The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner: A paradoxical kind of failure

Rachel Kushner’s new novel bursts forth with life, anecdote and evocation. She is a writer infinitely addicted to noticing, but despite her energy and skill, the book fails to produce the required momentum.

The Flamethrowers
Rachel Kushner
Harvill Secker, 400pp, £16.99

Rachel Kushner’s new novel – her second, but the first to be published in this country – is a paradoxical kind of failure, a blast of talent and ingenuity that makes for heavy reading. There is plenty of life here, plenty of anecdote and evocation, of nature notes and film analysis, of paired adjectives and spry similes (turtles are “friendly and lethargic, as heavy and dense as bowling balls”), but the local energy, though unflagging and often spectacular, never translates into momentum.

The Flamethrowers opens with a set piece, a land-art experiment undertaken by a Nevadan biker chick known as Reno (“I come from reckless, unsentimental people”), which involves a daredevil ride across Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

It’s a striking scene, but once the ride is over, the action rewinds to show us how it came about – how Reno fell in with the New York art crowd, how she procured the equipment for her record-breaking ride. A hundred pages pass before we reach Reno’s “triumphant” return to New York, and then just as we seem to be getting going, there’s a 20-page dinner party scene, followed by a tenpage bar scene, and then a ten-page list of the past activities of a defunct political street gang, the Motherfuckers (“Robbed a Chemical Bank, on Delancey Street . . . Robbed a Chemical Bank on Seventh Avenue . . . Robbed a Chemical Bank on Broadway and Seventy-Ninth Street”).

The novel’s other strand, told in a third person that may or may not be Reno in a historian’s hat, concerns Valera, an Italian born in the 1880s who becomes a successful industrialist specialising in tyres and motorcycles. If Reno’s role is to show us where we are – a period of political instability, in New York and later Rome – then Valera’s role is to tell us how we got here: via futurism, industrialism, fascism, colonialism (slave labour in Brazil) and anti-fascism.

Ideas about time and speed serve as a means of controlling the flow of incident and detail – Italy racing into the future in the early years of the 20th century, the art world’s obsession with duration (“a ten-minute-long film of a clock as it moved from ten o’clock to ten minutes after ten”), life coming to a standstill during a riot in Rome and a blackout in New York. But what formally links the two main characters is Sandro, Valera’s disgruntled younger son and Reno’s first real boyfriend.

Reno’s descent into the chaos of political activism is told alongside Valera’s rise to political influence, the apparent aim being to build a picture of modern Italy and to track the origins of the Oedipal resentment felt by Sandro’s generation.

Kushner’s taste for trivia, and the lack of a conventional causal plot, put a limit on the novel’s forward movement. The Reno scenes in particular might have benefited from the occasional promise of future treats, like the “next time on . . .” bit at the end of TV dramas. Many specialists in first-person narrative –Kazuo Ishiguro, Graham Swift – find it useful to drop the odd clue, as a way of generating suspense; even Don DeLillo’s Underworld, another here-and-there, then-andnow novel and presumably one of Kushner’s models, reveals that Nick Shay has shot a man and then withholds the facts for almost 500 pages.

On the rare occasions that Reno makes use of hindsight, the flash-forwards are hardly specific enough to be tantalising: “it was the beginning of the end for me, some kind of end”, “I never would have guessed that any of the bad news would have an impact on me”. For much of The Flamethrowers, though, Kushner deploys an odd shortcut whereby Reno has prophetic hunches in real time – she “knew”, on first meeting Sandro’s cousin, that “Talia Valera was going to take something away from me”, and suddenly decides, during a conversation with a friend, that “there might be reason to doubt everything” she says.

In the earliest of Reno’s inklings, during her first encounter with the SoHo art crowd, she “strangely” intuits that her new friends, in “unraveling any sense of order I was trying to build in my new life”, were also her only chance to “ravel my life into something”.

The image primes the reader for Reno’s coming of age but it’s only in the final pages that we begin to glimpse trajectories or even threads. It emerges, for example, that one of the novel’s central aims has been to provide the full relevant context for Reno’s relationship with Sandro, though the reader would be forgiven for having seen the relationship as a way of securing Reno the best motorbike equipment for her land-art project, much as the time she spent as a student in Florence has endowed her with a convenient grasp of Italian.

Even the scenes notionally concerned with Reno and Sandro are derailed by other interests. On their first date –“He called. We met”– they go to Chinatown:

We’d eaten the lotus paste buns on a cold, damp November day, on which the sun shone and rain fell simultaneously,
the strange, rosy-gold light of this contradiction intensifying the colors around us as we walked, the fruits and vegetables in vendors’ bins, green bok choys, smooth, sunset-colored mangoes packed into cases, the huge, spiny durian
fruits in their nets, crushed ice tinged with fish blood.

It is hard to find much personal feeling in all this set design, and in any case, virtually every scene in the novel is similarly overdressed. Kushner is a writer infinitely addicted to noticing, as Henry James once said about himself. And in giving her noticer’s skills to an outsider, a young woman striving to plot “coordinates”, she has followed the author of Daisy Miller and The Ambassadors – with the difference that Kushner foregoes the one thing, what James variously called “pattern”, “method”, and “doing”, that turned his addiction into art.

Smoking: Kushner's novel features biker chick Reno. Photograph: "Gabrielle" by Caitlin Teal Price.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:

 

You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.

 

It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue