The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. (Scribner, 2013)

Rachel Kushner’s astonishing meditation on art, rebellion, wealth creation, love, truth, and friendship leaves us pondering, by the end, “the uselessness of truth.” Lives of characters are not resolved and events, or truths, are only as important as their role in the larger narrative. Even small puzzle pieces can have large impact on the canvas. Such is Kushner’s skill that we are willing to accept the ambiguity of roles as we continue to turn in our minds possible meanings of her construction.

The novel opens in the First World War, near the Italian Front along the Isonzo River. A German and an Italian soldier wage a life-or-death struggle over a headlamp which they will use to club the other. Only much later do we puzzle over this scene, piecing together clues Kushner has left for us about the victor left holding the light and what it tells us about history and society.

Valera is the Italian soldier who, after the war, becomes a motorcycle and rubber tire magnate. A young woman moves to the New York art scene in the 1970’s, and falls for Valera’s son, the artist Sandro. We never learn her name. Sandro’s friend Ronnie dubs her Reno, “like the name of a Roman god or goddess. Juno. Or Nero. Reno.” But Reno is less a god than the anonymous slave sculpted centuries ago by a talented Greek artist and now admired the world over from her pedestal in a museum.

In Kushner’s construction, Reno is literally a printer’s reference, a human Caucasian face against which film color corrections could be matched to a referent. Subliminally viewed, if at all, her face might sometimes leave an afterimage. “Ordinariness was part of their appeal: real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were. No clue but a Kodak color bar, which was no clue at all.”

When we first see her, Reno is riding a fast motorcycle, a Moto Valera, in the desert and later photographs her tracks. Sandro Valera elevates her work by calling this a type of ‘land art.’ Reno understands that “[art] has to involve risk, genuine risk,” so she proposes to add the dimension of time, velocity, to her work. Faster bikes make cleaner tracks. She wipes out, smashing the motorcycle, but her efforts lead to a larger success in setting a land speed record–more sport than art. She travels to Italy to promote the bike she rode in the Southwest desert.

The novel could be conceived of as a Venn diagram depicting two overlapping circles/cities, New York and Rome in the 1970’s. Commonalities include the lives of several of the characters in this book, and a sense of rage confounded by “the uselessness of truth.” What good is it to know that Jesus died for our sins if we continue to live as though He never existed? The truth is that the pope preaches peace while wearing a bullet-shaped object on his head; the truth is that New York’s famed Guggenheim Museum looks like a toilet bowl; the truth is that Italy would be a very different place without the vision and drive of T.P. Valera after WWI.

The Italian Red Brigades are staging protests in Rome and Reno, through no efforts of her own, becomes involved with Gianni, a ringleader. She finds herself driving his getaway car (or his hearse) through the Alps. We never learn his fate. What difference does it make if he skis to freedom in France? Did the death of Roberto Valera, Sandro’s brother, have anything to do with Gianni’s escape or with his death on the mountain? What difference?

At the start of the novel is the epigraph “Fac ut ardeat” or “Made to burn.” Taken from “Stabat Mater,” a religious hymn to the sorrows of Mary the mother of God, the phrase by itself could have a variety of meanings. The young Sandro took it to mean “make the heart burn” with something. His father placed the religious phrase above a fireplace, ironically. Reno says it to herself in response to Sandro’s mother’s nasty barbs. The phrase could have been added to the end of almost every chapter, or been said by most every character, and its meaning would have changed with the context. WWI flamethrowers, ardently loved by the child Sandro Valera, were ‘made to burn’–they burned enemies but were also vulnerable to being burned themselves. They were cumbersome and vulnerable, carrying twin tanks of tar oil and crude. In the 1970’s, New York artists and Italian demonstrators in Rome were likewise offensive and vulnerable at the same time.

Land art is a term used to describe art created on or in a landscape. The concept might include any human intervention, intentional or not, making potential artists of us all. In fact, several characters make the point that life can be art, or perceived as art, or should be art. Sammy the Taiwanese street performer stowed away on a freighter and once in New York refused to enter a building…for a year. Giddle, Reno’s friend, “was performing, as a real but not actual waitress…But the thing is, [she] became authentic…Life was the thing to treat as art.”

As a character, Reno is particularly attractive in that she is able, in the course of this novel, to go off without a lover, rent an apartment on her own, and ride a motorcycle about New York City. This may be the dream of any young person anywhere: it is not feminism, but life. She is aware that women and machines hold a kind of fascination for men, and she wants to be looked at. She is pleased when men look with envy at her motorcycle: “he wanted something I had like a man might want something another man has.” Her freedom is enviable. Her machine is enviable. Performance as art, perfected.

There is velocity and real movement in this novel. Reno has a glimpse, towards the end of the story, of the men in her life not merely as simple stock images or disposable short outtakes of a larger film. “Cropping can make outcomes so ambiguous…” Ronnie relates a true enough story of kidnapping and abuse on the high seas, revealing his vulnerabilities. Sandro tells of a lonely upbringing with a truly mean mother, a domineering brother, and a cruelly distant father. These are men with all the feelings and dreams, histories and futures of men and Reno is growing up. “People who want their love easily don’t really want love.” Reno had a kind of love from Ronnie and Sandro that she didn’t recognize at first. It was a kind of love that wasn’t easy, or facile. Reno’s growth as a person, as an artist, speeds with her movement through the streets of New York.

Kushner herself took huge risks in this rambling work about the nature of art. Ideas, concepts, objects (popes, guns) surface and submerge in the roiling narrative, leading us deeper into Kushner’s construction. While the concept “the uselessness of truth” is something we might expect of a novelist, nothing else Kushner does is ordinary or expected. Her novel was something like finding a message in a bottle on the high seas. The bottle is a time capsule of sorts, revealing the date and location of events now past. The finder cannot know the circumstances or location of the person who wrote the message and the sender cannot know how, where, or when the message will surface. The author can merely hope the reader can understand some clues and glean the important bits of her meaning, if not the whole story.