Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, is a brazenly complex, and at times both scathing and complacent sketch of society. The novel centers on a young woman nicknamed Reno — after her origin city. Set in the mid ’70s, Reno arrives in New York seeking to develop and crisscross her art and love for speed – motorcycle speed.
Once in New York, Reno struggles to find her center, her barren apartment “was about as blank and empty as [her] new life” (44). She falls in with a group of artists whose identities range from a disillusioned Warhol Factory girl to a zealous revolutionary, all punctuated by a handful of imperious artists. The settings oscillate between Nevada, New York, and Italy but all serve their purpose in illuminating Reno’s motives.
Kushner’s prose deftly conveys sentiment and attitude. More so, her descriptions of the Bonneville Salt Lines, the feel of a luxury car, or the motivations of radical leftist organizations are masterful and poignant. Yet the story itself is aimless and prolonged. Thus, patience and fortitude are required to really enjoy Kushner’s work.
The plot itself is not exceptional. Nor does Kushner attempt to inflate the moments of flatness with superficial affect. The narrative’s pace is slow and at times verging on sluggishness. However, it seems Kushner is calculatingly pacing herself. Rather than slowness, this is obviously Kushner’s control of the plot and a systematic release of intensity. Perhaps Kushner stated a claim for herself when she wrote: “What happens slowly carries in each part the possibility of returning to what came before” (31). But it’s arguable that the plot is not the attraction here: it’s simply the vehicle carrying the characters.
The multitude of characters, with defined idiosyncrasies and full personalities, are the highlight of the entire text. The characters are tricky, though, and depending on your standpoint, you’ll either experience them as visionaries or myopic hipsters.
The more engaging moments of The Flamethrowers are the stories the characters tell each other. One poignant example is derived from the secondary character Ronnie, whose confidence and bravado are frequently undermined by his own lack of awareness. In such an instance, Ronnie volunteers to drive a friend’s beloved pet rabbits to Texas in a stylish and stunning luxury car. Unfortunately, the rabbits die en route. But Ronnie does not notice because he was preoccupied with how the car enhanced his image. His story becomes more and more complicated to include drag queens, the murder of a rooster, and a BBQ celebrating either forgiveness or the severance of a friendship.
This tale is long and Kushner spares no details in establishing Ronnie as a verbose egoist. Ronnie’s parable serves as a prime example of Kushner’s writing style. Where Ronnie and the rabbits seemingly do not have a direct impact on Reno or the progression of the story, he demonstrates Reno’s circle, her people, and a piece of her self. Thus, characterization in The Flamethrowers is adroitly written. Or as Kushner suggests, “What happens between bodies during an insurrection is more interesting than the insurrection itself” (191). To adapt her point, what happens between characters during a story is more interesting than the story itself.
Performance, and the acting of one’s identity is an essential idea to The Flamethrowers. Throughout the novel each character has their turn at reciting their social roles. For example, Giddle performing as a waitress, Sandro performing as a radical artist, or Reno confessing that “there was a performance in riding the Moto Valera through the streets of New York…” (297).
Kushner zealously reminds readers that our identities and relationships with others are performances based on ideas we have learned and practiced. Despite our deep and emotive bonds, we essentially serve as the audience. Yet we can defy and conform these performances, as demonstrated by the characters. Therefore, there is room to argue that The Flamethrowers seeks to dis-identify and destabilize normative practices and representations. By doing so, we need to call into question the fixity of identity and reexamine what we think we know from the vantage point of difference and its disruptive possibilities.
Reno is a frustrating character to take on from a feminist perspective. She seems to float through life, exhibiting a modicum of ambition or self-worth. She is uncomfortable in almost every social or professional situation. She is most placated as a China girl; a woman’s image used in movie reels to focus the film. A China girl is barely noticeable, “Her presence there in the margin, her serving to establish and maintain a correct standard of appearance, female appearance” (93). Essentially China girls are anonymous; which is Reno’s preferred state of being. Rather than actively pursue her own life “[Reno] admired people who had a palpable sense of their future” (125). Even when she finds herself central to the radical leftist movement in Italy, she functions with reluctance.
Here, Kushner is heavy handily demonstrating Reno’s fluidity from the margin to the center. But why does it have to be so taciturn? Throughout, I wanted Reno to be more assertive and confident, to not constantly remind herself of her critics, to do as she wanted and scoff at anything and anyone that jeopardized her agency. Yet there is room to critique my desire to redraw Reno. As chapter six is called “Imitation of Life”, perhaps Reno’s passive characteristics are more reflective of Kushner’s commentary suggesting that no one’s life is absolute despite the ideologies we hold.
Seemingly, The Flamethrowers is tainted with subtle moments of misogyny. For example, Reno’s moniker is adopted from Ronnie. Sandro, her boyfriend, makes a point of dressing her in a gown that “was beautiful, [with] such a flattering cut” (225). Here the male characters figuratively create Reno. Moreover, anti-woman themes are expressed when Ronnie produces a gallery display of bruised women. Or when a young pregnant woman is taken advantage of and Reno watches “the [naked] girl, being pushed into the shower” (286).
It’s hard to decipher Kushner’s motivation here: hopefully she is attempting to capture an era of inequality, acerbic masculinity, and gender violence. Although such an image might prove to be essentialist. As such, female characters are, unfortunately, sacrificed for the sake of narrative and perhaps a dominant understanding of history.
Other reviewers tend to call The Flamethrowers a coming of age novel, however I disagree. Rather it’s a snapshot of a woman’s life and nothing more: her journeys up to and pass these pages are unknown to us. Thus, Kushner subtly, albeit deliberately, submerges readers into a moment rather than era.
Kushner is a gifted wordsmith, and The Flamethrowers exemplifies her jurisdiction over language. However, the plot itself is flat and lacking range. To enjoy this novel requires a similar appreciation for language and patience for a meandering narrative.