I rarely read two novels by the same author back to back, but I so enjoyed Telex from Cuba that I thought I couldn’t go wrong sinking deeper into Rachel Kushner’s prose. I suppose, in that way I was right. Her writing is beautiful and she is often able to capture scene with cinematic clarity. But The Flamethrowers let me down and I had to struggle to finish the book.
I think of this novel as a quintessential contemporary novel in that there is very little plot (possibly highly unfair!). This is the story of Reno, a naive young aspiring artist who moves to NYC in the 1970s to pursue her career and falls in with some characters in the funky art scene if the period. One of them, an Italian expat from a wealthy industrial (motorcycles, tires) family, becomes her lover and their weak love affair is the backbone of the novel. It might as well have been a cephalopod’s spine, it is so unsatisfyingly flimsy a support to hang so many ideas on. There is a back story, her lover’s family’s story of wealthbuiliding and Italian politics, but it was annoyingly undeveloped and unresolved. Like so much of this novel, I found myself reading through long party conversations wondering how this particular dialogue was moving the story anywhere. To be fair, I am pretty sure that Kushner did not intend for it to do so. The novel felt completely in control, if to me, unsatisfyingly so. I learned that I like a good plot to carry me along. I like to wonder what will happen next and to see the characters realize something. I couldn’t find any purpose to the characters actions or ideas. Even Reno herself was vague and and uninteresting.
There were some terrific passages of writing. The novel hooked me early on describing Reno riding a motorcycle at high speed down the highway. The rawness of speed, movement, air, and the danger of losing control were palpable. Reno goes to the Bonneville race track to race her Moto Valera motorcycle (so believably contructed/described that I had to ask my gearhead husband if such a bike/company were real) across the salt flat. She is there not as a racer, but as an artist. Her speed and it’s mark made on the landscape is her art, which she will photograph and document. Though Kushner does return to the theme of speed as art at times throughout the novel, I wished that it were more coherently developed. The promise of the early part of this book never materialized. In fact, while Reno ends up setting the female land speed record in a drag racer at Bonneville and has a chance at the end of the novel to race again, she never does as certain political and romantic events in the novel take over and remove the opportunity. It feels like a rip off both to her as a character and to the reader as the completion of thematic arc.
In retrospect, Telex from Cuba had many of the same qualities as this novel in terms of its vagueness of purpose for the characters. But in Telex, the historical events of the Cuban revolution were a substantial support for Kushner’s party scenes and odd characters whose part in the whole was not really important–the characters were affected and moved along by the political history. The Flamethrowers lacked such events as the Valeras and their company were as imaginary as the group of artists Reno befriended in NYC. Towards the end of the novel, Reno gets tangled up with the Red Berets in Italy, but this use of real political events was not as successful.
If you like a meandering riff on the 70s and are into Italian politics and motorcyles, you might give it a glance. But if not, give it a pass.