Rachel Kushner’s The Flame Throwers

Flamethrowers coverYou’ve probably heard the buzz around Rachel Kushner’s strange beast The Flamethrowers. If not, the novel can be roughly summarised as an extended meditation on art and radicalism in 1970s New York and Italy, delivered by way of a bildungsroman of twenty-three-year-old artist Reno, whose initial project is to race her motorcycle across the Utah salt flats and then photograph her tracks because art ‘had to involve risk, some genuine risk’ (10). The narrative is made up of many secondary-character anecdotes — almost every character has the chance to deliver a monologue, and Reno is the passive recipient of much mansplaining — and, given that it’s a meaty book with a lot to say and about which has been said a lot already, I thought I’d focus on a theme (among many) that I found particularly rich.

This was the tension between a woman’s traditional role and more independent, autonomous possibilities, particularly with regards to art in its broadest sense. The tension manifests most often as the role of the muse or the object of the (male) gaze, as compared with the role of the artist. It’s interesting that Kushner’s ambitious project has stirred commentary about this very idea in the literary sphere (Wikipedia’s ghettoisation of female writers, for example, or questions about whether a woman can write the Great American Novel).

While the opening described in the one-sentence summary above — riding a motorcycle solo at high speed — sounds pretty autonomous, Reno is in fact riding a bike that her moneyed, older, successful artist boyfriend gave her, so the tension is present from the beginning. After arriving in New York from Nevada, Reno narrates: ‘I’d thought this was how artists moved to New York, alone, that the city was a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh, and you simply found your pulse, your place’ (46). This assumption proves naive, however, because it’s some time before Reno does find a place on the scene, and indeed she is only admitted through becoming renowned minimalist Sandro’s girlfriend. It’s not who she is or what she does that helps her find her place, then, but who she’s attached to.

Reno’s initiation into the arts scene is painstakingly detailed: pages 140 to 206 cover a single night, from a bar to friend Ronnie’s place to dinner at an influential couples’ house, back to the bar and then home. Yet, tellingly, the chronology of the novel’s story ends with Reno alone again, ‘but it was a different alone. Things had happened’ (344). The importance of experience for the artist, and for the artwork, is alluded to, then — but also the importance of aloneness for the female artist, in the sense of forging one’s path without taking shortcuts via men, and participating in art not by inspiring it but by making it (the former, of course, is traditionally an easier, more socially acceptable and condoned way for a woman to be involved in art). The process of growth from the one to the other comes by way of a number of peripheral female characters, and even simply images of women, some of whom follow:

There is Giddle, a waitress who has convinced herself that she is living her life as a performance art piece — she doesn’t consider herself a waitress but rather a woman playing the role of waitress — without an audience, or at least without an audience conscious of the fact that they are witnessing a performance. Sadness hangs in swathes around this character, for all her gutsyness and tall-tale telling.

The next woman Reno meets is Nadine, who she quickly understands to be her rich companion’s ‘airy nonsense-maker, a bubble machine, and occasionally he would be in the mood for that’ (54).

Then there is the Layaway girl, Ronnie’s booty call, who Reno sees in a picture at Ronnie’s during the epic night mentioned above, and then notices hovering in the bar later on.

Later that night, while waiting for Sandro, Reno watches a late-night film in which the female protagonist has her hair in curlers and then looks at ‘mannequins for guidance’ (200). Later, her companion tosses her slacks, lipstick and curlers out the window, bans these things and asks why she doesn’t get a hat.

After seeing an image of a woman bruised by a meteorite that smashed through the roof into her kitchen, Reno imagines the woman and her neighbour, both housewives, in this way: ‘Sometimes they just sit. Sometimes one turns on a radio and they listen to music, or to the news, but they don’t care about the actual news, just that the radio is issuing a steadyish sound whose particulars they do not have to follow to understand what the radio is actually telling them: life is being lived. No need to be a part of it as long as you know it’s streaming.’ (150)

In Italy, a homeless teenager is being filmed by two men: ‘It was her smile, dimpled, sweet, and naive, and her patient tolerance of the older men who directed her, that seemed tragic’ (273). Later, Reno encounters one of the men again; in the same breath as telling her they might be able to get the film into the Venice festival, he mentions that the girl has had her baby and is in a Madhouse. ‘They didn’t care about her. The girl who was the center, the cause, the reason for their film’ (290).

And then there is Reno’s job in New York – she is a so-called ‘China girl’, a woman whose image, accompanied by color bars, appeared for a few frames in the reel leader, which was used by the lab projectionist for calibration when processing the film. If the China girl ever appeared on film, the image was subliminal for the audience, and the projectionists sometimes collected the images. China girls were idealised, then, but only seen by a handful of men.

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