The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

May 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

There’s a great feeling that comes when you start to read a book that is ostensibly historical fiction, yet doesn’t feel like it; the kind of book that adds wonderful period detail to inner lives that both convince us that they are of their time while also resonating with current sensibilities; the kind of book that research imbues with lightness and confidence rather than drag and bombast. Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, is precisely this kind of book.

The Flamethrowers is predominantly about a young artist and motorcycle enthusiast, recently moved to New York in the seventies and wondering how to meet people and make her mark (“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”). The narrator—known as Reno, after her hometown—becomes the girlfriend of Sandro Valera, wealthy son of the owner of a large motorcycle company. Reno, supposedly an artist making films about movement and speed, but in fact more interested in the speed itself and the machines that produce it, has the chance to drive a Valera bike on the Utah salt flats, breaking the women’s land speed record. Soon she is invited to Italy by Valera, but Sandro, who does not care for his late father’s business, still less for his girlfriend’s involvement in it, tries to prevent her from travelling. The two end up going to Italy, staying with Sandro’s insufferably prejudiced mother. It’s a period of intense labour disputes and struggles, and Reno becomes unintentionally involved in dangerous politics after a sudden rearrangement of her situation.

This is an incredibly thin summary for a fascinating novel. In addition and at the same time, the plot encompasses so many different things: New York, Italy, the seventies, motorcycles as both a working-class hobby and an expensive sport, art, the pretentiousness of the art world, business, love and betrayal, labour and class warfare, Futurism, machinery … the list goes on. Even better is Kushner’s ability to really know—or make you believe she knows—exactly what it’s like to be in a war, or a violent protest, or to be a man, or to be in jail, or to live during a decade she can’t personally remember (or so her photo suggests). The Flamethrowers is about all these things, but is also, quite simply, about people and about now. It is a dazzling achievement.

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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