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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era