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.

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

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.