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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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain