, so I’m happy to be doing that with my time instead.

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 17, 2018

  2. I’ve enjoyed re-reading Donoso too –in fact, I’m almost a hundred pages into it: it’s going surprisingly fast. I remembered how much I liked the main character, and her complicated relationship with all the other people in the refugee camp, and although the back story about the Patriots and the Free Staters is a little confusing, it’s also fascinating. Who’d have thought that Donoso would know so much about the US-Canadian border? And who is the mysterious Una?

    Comment by poc2666 | July 17, 2018

  3. I agree with you about what you described as will-to-parallelism. I enjoy things placed next to other things to see what they tease out of one another, even if the relationship is neither clear nor stable.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 27, 2018

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