THE FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kushner

Book Quote:

“Telling Sandro these things collapsed the layers between me as woman and me as child. Sandro saw both, loved both. He understood they were not the same. It was not the case that one thing morphed into another, child into woman. You remained the person you were before things happened to you.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (JAN 1, 2014)

There isn’t much plot in this novel, but it is a hell of story/Bildungsroman of a young woman known as just Reno, an art studies graduate in 1977 who dared to race her Moto Valera motorcycle at high-speed velocities to create land art. Land art was a “traceless art” created from leaving an almost invisible line in the road from surging speeds at over 110 mph. “Racing was drawing in time.” Literally and figuratively.

This era generated a seminal movement in New York where artistic expression in the subversive sect was animate, inflamed, ephemeral, breathing — a mix of temporal and performance art and the avant-garde/punk scene. This was also an age of conceptual art, which grew out of minimalism and stressed the artist’s concept rather than the object itself. Time was the concept of Reno’s art, something to be acted upon.

“You have time. Meaning, don’t use it, but pass through time in patience, waiting for something to come. Prepare for its arrival. Don’t rush to meet it. Be a conduit…I felt this to be true. Some people might consider this passivity but I did not. I considered it living.”

The novel, narrated by Reno, is all about her observation and experiences as she comes of age in a revolutionary time. She lives in a shabby, run-down hole in the wall in New York–“blank and empty as my new life, with its layers upon layers of white paint like a plaster death mask over the two rooms, giving them an ancient urban feeling.”

As she gets caught up with the underground movement in the East Village, called Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers, and later with the Red Brigades of Rome, Reno is herself a conduit for the people she meets and gets involved with, such as her older, rebellious boyfriend, Sandro Valera, son of the Fascist-friendly mogul of Valera motorbikes.

Reno came to New York by way of Nevada, eager to demonstrate her art through photography and motorbikes. She’s “shopping for experience.” Sometime after a particularly moving one-night stand, and attempting to navigate her life and bridge her isolation and loneliness, she meets sculptor Sandro Valera and his friends, a group of radicals and artists who offer her exposure to working-class insurrection in this “mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh, and you simply found your pulse, your place.”

Reno was looking for a sense of identity, and she wanted enchantment.

“Enchantment means to want something and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you aren’t going to get it.”

The bridge between life and art, and Reno’s invigorating speed of 148 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats, (where she went with her new friends to make land art), demonstrates the crossover between gestures and reality, and a liberating energy that was “an acute case of the present tense. Nothing mattered but the milliseconds of life at that speed.”

On the one hand, Reno seeks self-sovereignty, but on the other hand, she inhabits a male-dominated and often misogynistic landscape where men exploit women for artistic and political gain. When she visits Sandro’s family in Italy, she is subjected to derision by Sandro’s misanthropic brother and his sneering mother.

In another scene, a male photographer asks women to punch themselves in the face until they are battered, and then pose for him. Reno narrates this with an unemotional but subtle raillery, noting the incongruity of women on a pretense of independence. She acutely observes that “certain acts, even as they are real, are also merely gestures.” And, in Rome, the question of feminine mystique versus male dominance is addressed by a Red Brigade revolutionary radio broadcaster, when he states to women that “Men connect you to the world, but not with your own self.”

Are women “meant to speed past, just a blur” as Reno speculates? And the more I think about that line, the more paradox it evokes.

Artists, dreamers, terrorists, comrades, iconoclasts, all populate this novel, replete with iconic images and fallen debris in a swirl of electrical momentum. New York and Rome aren’t just scenic backdrops; they come alive as provocateurs– firebrand cities with flame-throwing agitators.

Kushner is a heavyweight writer, a dense, volatile and sensuous portraitist of the iconographic and the obscure. Arch and decisive moments throughout the novel heighten the ominous tension that rumbles below the surface, and the reader wholly inhabits the spaces of Reno’s consciousness, and those of the people she meets.

“All you can do is involve yourself totally in your own life, your own moment…And when we feel pessimism crouching on our shoulder like a stinking vulture…we banish it, we smother it with optimism. We want, and our want kills doom. That is how we’ll take the future and occupy it like an empty warehouse. It’s an act of love, pure love. It isn’t prophecy. It’s hope.”

AMAZON READER RATING: from 194 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner (April 2, 2013)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Rachel Kushner
EXTRAS:
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January 1, 2014 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2013 Favorites, Contemporary, Facing History, italy, Literary, New York City, Reading Guide, Theme driven, Unique Narrative, y Award Winning Author