Between our monthly lists of must-reads, our listicles on varying topics, and our weekly Staff Picks, we recommend a rather large number of books here at Flavorwire. But which ones are really the best? In this new monthly feature, “What to Read Next,” your intrepid literary editor will opine on the book she’s loved the most this month. For April, it’s Rachel Kushner’s sophomore effort, The Flamethrowers.
Rachel Kushner’s luminous, fire-breathing second novel begins (more or less) with an accomplished setpiece: our narrator, an artist in her early 20s, riding her motorcycle in the Bonneville speed trials, skidding across the glistening Utah salt flats. The goal here — speed, honor — is so physically transient and yet precisely calculable, and Reno (this nickname, a reference to her origins, is the only name by which we will know her) is really there, she thinks, to take photos of the tracks her travel leaves behind. This idea pervades the rest of the novel, which is occupied by artists and revolutionaries in 1970s New York and Italy, who trade in liminal spaces and concepts, turning the invented over on their tongues, mixing it in their mouths with the real.
Indeed, this is a novel of language, of story, even beyond its own. There is Kushner’s own coiled, vivid prose, of course: “I ordered fish, which came whole. I picked around, not sure of the appropriate method, and finally decided to cut off the head. It sat on my plate like a shorn airplane fuselage. In its cavern, instead of menthol-smelling pilots, the dark muck of its former fish mind.” And of a waitress friend emerging from between bodies at a club: “She shone like something wet, a piece of candy that had been in someone’s mouth.” But the book is also suffused with the language of its characters, the constant chatter of the scene. Kushner is always investigating the stories within stories, the extent to which art (hers, her characters’) is a story told. There is Ronnie, a photographer who tells long tales that are either lies or truths or something in between, coded messages or throwaways. There’s Stanley, who records his own mindless yammerings and replays them at dinner parties. Reno’s boyfriend Sandro, Ronnie’s best friend, admires most the art that can never live past its concept: “Sandro’s favorite piece of Ronnie’s,” Reno tells us, “was a blithe declaration Ronnie once made that he hoped to photograph every living person. Sandro said it was Ronnie’s best work and something on the level of a poem: a gesture with no possible rebuttal.”
And then there’s the cover, a striking photograph of a young girl with streaks of war paint and a silencing X slapped over her mouth. We can’t help but look at it to see Reno, and by the end it seems that she has chewed off the muzzle of tape, gained a little self-actualization, though there might still be glue on her face. As Kushner told The Paris Review, this image was actually the first one she selected to give her inspiration for the novel: “A creature of language, silenced.”
Reno herself is one of the deftest parts of The Flamethrowers, the prose allowing us to be so close that we don’t even notice that we never catch her name, but pulling back enough that we see the whole world. After all, there seems to be so much more going on than Reno can catch — she’s no hyper-aware, convenient set of eyes that parses each interaction neatly for the reader. “You just seemed too young,” Ronnie tells her. “And you were. But honestly I don’t even know if you’d be different older. I like you. But there’s something you never seem to get.” Yes, but what is it? the reader asks. It’s transient, it’s art.
But the novel is not all the 1970s Manhattan art scene and its internal loves and betrayals. In the second half of the novel, Reno ventures to Italy, where she winds up in Rome during the riots of 1977. Here too is the tension between language and action, between what is tangible and what lives in the mind alone. And here, we can see our own world reflected back at us. As Kushner recently wrote, “While I wrote about ultraleft subversives, The Coming Insurrection, a book written by an anonymous French collective, was published in the United States, and its authors were arrested in France. As I wrote about riots, they were exploding in Greece. As I wrote about looting, it was rampant in London. The Occupy movement was born on the University of California campuses, and then reborn as a worldwide phenomenon, and by the time I needed to describe the effects of tear gas for a novel about the 1970s, all I had to do was watch live feeds from Oakland, California.”
So, there is touchdown at last, at least after a fashion. Something to hang on to in the midst of all the flames. Not that we really need it. Kushner’s novel is larger than life, but with its hooks firmly in the ground, as white-hot as its title, as murderously passionate as the girl on its cover. You should read it next.