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
Pictured: A China girl from the 1970s