The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, 2013)
The Flamethrowers promises the glamour of the art scene in New York, the erotic foreignness of Italy, and the speed and danger of motorcycles. But underneath the mysteries of being an artist or gallerist or of the Italian wealthy, Kushner shows a world where women are raped (literally and metaphorically) and no one pauses—no one stops moving forward.
Reno, the protagonist who remains unnamed—referred to by this nickname, moves to New York in the late 70s. She is sought out by an older, rich, male artist and moves along a sequence of events that she doesn’t really play a part in. The pair travels to Italy together, but separately she ends up involved in the worker strikes. Reno returns to New York alone and her flashbacks slowly reveal what happened to her.
Kuschner’s detailed but not bogged-down prose makes it look incredibly easy to capture life in one or two simple sentences. She revisits the jagged life of a 22 year old and writes about it in an extraordinarily compelling way. For example: Reno has a friend help her get ready for a job interview. She realizes, “It was that the whole charade of getting me ready to be looked at by whoever had placed that ad had exposed me to something. In myself. I looked at me as if I were someone else looking at me, and this gave me a weightless feeling, a buoy of nervous energy. I wanted to be looked at. I hadn’t realized until now. I wanted to be looked at. By men. By strangers.”
In an essay about The Flamethrowers Kushner states, “I was faced with the pleasure and headache of somehow stitching together the pistols and the nude women as defining features of a fictional realm, and one in which the female narrator, who has the last word, and technically all the words, is nevertheless continually overrun, effaced, and silenced by the very masculine world of the novel she inhabits.” The historical events and elements she chose to weave together—Italy during WWI, the 70s New York art scene, workers revolts in Italy in the 70s, and motorcycles—are environments that restrict the movements of women, and Kushner explores how they try to assert themselves into their world.
At a point, Reno’s wealthy boyfriend says, “A young woman is a conduit. All she has to do is exist.” He waves away her artistic practice and this is one of so many examples in the book of how the art world—a place where objects rule—suppressed the women involved. Motorcycles play a similar role in the novel and as Reno heads to the Bonneville Salt Flats, a man tells her, “You won’t look nearly so good when they’re loading you off the highway in a body bag.”
Through all the art openings, dinners with gallerists, and staying at her boyfriend’s family villa in Italy, Reno watches and watches and watches and barely says a word.
To read an extended essay by Rachel Kushner and see images that inspired/informed The Flamethrowers, see The Paris Review.