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THE LADY’s NOT FOR BURNING: Rachel Kushner and the politics of the ‘70s

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The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner           Published by:  Harvill Secker $39.95

The first image that inspired The Flamethrowers, says Rachel Kushner, is that of a young woman with masking tape over her mouth; the second was of a Ducati motorcycle. There were other thoughts that flitted across her mind too – art and revolution. These elements coalesced to form the narrative base for her new novel.

Kushner, who is also a poet and essayist, came to prominence when her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, won a number of awards and was a New York Times bestseller in 2008. Dealing with the events that led to Castro’s Cuban revolution, it underpinned several themes that are obviously of great interest to her – politics, history and social change.

The Flamethrowers weaves all of these strands to create a multi-layered narrative that mashes the bohemian world of art in 1970s Manhattan into the turbulent underground politics sweeping across Italy at the same time. The novel’s 22 year-old heroine is never named, known only as Reno – the place she comes from. A motorcycle racer who breaks a world record for dashing across salt flats in her leathers, she nevertheless views herself primarily as an artist. She comes to New York to further her career and to discover life. Of course, she finds much more than she bargained for.

The Flamethrowers is (most satisfactorily) a coming-of-age novel, with (less satisfactorily) the building blocks of thriller thrown in. Manhattan in the 1970s was the birthplace of Minimalism. Artists were abandoning Abstract Expressionism for work that followed critic Clement Greenberg’s dictum of being non-representative and an experiment in pure form. This is the world that Reno falls into – naïve, almost childlike in the way she trusts and follows others, she becomes the girlfriend of one such artist, Sandro Valera, heir to an Italian motorcycle fortune. The reader follows her through the precious, vacuous, self-referencing world of art, full of jostling egos and petty jealousies and vendettas. It’s a wonderfully satirical portrait filled with memorable characters and a deliciously wicked depiction of the Chattering Classes. How these people talk! One monologue goes on for 13 pages! Wide-eyed, with a curious innocence, Reno takes all this in, non-judgmentally, a blank canvas waiting to be written on.

The second half of the novel sees Sandro and Reno travelling to Italy, where they visit the matriarchal mansion on Lake Como, ostensibly for Reno to compete in a motorcycle trial. Again, Kushner takes us into the privileged world of the Italian upper class, with its snobberies and prejudices. It’s here that the novel begins to unravel. During the 1970s, revolution was in the air. In 1978 the Red Brigades killed the leader of the Christian Democrats and former prime minister of Italy, Aldo Moro. Kidnappings of rich industrialists were rife. Hundreds of thousands of people, many armed, gathered to protest against government corruption in the streets of Rome. Factories and public servants went on strike. Pulled in, almost by accident, into riots and a Red Brigade-like terrorist cell, Reno has to grow up very quickly and take matters into her own hands.

Kushner’s prose combines the intensely poetical with a flair for objective reportage. Yet there is a sense, in the Italian part, that she is simply reproducing vast tracts of research and background reading and twisting it into plot. The disparate story-lines mesh uneasily, the characters’ arcs sag. She’s much more comfortable in the New York sections of the book, where the narrative sparkles and the protagonists pulsate with life. There are protestors and gangs in New York, too – revolution is in the air, both politically and artistically. The novel also intersperses Reno’s story with that of the original founder of the Valera factory just after the first World War. This is perhaps the most awkward part of the narrative, as Kushner takes up Valera and runs with him for a few sections, and he is then, inexplicably, abandoned.

Nevertheless, Kushner is an excellent commentator on the changing role of women. With the rise of feminism in the 1970s, women were beginning to experience new freedoms. The Flamethrowers captures women on the cusp of social independence, making their way and plotting career paths, yet still at the mercy of men who choose, use and then forget them. Reno and her friends have little say in this. Their ambiguous status is symbolized by Reno’s day job as a “China girl”, whose faces were used to adjust color densities in film processing. Most were secretaries who worked in film labs.  As Kushner writes: “If the projectionist loaded the film correctly, you didn’t see the China girl. And if you did, she flashed by so quickly she was only a quick blur. They were ubiquitous and yet invisible, a thing in the margin that was central to each film, these nameless women that, as legend has it, were traded among film technicians and projectionists like baseball cards.”

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is Kushner’s use of archive photographs to introduce chapters of the book. They show her extensive research, her desire for accuracy and objectivity and are of great historical interest. The title of her novel is not arbitrary: there were real Flamethrowers – the Arditi of the first World War, an elite troop of Italian soldiers who breached enemy defences in order to prepare the way for a broad infantry advance. Kushner’s characters are also Flamethrowers in a sense, blitzing their way through artistic and political environments with mixed success. It’s an apt metaphor for the novel itself.

Read it: to discover an author who blends the political and personal, often with devastating effect

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Pictured: A China girl from the 1970s

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Where are the Women? A fresh look at James Salter

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All That Is, by James Salter

Published by: Picador    $29.99

James Salter’s new novel All That Is, is his first in 34 years. Not that he’s been idle. There  have been short story collections and his memoir, Burning the Days. Salter, an iconic figure in American literature, has had an extraordinarily varied writing life. Now 87, he was a war hero, serving as a fighter pilot in Korea (his novel, The Hunters, examines his wartime experiences). He then became a full time writer in New York and Paris before the Hollywood phase of his writing took over – he wrote the screenplays for acclaimed films such as Downhill Racer.

