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

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain