Archive for Italy

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2013 by Nick Merrill

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers begins and ends in medias res. It’s richly written, peppered with lush imagery and delectable storytelling. It’ s a 1970s period piece featuring a young female artist/motorcyclist as its protagonist. Known only as Reno, she witnesses artistic and economic upheavals in America and Italy. Reno’s story is a bildungsroman; she struggles with passivity, continually evaluating her place in a tumultuous world.

Most of the novel centers on Reno’s experience with an artistic social circle in New York. She develops complicated relationships with two men: macho sculptor and industrial heir Sandro Valera and the continually ironic artist Ronnie Fontaine. Sandro crafts aluminum boxes to be appreciated in and of themselves; they aren’t supposed to have symbolic meaning. Ronnie’s art is more diverse and chaotic. At one point, he convinces drunken women to punch themselves so that he can photograph them.

Of the two, Ronnie is the more flamboyant character. Reno’s perception of him is almost larger than life. He’s one of those people whose stories, though often fictitious, always contain some moral or thematic truth. Beneath his pompously sarcastic exterior, there is, of course, a vulnerable, insecure core. Sandro, Reno’s boyfriend, is more serious, but he struggles with issues of class and identity, rejecting his patrician upbringing. He’s willing to be apart from his family, but unwilling to really challenge them. He earns enough to live on, but he won’t turn down the benefits of privilege.

Reno herself takes a backseat to these grander personalities. She rarely takes action; when she first moves to the city, she waits for events to happen to her. When she’s with Sandro, she lets him, 14, years older, be her leader and mentor. Meanwhile, she attempts to align her interests in motorcycles and art, hoping to pioneer a form composed of speed and geometry. Her idea is half-formed; it has potential but lacks some vital ingredient that she hopes to find as she goes speed-racing in the salt flats.

Kushner’s prose is near perfect. Her similes hit that sublime spot between implicit and explicit; they elucidate without over-explaining; they give you the tools to imagine and explore. She demonstrates the irreplaceability of prose as a storytelling medium, how richly it can show while embracing the ambiguities of perception.

Kushner’s characters love to tell stories, especially Ronnie. They’re sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but often both. This gives the book an episodic nature, though it’s not fragmented or choppy. The narrative is non-linear, but it flows well, taking us from thought to thought, anecdote to anecdote. It’s not fast, but it’s often flashy; Kushner’s imagery oscillates between sexy and grotesque. Neon lights and speed permeate the novel. Reno’s obsessed with time; her velocity-centric art is an attempt to transcend and control it.

Kushner has a rich sense of setting. She deftly transports us to the elite world of 1970s modern art. We get a feel for Sandro’s minimalism and Ronnie’s pop culture observations. When the book shifts to Rome in a time of youth revolt and riot, its frenetic, detailed descriptions of urban chaos are terrifyingly beautiful.

The New York art world’s elitism and exclusivity juxtaposes with the open, disordered rebellion of Italy’s workers, but each share a desire to progress, to overhaul existing modes of thought. If Kushner’s portrayal of counter-culture has a weakness, it’s that she doesn’t spend much time detailing the culture being countered. But this is a minimal flaw; ultimately, Kushner has an enviable ability to immerse us in a movement and its moment.

The novel is interspersed with flashbacks detailing how Sandro’s father came to found the Valera company, which makes motorcycles and tires, among other things. These passages add greater historical dimension to the novel; they add context to the existing state of the Valera company, dominant but plagued by worker unrest. They put an intimate face behind the corporate front.

Kushner’s characterization, though mostly effective, occasionally falters as her creations fall into types. Sandro’s family, in particular, is guilty of this, consisting of his mother, the cold, snobbish matriarch, and his brother, the cold, ruthless business man. These characters feel one dimensional and lazily written.

Fortunately, others like Ronnie, Sandro, and Reno’s friend Giddle truly come alive. Reno herself feels somewhat incomplete, but that’s the point. She’s not a cipher; she has unique hopes and habits, but she’s somewhat adrift, relying on the guidance of others. Her lack of a first name is too symbolically obvious; at one point, Ronnie tells her that he’d like to get to know her because he doesn’t think she knows herself.

Though there’s no overarching plot to conclude, the resolution is satisfying. There’s a thematic finality to the book’s final passages; Reno comes to a realization about her engagement with the world, about the futility of waiting for an answer to the question of self.

The Flamethrowers is a brilliant mix of mood, character, and anecdote. It’s a lovely novel that’s intellectual but not difficult. It’s vivacious and satisfying, best read in the sun, sipping a glass of white wine.