At a time when Philip Roth has declared there will be no more novels, it is heartening to see an older writer still very much in control of the medium. There are sentences in All That Is that are so carefully wrought, so luminous, a reader could weep with delight. There is no doubt Salter combines the rigorous and the poetic and he is a master of form. Why then, do I have so many reservations about the novel?

The first reason is Salter’s central character, Philip Bowman. In may ways he is a typical Salter hero, an action man and naval officer who after the Second World War, begins a career in publishing.  We see the burgeoning success of his career as a New York editor, track his first disastrous marriage and witness a series of doomed affairs, before (SPOILER ALERT!) his meeting with a woman with whom, the reader senses, he will spend the rest of his life. We meet his friends and colleagues and peer into their lives, which very much counterpoint or reflect Bowman’s own.

The sweep of the novel traces Bowman’s lifepath from the last days of WW2 to what appears to be the end of the 1980s. This is a momentous period in American history – TV, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Civil Rights Movement, hippies, man on the moon, the IT revolution, the rise of feminism – the list of upheavals and innovations goes on and on, and yet none of this is tackled in the novel, which glosses over the shifting socio-cultural landscape as if it were a paranthesis.

Salter writes at the end of one chapter: “A frightening thing had happened. The president had been shot in Dallas”. And that’s 1963 dismissed, along with one of the most emotional and game-changing events in US politics. In the next chapter we’re back in the navel-gazing world of publishing and its smug acolytes. This is a network of WASP men, with hermetically-sealed WASP values that seem to hover somewhere around the 1930s. The handful of Jews who infiltrate this world are assimilated – no other ethnic minorities are represented.

Indeed, Bowman personifies the blinkered, prejudiced, retro-looking white American male. He is irritatingly self-satisfied and self-absorbed. He’s a lover of art and music, of Paris and good food, but if you told him that across town from his comfortable Manhattan condo there were single parent families living in poverty, rat-infested houses, racial unrest, he would probably look at you in disbelief. It’s a long time since I’ve met a protagonist in a novel so socially unaware. And it’s hard not to wonder if Salter is also out of touch with the dynamics and concerns of contemporary society.

Salter’s defenders would no doubt reply that the novel dissects and satirises a certain time and class, but I think he’s in deadly earnest.  It is telling that the most vibrant and affecting passages concern Bowman’s time fighting during the war. Here, there is an immediacy, a sense of empathy with his fellow-man that is not seen in the remainder of the novel.

This lack of empathy is especially true concerning Bowman’s attitude towards women. To backtrack for a moment: All That Is has received glowing reviews, but I’ve yet to see one female critic among the fulsome accolades accorded by the male reviewers I’ve scanned. Nor do any women writers appear on the book jacket, where you can read  plaudits by Julian Barnes, Tim O’Brien, Edmund White and (most disappointingly, as he’s one of my literary gods), John Banville.

To backtrack further, Salter’s treatment of women in his fiction to date has been equivocal at best. The women in his books are admired, worshipped, lusted over and possessed sexually, but they are also talked at (rarely conversed with) and patently intellectually inferior. Salter can write paragraphs of the most glorious sensuality and eroticism (A Sport and a Pastime arguably contains some of the best-written sex in literature – though written entirely from the male perspective) but the relationships between men and women outside the bedroom are strained.

All That Is continues in the same vein. Here’s a young Bowman with Vivian, soon to be his wife. On a previous date, he told her to read Hemingway (she hadn’t). Then:

“He wanted to go on talking about Ezra Pound and introduce the subject of the Cantos, perhaps reading one or two of the most brilliant  of them to her, but Vivian’s mind was elsewhere”.

Clearly, Vivian’s not up to such lofty discourse. Again, here’s a description of a girl met at a party. “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” 

Demeaning as this is, more disturbing is the way Salter completely ignores gender politics and the advances women have made over the past 50 years. Television series such as Madmen chronicle the evolution of women in the workforce and their transition from lowly secretaries in the 1950s to power-brokers. But Salter’s women never cross that threshold. They may work and hold down serious jobs yet their status remains ill-defined. Here’s a snatch of conversation that dates circa 1980, late in the novel, with Bowman very much an elder statesman by this time.

Claire continued talking about Susan Sontag. What did they really think of her – she meant what did Bowman think……

“All powerful women cause anxiety”, he said.

“Do you really think so?”……

“Men do”, he said.

That exchange almost took my breath away. It’s not only the way Sontag (one of 20th century culture’s most clear-sighted analysts) is so casually dismissed.  This scene is also a lesson in how to alienate a female audience and completely implausible given the inroads women had made by the Eighties. Whatever Bowman’s personal views, he could never, ever, have uttered them so publicly. In the next line, we read that Claire considers Bowman’s reply “chauvinistic”, yet instead of rebutting him, she goes on to make a drunken fool of herself.

Thirty pages and some plot twists later, the novel ends, with Bowman attaining a kind of peace, reconciling himself with all that is, was and is to come. Yet as a female reader, I felt cheated. Far from an epic narrative that scrutinises what it is to be human in the 20th century, I was left considering all that the novel was not but could have been.  If this is to be Salter’s last book, it holds its place uneasily and divides more than it conquers.

Read it: To observe a supreme stylist at work